Vertigo Shares the Stories of Other Struggling Bookstores to Help Save Its Own

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008

When you're the proud parents of a bookstore at risk of imminent death, you'll try pretty much anything to give your baby a chance -- including asking your customers to watch a documentary about other bookstores at risk of imminent death.

"It's a film about troubled bookstores. We're a troubled bookstore," Bridget Warren said matter-of-factly Thursday night as she introduced a showing of "Paperback Dreams" at Vertigo Books, the College Park store she owns with her husband, Todd Stewart.

Late last month, Warren and Stewart appealed for help in an e-mail to regular customers and a posting on the store's Web site. "Vertigo books is at risk," it began. "Vote with your dollars now if you value our local economy and this store." They didn't want to be seen as whining or asking for handouts. But they'd also watched what had happened, over the past year, to other independent area stores.

Poof! No Karibu.

Poof! No Olsson's.

Poof! No Candida's or Chapters or A Likely Story -- though Chapters remains on life support, its inventory in storage as it struggles to find a new location.

"We thought, we'll give people a heads-up that that's what will happen," Stewart explained, "if you don't come in with more than your good thoughts."

This evening, only a few came at all. Just 15 of the 25 chairs at the back of the store were filled as producer-director Alex Beckstead fired up "Paperback Dreams."

In August 2005, Beckstead went out to grab some lunch near his office in Menlo Park, Calif., and saw a note on the door of Kepler's Books announcing the legendary 50-year-old store's demise. He ran back clutching his sandwich and saying "Kepler's is closed!" as his colleagues "dropped what they were doing and said, 'WHAT?' "

They weren't alone. In one of the most heartening recent developments in the shrinking universe of independent booksellers, Kepler's customers -- among them a number of wealthy Silicon Valley denizens who loved the store -- banded together to try to save it. Around the same time, Cody's Books, an equally legendary Berkeley institution, decided to roll the dice on a big new store in San Francisco.

Beckstead thought the combined ventures had the makings of a film. He was hoping it would be a positive one.

The Vertigo audience, joined by a few latecomers, watched largely in silence as the twin tales unfolded.

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