Sara Butler | Editor
Normal Heights bookstore shuts its doors after five decades
On July 15, the story of the Adams Avenue Book Store will end. The 53-year-old bookstore, located at 3502 Adams Ave., has been a mainstay in the Normal Heights community since 1965.
Adams Avenue used to be home to more than a dozen independent bookstores. Over the years, the street has come to reflect the struggling industry, evident in neighboring storefronts forced to call it quits. Yet, even as friendly faces began to disappear, Adams Avenue Book Store was able to survive.
Owner Brian Lucas took over the business 32 years ago. After visiting three stores back in the ’80s, the former Trinity Presbyterian Church minister and current William Jessop University professor knew he found the right spot when he toured the Normal Heights location.
Currently, he is a part-time San Diego resident, where his children still live. When Lucas is in Sacramento, California, with his wife, he leaves day-to-day operations to the bookstore’s manager, Michael Smythe.
What drew Lucas into the business is a love for books and people. He felt as if he was “joining a guild,” receiving support from other book dealers and patrons alike.
“It’s always about people — I mean I love books, to be sure, and I’m an adjunct professor on the side — so I love books and I love teaching. But I love people more,” Lucas said. “And to have a job where you get to do both of those things, it’s as good as it gets, I think. So to me, that’s the core of the whole thing.”
That love kept the store alive for years. Though Lucas can’t quite pinpoint why his business was able to keep afloat for as long as it did, he attributes much of the success to a little bit of luck and his long-standing staff. Between Smythe, long-time employee Scott Emerson, and himself, the three have about 110 years of experience under their belts, which Lucas thinks kept them ahead of the curve.
“That experience and the trade and to be able to go out and buy large collections of books is really important,” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to having the best books.”
However, the priority on books in bookstores has recently fell by the wayside. Many have relied on hosting community events — open mics, music performances, poetry readings, or public lectures — to bring people into the store. Others have resorted to selling food or drink items, such as coffee and muffins, hoping patrons will pair them with a book or two.
Also, independent businesses have had to rely on online selling, in addition to their brick-and-mortar shops, to stay competitive. Online companies such as Amazon have drastically altered the print market, with their ability to sell books at a fraction of a cost over the internet.
“When every book that is available can be seen at once on one screen, you don’t need to be a genius to realize what’s going to happen to the prices,” Lucas said.
Though many customers who frequent the store have speculated Amazon is responsible for the fall of the local business, Lucas doesn’t want to play the blame game. Instead, Lucas emphasized there are a number of factors that play into the store’s demise. Overall, it all boiled down to a large change in today’s society.
It’s no secret that younger generations are not reading as much as they used to. With the prominence of the internet and technology — leading to the distractedness of the culture — the world is shifting away from pages to screens.
Brittani Santos-Hills, 21, is Adams Avenue Book Store’s youngest employee. She began her “dream job” six months ago. Ever since she was little, Santos-Hill found refuge in the pages of a book.
“I’ve always been more into books,” Santos-Hill said. “Especially because there was a point in my life — in my early years — where books were my friends when I had none. And I’ve always had an appreciation for books and being able to escape.”
Though she grew up in the age of the internet, Santos-Hill notes that the experience of going into a bookstore is vastly different from Googling for a title. She believes it negatively alters the experience of book buying and reading.
“When you’re buying a book online, you often have to know exactly what you want, know the search terms, and know the author,” she continued. “Bookstores like this? This is where things can find you, instead of you finding it. There are so many books that I have now and love that I probably never would have chosen on my own.”
After the store closes, Santos-Hill plans to pursue special education. Though she is sad her time among the binds has to end so soon, she is grateful for the experience, friendships and personal growth.
“Working in a bookstore has been a dream,” she said. “Some of the best conversations I’ve had in my life have been through this store. Especially when you find people who are just interested in ideas.”
Likely in the spirit of Uptown’s trendy trademark — with an increased focus on analog — some entrepreneurs have recently decided to open up new bookstores in the area. Despite the closure of his own business, Lucas wishes nothing but the best for these local ventures. He even sat down with a few of them to offer them sage wisdom, focusing on the accelerated changes in today’s society.
“I certainly want to encourage them. But I said, ‘You just have different questions to answer than we did,’” Lucas told them. “The things that I had to deal with — or somebody else had to deal with — 30 years ago are just different, that’s all. So you got to look at what are you going to have to do to survive, given the reality that we have.’”
He admitted that the growing need to “adjust to a moving target” may have attributed to his store’s inability to sustain in the current culture. Though they made efforts to do this themselves — with many of his employees making a big difference — adapting an old system to the ever-changing reality proved a struggle.
“[New bookstores] have to have people [on staff] that can connect with the culture around them,” he continued. “They have to be able to connect with the way we interrelate with people; how they offer our goods to [customers] in a way that is going to reach them. That’s probably something I didn’t do very well.”
Yet there is no resentment or regret in his words. Lucas said he is fortunate for his three-decade run in the business, surrounded by the good company of close friends and sprawling books lining the walls. He notes that the surrounding Uptown community has been very supportive and positive about the news.
“We’ve been here for 32 years – the store’s been here for 53 years – and it’s been fantastic,” Lucas said. “Great people; I love Normal Heights, great area.”
“So, there’s lots of reasons [for the closure], there always is,” he continued. “But I try to be as positive about it as I can. There’s so much to be thankful for. Life friendships have come out of this, for everybody, for all of us, not just for me. And I consider myself to be a very fortunate person to be able to have experienced that.”
The store’s liquidation sale began on June 4 and will run until the store’s closing in mid-July. All books will be marked 25 percent off. The remaining books that are not sold will be donated to William Jessop University’s library, the school that Lucas teaches at. The fate of the building is unknown; once Adams Avenue Book Store closes, the property will be put up for sale.
And despite rumors circulating on the internet that the store’s house cat Bartleby will be out on the Uptown streets after the doors shut, Lucas offered assurance that the 15-year-old feline will find refuge in the home of a Normal Heights neighbor and long-time patron of the business.
For more information about the store and updates on its closure, visit adamsavebooks.com.
—Reach Sara Butler at email@example.com.