Sara Butler | Editor
South Park mom-and-pop bookstore thrives despite industry changes
This month marks the one-year anniversary of The Book Catapult, a family-owned bookstore in South Park. And co-owners Seth Marko and Jennifer Powell couldn’t be happier.
“I still can’t believe we’re able to do this — it’s still very much a dream come true,” Powell said.
The couple took over the space from local bookstore owner Anne Mery in 2017. Mery previously ran The West Grove Collective for many years and “was ready to move on and do something else.”
“We lived in the neighborhood and shopped in her store, so she knew we were always interested [in buying],” Powell said.
When the beloved Adams Avenue Book Store in Normal Heights closed on July 15 after 53 years of business, the future of other local shops seemed grim.
Although Adams Avenue Book Store owner Brian Lucas couldn’t pinpoint one reason for the closure of his Uptown business, he did cite his five-decade-old store’s struggle to acclimate to the changing book culture as a possible contributor. These changes include a shift to online buying, with the introduction of big businesses like Amazon, as well as a need to host in-store events.
Surprisingly, these industry changes may have actually helped The Book Catapult, and other newer stores, succeed in the market. With a 2017 opening, they “already knew what the landscape was” and didn’t have to adapt to a different scene.
“I think the timing is a little interesting for us,” Marko said. “There’s nothing being taken away because everything for us is building [up]. We’re already in this environment, so anything that comes through our doors has already been a conscious decision to make that purchase in our store.”
“I think the fact that we’ve opened when we have, like we’re sort of new, and we opened when this was all going on,” Powell added. “It’s not like anything was taking over our business.”
Before opening a storefront, The Book Catapult actually started as an internet blog. They still have an online presence — as a way to keep their physical doors open 24-7 — that they hope to build on, but the majority of their sales continue to come from in-store customers.
“Amazon is already leading the charge, so when people come into our store, they are making a conscious effort to shop in our store,” Powell said.
“It seems like we’re crazy to open a bookstore in 2017, but what the community has proven to us is that they do prefer to shop that way,” Marko added.
Instead of having to edit their existing inventory to fit their audience, they were able to curate a selection around the new trends. Marko noted that the majority of customers in the South Park store are parents and children, reflecting the family-centric feel of the neighborhood. From the beginning, the store carried a majority of fiction and kids’ picture books — and these titles have proved to be their best-sellers.
“We are a family who lives in the neighborhood so we kind of understood the demographics around us because we were part of it,” Marko said.
Lucas noted that many local stores have embraced events — such as poetry readings, open mics and concerts — which can encourage people to get off their computers and stop by the physical location. Adams Avenue Book Store held a few of these, but he said that approach didn’t quite align with the focus and layout of his store.
In contrast, The Book Catapult’s timing allowed it to incorporate these types of events. One of their signature happenings is Coffee with the Catapult, an informal chat about books with the staff over coffee supplied by neighbor Communal Coffee. They also host regular author discussions and signings; launched a book club three months ago; and held an anniversary party with cocktails on Oct. 13. Each event usually draws between 20–40 people.
“The author event [is something] that independent [bookstores] have really latched onto, because you don’t get that on Amazon — there’s no way to have that same kind of interaction,” Marko said. “So people really appreciate that, and they love it.”
Their family-owned store might be “overwhelmingly busy and positive,” but that doesn’t mean the shuttering of other small businesses isn’t still an obstacle. Across the street, Rebecca’s Coffee House — who called the neighborhood home for more than 20 years — closed back in January.
“It’s a long time to have nothing else anchoring that side of the street,” Marko said. “[But] we have high hopes it will help foot traffic when we have a brand-new sidewalk and two new restaurants across the street.”
That sidewalk, which lines the entry to their store, was torn up by the city last week and caused an unexpected store closure. Marko and Powell apologetically informed customers with daily email updates. Yet they received understanding and encouraging responses from patrons, reflecting the store’s overall reception from the neighborhood.
“We love South Park, that was one of the reasons we were excited to take over the store, because we knew that the community would be […] supportive, and we thought it was just the right type of community,” Powell said, noting that they did not experience the same type of community feel in previous neighborhoods they lived in, such as Mission Hills or Normal Heights.
Although older bookstores might be at risk of fading away, a successful formula for new shops to stay afloat may include selling online, hosting events and choosing the right neighborhoods to build in. In fact, newbie Run For Cover just opened in Ocean Beach on Oct. 5.
And in the typical “collaborative rather than competitive” attitude that is commonly self-reported in the industry, these additions aren’t resented. Former owners such as Lucas, who may miss the old book culture, are still supportive of these up-and-comers.
“There are stores that are still starting. I’m excited and encouraged that people are still deciding to do that venture — more power to them,” Lucas said, smiling.
“We’re obviously positive [about the local book scene] — we think that it’s going to be good for the future,” Powell said. “We’re probably not going to retire millionaires, but we’re OK with that. I think we’ll all be able to hold on and thrive in sort of our little ways, in our little communities.”
For previous San Diego Uptown News coverage on The Book Catapult, visit bit.ly/catapult-opens.
[Editor’s note: Brian Lucas, owner of the Adams Avenue Book Store, shared his thoughts about the future of the book industry when he spoke with San Diego Uptown News in June 2018. Read the full story at bit.ly/final-chapter.]
—Reach Sara Butler at email@example.com.