Interview with Independent Bookstore Owner Amy Thomas
Welcome to the People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series. This month I’m interviewing Amy Thomas, owner and in her own words “President for Life” of Pegasus Books, who is going to tell us what independent bookstores do for us and what we can do for them. There are presently three Pegasus Bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area: two in Berkeley and one in Oakland. For the last 45 years, Amy’s independent bookstores have not only survived; they’ve thrived, becoming community centers where authors come to read and readers come to listen, browse, meet other readers, and buy books.
Mary: Amy, how did you become the owner of an independent bookstore? Was it always your dream to sell books?
Amy: I graduated from U.C. Berkeley in June 1980, got married in August, and in October, walked down the street to my favorite bookstore Pellucidar on Shattuck and Haste in Berkeley and got a job. I wasn’t thinking about a career in anything. I loved being around books, I liked all the chores associated with it, and I admired the man who was running the stores at the time. So, I just kind of stayed, doing this job and that job, having babies in between, and working nights and weekends while my husband went back to school.
Besides owning several bookstores, my boss had a remainder company: Western Book Distributors. In 1994 he sold his stores and Western to a woman he had known years before. She was not prepared for any of it, as it turned out, and after about a year or so he offered to take the stores back from her if I would agree to buy them from him. I was startled, since he knew how much money I made; and he was startled by my reaction having thought that maybe my family had money or something. In any event, he waited nearly a year until, with the invaluable assistance of the local Small Business Development Center, I found a bank that liked my story, and in 1996 I became the owner of Pegasus Books, which at the time consisted of four stores: Pegasus on Solano and in Walnut Creek, Pendragon in Oakland, and Pellucidar.
I closed the Walnut Creek store almost immediately. A few years ago, I decided the rest should all have the same name. So now there’s Pegasus on Solano, Pegasus in Downtown Berkeley, and Pegasus in Oakland.
Soon after I purchased the stores, I discovered I was quite interested in business, and feel fortunate to presently be running a business I believe in so fervently.
Mary: Why do you believe so fervently in your business? Why does a community need bookstores? What purpose do they serve?
Amy: A bookstore is a third place, a lit-up place on the street that should, if operated correctly, be equally appealing to people of every kind. As it says in our manifesto, we curate a collection of 300,000 worldviews, give or take. We offer this collection for review free of charge. Bookstores are stimulating places, for children and adults equally, which makes the vibe fun and interesting.
Mary: What do you love most about owning Pegasus Books?
Amy: There are so many things and they are so intertwined that it’s hard to know what to place first. My co-workers have supported me as well as the business through tough times and good times. Somewhere along the way, something in the zeitgeist shifted, and we started saying “yes” to everything – yes to our staff who brought and still bring an amazing amount of energy and fun to projects they dream up; yes to customers, who wanted us to be as competitive as possible to keep their business; yes to authors, both local and national, who wanted places to stock or celebrate their work; yes to partnerships in the community, whether by supporting any school that asks, sponsoring library read-a-thons, engaging with other local merchants through Buy Local Berkeley, or by serving on local business association boards.
Mary: Pegasus celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary this spring with a festival called Pegapalooza. How have you managed to stay in business for over four decades when so many other independent bookstores have gone under?
Amy: For one thing (and prosaically, it is probably the most important thing) we have a specific mix of stock: new, used, remainders, cards, music, etc. This means our profit margin is simply more forgiving than that of a store that sells only new books. We have had very hard times, one of the worst not too long ago, and while we seem to have turned the ship around, it left me feeling that there is no magic bullet to keep a business going. Sales rise and fall inexplicably, and yet our vendors expect to be paid on time.
Also, we live in the Bay Area, which is obviously a very expensive place to run a business, and our landlords expect to be paid, recession or no. People love the stores and do shop there by the hundreds, but they also love e-books and buy tons of books from internet discounters. My staff like working at the stores, but they also must live in the expensive Bay Area. So there is a lot of tension there, which makes for sleepless nights but also makes us dig even deeper to find the energy to do new things better, and keep things as lean as possible without affecting customers too much.
Mary: Do you see e-books and internet sales as a threat, or do you see some way they can be to your advantage?
Amy: There is no business reason for us to promote e-books, since we make a vanishing fraction of the price of the book. We do sell books, on our site, via the Kobo device or app, but have not seen any reason to put much energy into that business. Internet sales are a threat insofar as they, like the chain stores before them, rely very heavily on discounts to acquire market share. For almost two decades, and still in some states, they were not compelled, as I am, to collect sales tax, so their price advantage was always an additional nearly 10%. The major Internet vendors, have also frequently supported the idea that books should be free or very cheap, and that has had a tremendous negative effect on our whole industry: publishers, authors, and bookstores alike.
Unfortunately, customers just see cheap books and think of the low prices as a greater good. I see the wreckage of important, interesting jobs that are vital to the life of our literary culture.
Mary: Pegasus Books regularly hosts poetry readings, book signings, workshops, and other events. What kinds of events bring in the largest crowds? When people come, do they buy books?
Amy: The biggest “names” bring in the largest crowds, but we have had very satisfactory events with authors who have connected in a real way with their readers who come out in numbers to hear them. We also do a series of what I call entertainments (First Person Singular, Happy Hour Stories) which are literary in nature but are not directly about big book sales. We do however find that once in the store, people find books they want. We are offered loads of offsite events, but have to pick through to find ones that seem as if they will strike the right balance between sales and staff time.
Our poetry readings are so well curated and so well attended, that we find them very satisfactory from a financial point of view.
Mary: As a poet, I’m very glad to hear that. So, what’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened at one of your stores?
Amy: Gosh, many strange things have happened at the stores, probably stuff I don’t even know about (and please don’t tell me!). We did enjoy the woman who, after being nudged awake after a rather long nap in the store, pointed to a sign in the window and said indignantly, “It says Eat, SLEEP, Read!” We also enjoyed our visit from Legolas, the elf. The stores are in nicely urban neighborhoods, so we have seen our share of odd behavior.
Mary: Describe Pegasus Books in ten years. What changes do you think we’ll we see?
Amy: I hope we will see bookstores continuing to find excellent books, using all available technology to discover those books and deliver them to customers fast. I envision a future where bookstores have established more realistic terms with publishers so that they can sell books at reasonable prices and still make a reasonable profit, stores that work with and support other independent bookstores and businesses, stores that thrive in a world where people value authenticity and connection. I see my own stores continuing to be places where staff and customers come together daily to talk about literature.
I am less good about imagining major changes, because what we do at bottom is so deeply traditional. Hundreds of different people produce thousands of titles yearly, and another few thousand people read catalogues, ARC’s (advanced reading copies), and other kinds of copy to find excellent books. I don’t see how that could be streamlined without losing lots of books in the process. I would like to believe that in ten years my stores would once again exist in a world filled with both general and specialty bookstores in order to further this process of letting as many titles as possible see the light of day.
Mary: What can authors do to help bookstores like Pegasus thrive? What can book lovers do to make sure independent bookstores don’t disappear?
Amy: It would be helpful if authors could list either their local bookstore or indie stores in general on their sites. So many only list Amazon. It would also be helpful if more authors could make common cause with the indies who are facing really horrendous business practices by the internet competition. Authors Kate DiCamillo, Sherman Alexie, Ann Patchett have all spearheaded initiatives to get people into indie bookstores.
Book lovers who also love bookstores simply need to shop at them. They can help the indies by weighing the often slightly higher cost against the value of having this kind of business in their town. A bustling bookstore just gets better and better when it can afford to have plenty of stock and be able to support community efforts and host events.
Mary: So your message is: “buy books from your local independent bookstores if you want them to survive and thrive?”
Amy: Exactly. It may sound obvious, but it’s vitally important, not just to bookstore owners but for everyone who loves all the great things only brick-and-mortar bookstores can offer: a sense of community; the luxury of browsing; staff picks; author events; a helpful, knowledgeable staff; a quiet place to spend time, and so much more.
Dear Readers: Join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen. You are warmly invited to ask Amy questions or leave a comment. See the other interviews in this series for information about How To Get An Agent, How To Design A Book Cover That Sells Books, and more. This is where the experts hang out.