New bookstore owners promise lesser-known titles

David Briggs
BUSINESS: Molly Parent and her fiancé, Stephen Sparks, have purchased Point Reyes Books.  
10/20/2016

When news hit last May that Point Reyes Books was to be sold, owners Steve Costa and Kate Levinson received 27 letters of interest from across the country. Folks spanning from Oregon to New York City sought to take over the independent literary hub, but it was a couple from San Francisco that ultimately won the bid.

Molly Parent and Stephen Sparks will assume control of Point Reyes Books in January. Ms. Parent, 30, and Mr. Sparks, 39, are booksellers who met while working at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. He has been working as a book buyer and manager at the bookstore since 2007, and also serves on the steering committee of the Bay Area Book Festival. She left Green Apple in 2012 to work for the nonprofit writing and tutoring center 826 Valencia. The two have helped organize literary events around the Bay Area, including the San Francisco Moby-Dick Marathon in 2015, where 90 readers tackled the whale of a novel over the course of 26 hours.

In reviewing applications from prospective buyers, Mr. Costa, who declined to disclose the sale price, said the couple’s letter showed they shared similar values and had the experience needed to continue the shop as a community-engaged business. 

“Half of the letters were from folks who had a fantasy about owning a bookstore but without any experience. That’s where Kate and I were 14 years ago,” Mr. Costa said. “What immediately jumped out of their letter was their degree of bookselling experience. Stephen is a book buyer and that’s a significant piece of the work that Kate and I do here. They’re bibliophiles, and are the next generation of booksellers.” 

Ms. Parent said they are looking to find a home closer to the shop. Although they’re East Coasters by birth—she hails from Massachusetts and he is from New Jersey—they said they were drawn to West Marin’s beauty, saying there’s something special in the air and in the way the landscape makes you feel. “It’s sort of a cliché answer about Point Reyes but that’s the answer,” Mr. Sparks admitted. Ms. Parent added that her family has roots in Cape Cod, home of another national seashore.  

The couple said they will not make any drastic changes to the store, just a few improvements. They’ll continue hosting events and writers workshops while expanding the selection of books from smaller, independent publishers. Mr. Sparks cited Open Letter Press, a literary translation press, and the Missouri-based publishing project Dorothy, which publishes a pair of books each fall that draw upon different aesthetic traditions, as examples.  

“There’s a tendency in small towns [to think] that people aren’t willing to take risks, but I think people are curious,” he said. “I think people are interested in expanding their minds and having their certainties challenged. You can find exactly what you want by going onto Amazon.com; I’ll have books in there that you might not see.”

Ms. Parent praised the former owners’ pioneering community supported bookstore program, which the new owners will continue. That program, fashioned after a longstanding agricultural model, allows customers to deposit anywhere from $150 to $500 into a bookstore account and receive a 5 percent discount on all items. She called it “a really smart and unique model to weather some leaner times,” and added, “It’s a way of investing into the store. No one wanted to see it go by the wayside.”

Ms. Parent said they’re supported by a circle of investors who helped them purchase the store. She said they will also start a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo to cover start-up costs and help with the transition. 

When he purchased the bookstore 14 years ago, Mr. Costa said a vast majority of visitors only came to see the national seashore; since then, the town itself has become a destination. “Eighty percent of sales are from visitors,” he said. “They really sustain the bookstore and it wouldn’t survive without their support.” 

Mr. Costa said he’ll continue to run Black Mountain Circle, the nonprofit he started that puts on the Geography of Hope Conference, and said the next conference will be held in March, with the theme “ancestors of the land.”

Mr. Sparks, who said he sometimes comes home with up to 15 new titles in a given week, is currently reading C.V. Wedgewood’s “Thirty Years War,” about the savagery of 17th-century Europe. (He said the perspective it offers makes the 2016 presidential election seem a little better.) Ms. Parent, in preparation for a Shirley Jackson-themed event at Green Apple Books this Friday, is reading the celebrated short story writer’s classic “The Lottery” whose “haunted and gothic style goes well with this time of year,” she said. 

The couple, who will be married next month, said in lieu of a registry they are hoping family and friends will instead by a book from their shop. Looking ahead at the next few months, Ms. Parent joked, “2016 is the year we do everything.”