By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
To paraphrase author Samuel Clemens, reports of the death of independent bookstores are an exaggeration, and, as proof, South Park has hosted the birth of a new one.
Jennifer Powell and Seth Marko have reopened the space at 3010-B Juniper St. as The Book Catapult — and, for book lovers, it is a beautiful baby.
Although the couple launched within a week of taking over the former West Grove Collective, their decision to open a bookstore was nothing like the snap action of a catapult.
“We’ve been South Park residents since 2009 and we love the neighborhood,” Powell said. “We love being able to spend days here without having to get in the car. We value that, and we wanted to invest in that. So, we asked ourselves, how do we make that a profession and not just a lifestyle? How do we do that in a more powerful, more meaningful way? We were seeing that upswing of people coming back to smaller bookstores, and we were hoping to be part of that renewal. And then this great opportunity fell into our laps.”
That great opportunity was actually a combination of events and transitioning perspectives.
“Seth changed jobs a couple years ago,” Powell said. “We have a 2-year-old daughter. [Collective owner] Anne Mery was ready to move on and do something different, and we’re good friends. It seemed like such a nice fit.”
Powell and Marko have transformed the Collective’s space into an eclectic collection of books. Their selection is heavy on fiction and includes a sizable children’s section, including a play space and Spanish language books.
Marko, the buyer for the bookstore, has a strong background in bookselling and buying, having worked at Octavia in New Orleans and Warwick’s in La Jolla.
“Working as a bookseller is not the most lucrative job, but I love talking about books. I’ve started buying things for the store that I’ve loved over the years. I like the small presses, so we have a lot of small press books. It’s definitely a paperback fiction focus — that’s our largest section — and kids’ picture books. And we have a fair amount of hardcover fiction, and some art and photography. We’re trying to avoid the big blockbuster fiction, like the airport books that you can get anywhere. We try to pick some things that are outside the box a little bit.”
The owners are also committed to serving the community in meaningful ways.
“You have to curate [the collection] and tailor it to your customers. I need to see what people in the neighborhood are interested in. So we get recommendations and then we’ll have it the next week. I saw how Octavia did it and I loved that. What really struck me was their connection to the community, and I thought if I ever owned a bookstore that’s what I’d want to be — a neighborhood hub.”
The prospects for The Book Catapult are encouraging. After the 2009 downturn that reduced the number of U.S. booksellers from 3,000 to 1,650, local stores have experienced a resurgence. There are now more than 2,320 in the United States, according to the American Booksellers Association. The upswing is so noticeable, it is making national news, and experts and lay people are examining the reasons behind it.
In a recent interview with CBS’s Leslie Stahl, bestselling author and bookstore owner Ann Patchett said, “People are missing the community. We’re creating an environment that is for a lot more than just selling books.”
Even Amazon, once the purported death knell of independents, is continuing to open brick-and-mortar outlets in major metropolitan areas. This has the potential to make small independents all the more appealing to consumers seeking the intimacy of a neighborhood store.
These are the consumers Powell and Marko hope to woo, not only with books, but with kids’ Story Time, every Saturday at 11 a.m., evening author events, and an informal book club hosted by Marko, Coffee with the Catapult.
“First and foremost,” Powell said, “we want to attract South Park residents, residents of the Uptown area and any other book lover, anyone who loves the written word, people who are invested in the community and want a face-to-face discussion. And we hope to draw a lot of families, because we’re expanding the children’s books section. And not just book lovers, but people who enjoy learning and want to explore their curiosity.”
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes narrative nonfiction and commentary, published at ExcuseMeImWriting.com and is a founding editor of WritersResist.com. She formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and she can be reached at email@example.com.