Fourth-generation Stinson woman nabs bookstore

David Briggs
By the end of January, fourth-generation Stinson Beach resident Bonnie Sullivan (right) should be taking over as the new owner of Stinson Beach Books. Her predecessor, Annie Rand (left), had a knack for making astute recommendations—a skill Ms. Sullivan is working to hone. “In many ways, it was a sentimental purchase,” she said of her decision to buy the business, which is known less for its profits than its historic presence in the beach town.
01/23/2014

When Bonnie Sullivan left the library a few months ago with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a novel about a mysterious bookstore with a curious clientele, she had no inkling that she would soon purchase such a business for herself. 

But not long after, she heard friends discussing the decades-old Stinson Beach establishment, then for sale by its longtime owner, Annie Rand. The two began talking last September. Now Ms. Sullivan, who will become the official owner by the end of this month, says she plans on continuing Ms. Rand’s legacy and serving a loyal clientele while utilizing social media to help sales.

The purchase signals a significant shift for Ms. Sullivan, who has a master’s degree in public health and had worked for decades in the corporate offices of health care organizations like Kaiser Permanente. It’s a far cry from trying to answer a customer’s question about Shakespearean plays that grapple with father-daughter relationships.

Ms. Sullivan is also a fourth-generation Stinson Beach resident who has worked at the Parkside Café, jogged in 27 Dipsea Races and visited the bookstore since she was in high school in the 1960’s. Her roots, she says, go back to her great-grandfather and great-uncle, two of the founders of the Stinson Beach Volunteer Fire Department.

Though she has lived elsewhere—in Guam, Guatemala and Southern California in her late teens and 20’s—she returned to Stinson in the mid-1980’s because, as she said, it was home.

“I can say now I must have missed Stinson because it suits me to be here,” she said.

After taking leave of Kaiser about five years ago, Ms. Sullivan is ready for a new chapter in her life.

The bookstore, like Stinson Beach itself, has morphed in the past few decades, said Ms. Rand. It’s become a bit more commercial, and shiny hardbacks occupy a more prominent position than they once did. The children’s section has expanded, puzzles and games line a few shelves and a gift room full of candles and colorful linens fills the back of the store. 

“There are a lot of people in this world who don’t read, so we’ve got to provide for them too,” she said. 

Those measures help the cash flow, but both Ms. Sullivan and Ms. Rand—who on Monday afternoon recommended that one customer check the library for a certain book—noted that owning a bookstore is a job not well-suited for someone in search of a cash cow. 

Indeed, finding a buyer was initially a struggle because of the financial realities. “People would get very excited and wax poetic about how they loved the bookstore, but it turns out most people want to make a lot of money,” Ms. Rand said.

The establishment’s new owner is not interested in effecting a major overhaul of the bookstore, and she knows it won’t provide a prodigious profit. “I thought, ‘I’ve lived out of a backpack. I don’t need much to live,’” Ms. Sullivan said. “I just thought this had great potential and opportunity, and I wanted to go back to work and something to do.”

The bottom line is not the only consideration for Ms. Sullivan, who said the store is an important part of the tight-knit community. But, she said, she does have a few ideas for boosting sales, by tapping into new technologies.

It’s impossible to have a discussion about a bookstore without considering both the threat and promise of emerging technologies, especially the prevalence of cheap books on Amazon and the instant gratification of downloading novels onto a Kindle or Nook. Ms. Rand said she had her share of people wandering around taking pictures of book covers with their iPhones, and even mentioned a visibly well-to-do couple that snapped a photo of a map she opened for them, so that they would not have to buy it from her.

But as to whether Amazon and Kindles pose a threat to the long-term viability of the bookstore—a question that bookstores around the country must grapple with—Ms. Sullivan says that the financial trends of the Stinson bookstore were healthy enough that she believed she could continue to sustain the market for books in the area. 

Visitors help, she said, because tourists long to disconnect from their everyday lives. “I think there’s a place for books, especially in a beach community where people come on vacation and want to get away.” 

Those tourists, Ms. Rand added, like to come back to the same shops year after year to establish a more intimate connection to their getaway spots, and they often feel affirmed if she recognizes them. 

Glowing reviews on Yelp–which, given Ms. Rand’s disinterest in the Internet, she may not even know about—appear to affirm some of the benefits of the sandy location, as many noted that they came by the bookstore to pick up some reading material for the beach. Others lauded the gift room. “Every town needs a bookstore, however small it may be!!” wrote Peggy S. from San Jose.

To a large extent, Ms. Sullivan bought the bookstore because she wanted to. “In many ways it was a sentimental purchase,” she said. “Many people have mentioned to me that that’s not the way you should buy a business, but I did, and I am.”

Like the characters in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore—who use both old and new technology to unlock the meaning of a text—Ms. Sullivan has her own plans to bring the store into the 21st century. 

She hopes to install wireless Internet, a major update for a bookstore that uses a computer from 1990 operating on MS-DOS, a computer operating system discontinued in 2000 that was cutting edge when Ms. Rand first acquired it. (Ms. Sullivan, however, said that it works quite well for tracking inventory.) She also plans on tapping Facebook to help bring in customers, particularly to lure more hikers and recreators and boost awareness of the bookstore among the town’s visitors.

And though she will continue to use the New York Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle to select inventory, she might augment those bastions of book reviews with websites like goodreads.com.

But for the first year, she says, she will focus most of her time on developing an extensive, intimate knowledge of her inventory so she can make quick, astute recommendations. Ms. Rand has an impressive ability to woo customers with her own recommendations, a skill repeatedly noted on the bookstore’s Yelp page. And she also said that about seven people came by on Saturday praising her previous recommendations and requesting new ones. 

Ms. Sullivan hopes to hone that skill, though luckily she will soon be able to do a quick Google search if a certain Shakespearean play is stuck on the tip of her tongue.

 

Stinson Beach Books, located at 3455 Shoreline Highway, is open Friday through Monday from January to June from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and every day in the summer (though Ms. Sullivan hopes at some point to open all week in the winter, and maybe in the evening every once in a while if she feels so moved.) Call (415) 868.0700 for more information.