Interview with Tracy Wynne, co-owner of Cover to Cover* bookstore, in San Francisco
*Cover to Cover is a neighborhood "general- purpose" bookstore that has been in San Francisco for 30 years, and in Noe Valley for over 20.
You and Mark Ezarik had been working at Cover to Cover for many years before taking over ownership from founder Nicky Salan, in early 2000. Can you tell us a little bit about the "old days"?
Mark and I have both been with the store for close to 20 years now, we bought the business from Nicky about six years ago when she finally retired. Working with Nicky was a very important period in my life, she has a national reputation in the world of children's books and I was lucky enough to learn at the feet of the master. Also on staff for some time was a woman named Shirley Massengil who is another old schoolchildren's bookseller. These women taught me so much about children's literature and independent bookselling.
We heard colorful stories about one Saturday morning, in early 1999, when the community showed up to help: the store was moving to a new location, a few blocks away, and 200 customers (children and dogs included) showed up and formed a book brigade. Can you describe the lovely scene for us?
Yes, the book-brigade was quite an event. The new, larger store was only a few blocks down the street and Nicky thought that something really dynamic and visual would be a great way to bring the community in on our move. We had about 200 friends and neighbors (including other booksellers from all over the Bay Area) stand in a line and pass books hand over hand to the new location. In reality we had movers do all the work and it was just one small section that people actually moved, but it got everybody involved in a very concrete way. It happened to be the politics/sociology section that we moved this way, and one of my favorite pictures from the event was two small children, maybe three and four years old passinga copy of The Rape of Nanking between each other with the sweetest little smiles on their faces, they had no idea what the book said.
What was your vision for the store when you first became owners? Has it changed at all since then?
Mark and I have always wanted to have a modest and successful independent bookstore that is an integral part of our community. I don't think our ideal has really changed. We love having events and school fundraisers and interesting authors. In fact just last week we sponsored a blood drive in front of the store and offered 20% off to anyone who donated. Since we have been around for so long, many of the little kids that started coming here when they were babies are now college bound, that feeling of being part of sombody's life is just incomparable.
Back in 1999, J.K. Rowling was holding court at Cover to Cover, reading her third Harry Potter adventure to mesmerized fans. What was it like to be part of that?
What a day that was! It was her third book, and her popularity was giant, but not quite at the unbelievable level it is now. It definitely was like hosting a rock concert though. We actually had people camped out in front of the store for the whole night, and one young girl who flew in all the way from Oregon just to see her! There was even a person who was trying to scam a ticket out of us by telling a sob story of how their son had lost the ticket at the funeral of his father- it turns out that every Bay Area bookseller had received the same call and the same tall tale. We had moved out all of the book fixtures from the store and squeezed in about 250 folks. I was very pleased that almost every adult who had gotten a ticket passed it on to a child so the children were really the ones who got to meet Ms Rowling.
In June of 2003, a letter in the window of the store announced that it would be shutting down shortly. The main reason, a simple financial matter: sales weren't high enough to keep it open; a sign of the times... Tell us the beautiful story of how the community came through and worked together on a happier ending.
It still gives me goose bumps to remember how we were saved. Mark and I had struggled to keep the store open after the economic climate in San Francisco plummeted. We had nearly tripled our size and were paying a rent that reflected that change. After posting the sign announcing we would be closing a good friend of the store, Peter Gabel, came in and said "no, you're not." He organized a drive to get 40 investors, to help raise the funds that would allow us move to a smaller, more affordable location and build our stock back up. And here we are, a couple of years later, still kicking!
Peter Gabel, a long-time Noe Valley resident, played an instrumental role in energizing and organizing the adult and the children community to help the bookstore. He said in an article about activism (Tikkun, Vol. 8, No. 5) that "[Cover To Cover] is not a business in the marketplace so much as an innocent metaphor of the world we want to live in". In your opinion, what are some of the unique things a store like Cover to Cover brings to the neighborhood in general, and to its children in particular?
Well, we love being a place where people in the community can get together, whether it is neighbors meeting up during an after dinner stroll, or parents working together to make a school bookfair a success. We are always trying to figure out ways to draw people together, storytimes, pet adoptions, pirate day (aaarrggg!). And underneath all of that comes a lifetime commitment to children's literacy and books. It is a passion that runs through almost everything we do.
What have you been selling to Children, other than Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket? Any surprise bestseller in your store?
I was very pleased to see that The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall just won the National Book Award. I've been selling tons of that. We are also selling LeUyen Pham's newest picture book Big Sister, Little Sister (Hyperion Books); I was very happy to see her interview on your site recently. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (Simon & Schuster), about alternative families, and Adam Gopnick's The King in the Window (Miramax Books) are doing great in our store as well.
Any favorite Pacific Rim and South Asian-related titles?
One of my very favorite titles is Japanese Children's Favorite Stories (Tuttle). It is an older book (it was actually one of my favorites when I was a youngster) but I still adore the stories and the illustrations. A couple of more contemporary titles would be Guji Guji, by Chih-Yuan Chen (Kane/Miller), and Seven Chinese Sisters, written by Kathy Tucker and illustrated by Grace Lin (Albert Whitman & Company).
How is the holiday season taking shape at Cover to Cover, and what are some of the books you think make great gifts for young readers?
I think we are just starting to see the holiday season. Hopefully it will be a prosperous one. Some titles that I think make good gifts this year are Wizardology (Candlewick Press), and the boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins), with the new movie right around the corner. I'm personally crazy about Four Hens and A Rooster, by Lena and Olof Landstrom (R & S Books). Also Beyond the Great Mountains, by Ed Young (Chronicle Books), described as a visual poem about China, is stunning, and I think it will really attract folks this season.
Posted December 2005
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