Thursday, September 29 2022

Even Hercule Poirot might be baffled by the death of Normal Heights’ most legendary bookstore. Like an Agatha Christie mystery, there is no shortage of suspects.

Was the culprit Amazon?

Is the interest in print fading?

Or was the fate of the Adams Avenue Book Store sealed by the disappearance of an obscure figure, the book’s scout?

“Blaming the blame is a tough game,” said Brian Lucas, 70, store owner, citing rising costs and falling revenues. “It doesn’t stand in line anymore.”

Who Killed the Iconic Adams Avenue Bookstore? A suspect: the endangered book scout

From coast to coast to coast, established sellers of used collectibles are dead. The victims included prominent names: Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, Dutton’s in Los Angeles, Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley. Downtown San Diego once had seven or eight stores, run by Wahrenbrock’s Book House on Broadway. Today they are all gone.

The downtown area, however, couldn’t compete with the main drag in Normal Heights. Two decades ago, Adams Avenue had 11 bookstores, selling cookbooks, children’s books, detective novels, philosophy, history, theology, science fiction, classical literature. and pocket thrillers.

“We had people coming into San Diego from Boston all the time, say, for a conference and they would take a cab, come out of the conference, and spend all day shopping,” Lucas said. “You don’t see that anymore. “

On this book boulevard, this literary alley, this scholarly street, Adams Avenue Book Store is one of the last survivors – and his days are numbered. The store’s closing sale, which begins Monday, will continue until mid-July.

Then? The end.


Like many mysteries, this one has an obvious suspect. But as thriller fans know, the real villain is usually not obvious.

Lucas and his longtime manager, Michael Smythe, admit they’ve lost business to Amazon and its ilk on the internet. With the click of a mouse, virtual stores can deliver countless books, in ink on paper or electronically.


“I never felt that Amazon or – what was the other big retailer, the one that went bankrupt? Borders? – or Barnes & Noble are responsible, ”said Smythe.

And while the streaming of cable TV shows, on-demand movies, and podcasts increasingly compete for American attention, traditional bookstores are far from doomed. Nationwide, walk-in store sales increased 2.3% in February from February 2017, and 3.5% in March from March 2017. There was a sharp decline from January to January, that’s true, but this dynamic industry still made $ 2.74 billion. of sales in the first quarter of 2018.

Sales of adult hardcover books increased 11.2 percent in this quarter, Publisher’s Weekly reported, while e-book sales fell 7.1 percent.

In San Diego, the 2016 opening of Verbatim in North Park and the 2017 debut of The Book Catapult in South Park delighted veteran dealer Dennis Wills.

“It’s encouraging to see these two attempts,” said Wills, who runs DG Wills Books at La Jolla. “But Adams Avenue was an anchor and in the right place, it seemed to me. I never saw it coming. “

Anchored at the corner of Adams and 35th Street, Adams Avenue Books opened in 1965. The business went through two groups of owners before Lucas, a herdless Presbyterian pastor, bought it in 1988. One decade later, he acquired the two-story, 3,400-square-foot building.

This literary outpost is outfitted with a fluffy cat – the titular Bartleby succeeded Mr. Mulliner – tables and chairs, as well as 60,000 volumes. The Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels paperback can be purchased for a few dollars, while this first edition of “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, costs $ 2,500.

Lucas and Smythe maintain extensive sections of theology and philosophy, and the World History Corner covers all eras and all corners of the globe.

In numbers, Amazon has a much bigger reach, offering almost 2 million titles. But Adams Avenue offers something the internet can’t quite match.

“It’s like a waterhole,” Smythe said. “This is where people can come together and discuss books, current events and ideas. “

Less and less, however, are cooling off in this oasis.

To Leonard Woolf

Shortly after Lucas bought Adams Avenue, he met a rare breed: the book scout.

In the 80s and 90s, these nomads still roamed bookstores. Searching for treasures at the cost of scrapping, they bought volumes in volume, then resold them at a profit to antique dealers or avid collectors. Some scouts, alerted by catalogs published by major booksellers, crisscross the country for the chance to mark a rare original edition or a signed classic.

It was part of the romanticism of the profession, said Lucas, who was closer to a medieval guild than a profitable business, in dollars and cents.

“There was a tag,” he said. A fellow bookseller could be assured of a warm welcome and a big discount when visiting stores in their home country or abroad.

The store was also aimed at collectors wishing to build personal libraries.

“They’ve been carefully put together over the years in a certain area,” Smythe said. “By putting together this kind of specialized collection over time, you don’t see that anymore. “

Today, book collectors and scouts are more inclined to digitize offerings via the internet, rather than perusing piles in the flesh.

There are still findings to be unearthed by patient experts. Smythe is sometimes called by real estate agents, asking him to check the library of the deceased. In 2011, one of those calls sent Smythe to a storage unit in Chula Vista, where he purchased 20-30 hastily-selected books for a few thousand dollars.

Back at the store, the employees sorted out this transport. At the bottom of the pile was a 1931 book, “The Four Gospels,” printed on parchment with engravings by Eric Gill.

“Only 12 copies were made,” Lucas said.

And only one – this one – was inscribed by Gill to her friend, Leonard Woolf, the husband of novelist Virginia Woolf.

At the Swann Auction galleries in New York, “The Four Gospels” grossed $ 132,000.

It was a rare victory for Adams Avenue Bookstore. With the store’s thinning profit margins, collector ranks shrinking, Amazon pressures mounting, Lucas decided the occasional coup wasn’t enough.

Fifteen years ago, the county had about 90 bookstores.

“Now,” said Smythe, “you can’t find more than 10.”

It’s a small number. Soon it will be smaller by one.


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