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Meet the godmother of San Francisco’s independent booksellers

Elaine Petrocelli's Book Passage has become known for author events, like this one with Dan Rather. | Courtesy Book Passage

When Barnes & Noble opened a megastore in 2006 just blocks from Marin County’s most popular independent bookstore, even its fans were a bit nervous. 

Seventeen years later, only one bookstore remains. 

Book Passage continues to thrive from its anchor position in a basic Corte Madera shopping center that has lost many other retail tenants in the past few years. A quiet weekday morning finds shoppers looking through the stacks of books, a tea drinker writing longhand in the cafe, staffers arranging chairs for the evening’s author event and the conversation of Spanish learners in a back classroom.

And though Barnes & Noble attributed its March closure to real estate issues rather than flagging sales, Book Passage’s success can be pinned to the work of its founder, Elaine Petrocelli, and her tight connections to both the authors and readers that her store serves.

Book Passage anchors a Corte Madera shopping center. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

The personal curation of offerings is what has fueled independent bookstores’ growth—rather than their long-foretold demise—over the past decade. A look around San Francisco and the Bay Area finds dozens of unique and successful booksellers—some large, some small, but all dedicated to meeting the needs of their clientele.

Soon after opening her store in 1976, Petrocelli’s “book” business immediately expanded beyond printed words into nurturing the creative community in her vicinity. For nearly 50 years, she has spotted standout fledgling authors and artists and fed their exceptional works to a passionate army of customers attracted to the store by personally picked titles, conversations with authors and a wide variety of classes.

When a hot new book comes out, Book Passage is the must-stop Bay Area book shop for authors on tour, whether held at the main location in Corte Madera, the San Francisco Ferry Building outpost that opened in 2003, online or—for the biggest names—at a larger venue like Dominican University or the Marin Center.  Book Passage runs an active calendar of almost-daily speakers that has included not just prominent authors such as David Sedaris but also politicians including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In the next month alone, Book Passage has talks lined up by bestselling Oakland author Leila Mottley, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku and actor Laura Dern, who has recently published a memoir with her mother, actor Diane Ladd.

A crowd of people smiling in front of book shelves.
The Book Passage team surrounds Hillary Clinton when she spoke at the SF Ferry Building location. | Courtesy Book Passage

The themes that run through Book Passage’s plot are the same ones that have driven success for innovative tech startups: experimentation, rule-breaking, networking, market expansion and a relentless focus on the customer. 

And though there have certainly been highs and lows for the business, the ecosystem Petrocelli and her business partner-husband, Bill, have fostered has pushed their business past the arrival of a trillion-dollar online competitor and the pandemic and into a new world of content creation and consumption. 

The Standard spoke with Petrocelli as she looked back on nearly 50 years as a bookseller, including the authors she’s launched, the presidents she’s met and a few glimpses of why Book Passage—the bookstore and the community—persists today.

The Standard: Let’s talk about the part of Book Passage that isn’t books. So many of your offerings weren’t typically found in bookstores when you started the business. 

Elaine Petrocelli: I was one of those people who loved bookstores, so I opened a tiny, tiny, tiny bookstore in Larkspur in 1976. I thought it would be so much easier than my prior job as a grant writer for a nonprofit where my boss might say, “Can you take the red-eye tonight? The Ford Foundation wants you to make a presentation tomorrow.” I was wrong. Bookselling is a great career, but it’s hard, too. 

After I had been in business for two weeks, a woman came in and asked if I would carry some postcards that her art-student son had made. I told her that I don’t carry “stuff,” only books. But she was so nice that I bought the postcards—and a week later, I called back for more because they had sold out.

The woman’s son turned out to be Tom Killion, one of the most outstanding California artists of our generation. We carry his prints, books and cards in our stores. And even today when he is an esteemed artist, he makes it possible for us to sell his original work all year long. We hold an annual reception to celebrate his work in early December.  

Book Passage's Corte Madera store carries a variety of gifts, art and travel gear in addition to books. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Author events are a big driver for the Book Passage community. How did those start?

Just a couple of months after I opened my little store, a friend introduced me to a first-time author, Judy Greber. My friend asked if I would hold a reception to celebrate Judy’s book. I was afraid only two people might show up so I asked Judy if she knew anyone who would come. She said she and her husband had just moved here, but her husband might know some people from work. Work turned out to be Lucasfilm. Over 100 people crowded into my store. Although author events in bookstores were rare then, I was hooked. We were one of the first stores that asked authors to speak as well as sign. 

Indeed, a big part of Book Passage’s formula has involved fostering the work of local authors. How did that begin?

I loved Anne Lamott’s first book, Hard Laughter, but the publisher kept saying they were out of stock. I knew she was local so I looked her up in the phone book—this was the 1970s!—and called her. Annie was surprised because her publisher had written to say they were planning to destroy the remaining copies unless she bought them.

So, I called the publisher and raised hell. They said we can sell you all 1,000 copies, but you’ll have to pay in advance—25 cents a copy. I quickly sent a check for all the copies and split the proceeds from the book sales with Annie.

Elaine Petrocelli introduces author Anne Lamott at a Book Passage event. | Courtesy Book Passage

Annie and I became friends and several years later, we invited Annie to teach a writing class at Book Passage. We put a tiny notice in the Marin [Independent Journal], and we filled the class two days later. That taught me that we should be teaching writing and other subjects in our store. Today, we teach art appreciation, writing, languages, and this year, we even have a children’s writing summer camp. 

Annie’s writing book Bird by Bird came out of that class. She taught year after year for us, even after she became famous. Later, we moved to a one-day class, once a year with 200 to 300 people, always selling out.

Today, we hold Annie’s class once a year online. People join from everywhere in the world.  She’ll teach a new class, "Why Write, What To Write, How To Write," on May 13. She wrote about it in a Facebook post last week and hundreds signed up that day. Because it’s online, the number of students isn’t limited.

Pico Iyer is on the faculty of our annual Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. On Aug. 10, just before the start of the conference, Pico will be teaching an in-person class for conferees and the public. 

We have a whole department for classes, and our connection with authors has made this possible.  

How did Book Passage decide to move its author events online during the pandemic?

It was heartbreaking to close the store on March 16, 2020. Then two days later, two customers reached out to me. They explained that they run Extended Sessions, a company that holds online seminars for educators, scientists and others. They offered to donate their services so that we could run our author events online. They said they used this thing called Zoom, and I should reach out to authors to do events online.

Our events director and I wrote to several authors including Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, Ann Patchett, Simon Winchester, Dave Eggers and, of course, Annie and Pico. We were soon hosting lots of online events. The customers here and around the world watched and knew we needed support. They bought books and gift certificates online and even donated money to help support the store while it was closed. 

Author Isabel Allende speaks at a literary lunch at Book Passage in Corte Madera. | Courtesy Book Passage

Now customers often come into the store and tell us, “I was so depressed, but your talks saved me,” and I tell them that they saved us with their support. We were the first local bookstore to do these online events [during Covid], but now many bookstores offer online events. And many of our events are now hybrid—in person and online. 

You’ve hosted hundreds of famous authors and celebrities. Who stands out?

My favorite online interview was with Jill Biden before her husband was officially a candidate for president. Her assistant contacted me to say that Dr. Biden would like to have an hour of my time to connect before the online interview.  By the time we were online together, we sounded like old friends. 

In 2006, we joined with an amazing nonprofit, 10,000 Degrees, to host then-Senator Obama; 10,000 Degrees helps young students from poor families get ready for college and get all the way to graduation and beyond. Sen. Obama had just published The Audacity of Hope. At the time we announced the event, some people didn’t know who he was. But by the time of the event, that had changed. It seemed everyone in the Bay Area wanted to be there. 

Presidential candidate Barack Obama signs copies of his memoir at a Book Passage event at the Marin Civic Center. | Courtesy Book Passage

There were 200 students from 10,000 Degrees in the audience and Obama spoke to each one individually. One of the young adults had been thinking of dropping out of college but stayed in because of his conversation with Obama. I later learned that young man became a lawyer and served in the second Obama administration.

When Gloria Steinem spoke, there were girls in the audience from Tamalpais High. The girls complained about the inequity between facilities and practice times for female and male athletes on campus. Steinem told them to come back and meet with me at the bookstore every Saturday to work together to get that changed. They met all through high school, and many went on to work in public service. 

I don’t know much about movie stars, but I’m a groupie for authors. However, Peter Coyote fills both rolls. The first time he spoke I could barely speak to him. Now we are friends. In 2003, we picked Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for our First Edition Club. We always pick not-yet-famous authors. Like many of our subsequent picks, Khaled soon became world famous. 

But maybe my favorite-ever event was with Wynton Marsalis when he was promoting his memoir. His publicists told us we absolutely could not ask him to play—but when he got to the store, he said, "Don’t introduce me; I have a plan." He entered blowing his trumpet! 

Elaine Petrocelli attends the midnight launch of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" at Book Passage in Corte Madera. | Jim Sugar/Corbis via Getty Images

We had invited high schools to bring kids from their music departments to join our sold-out event. After a great presentation for the whole audience, Marsalis asked if the students could stay after for a master class. The kids got their instruments from their cars or called their parents to bring them over, and he told the adults goodbye before giving the students an unforgettable hour class. Then he asked if there was a place to play midnight basketball nearby. He told the kids to ask their parents if they could stay up to play, and every parent said, “Yes!” 

Why do you think the Bay Area still has so many independent bookstores?

The wide variety of independent bookstores makes the Bay Area a literary hub. We have such a vibrant community here. Bay Area booksellers help each other. We are lucky because it is not that way everywhere. 

The Bay Area is fortunate because so many authors live here. Dave Eggers's new book, The Eyes and the Impossible, is coming out in May from Knopf and in a special wood-bound edition from McSweeney’s. He constantly finds ways to support independent stores and other authors in ways that astound and delight me.

If you go into our cafe any day, you’re likely to see someone working on a book. Maybe they’re part of our mystery or travel writing conference, someone who is taking classes here or some who just likes to write in our store. 

Travel writer conference attendees eat dinner at Book Passage Corte Madera. | Courtesy Book Passage

I’d like toƒ think that is happening because of our writing groups. The first year we had a travel writing conference, Linda Watanabe McFerrin was a student. Thanks to our chair, Don George, famed historian and travel writer Jan Morris came from Wales to join the faculty. And then Don got British Airways to give away a ticket as a prize for the best article by a student. Linda won it and she used that ticket to visit Morris in Wales. I think this launched Linda’s career.

Then 20 years ago, Linda came to us and said she wanted to host a salon. I asked “What’s a bookstore salon?” And she explained it would be for writers to come together, talk about their work, meet agents and publishers and support each other. Today, the Left Coast Writers Salon has hundreds of members. In addition to chat groups and online meetings hosted by Linda, we host book launches in the store for members of Left Coast Writers. 

Jasmin Darznik was part of the salon, and she took writing classes at Book Passage. She told me she wrote her fabulous memoir, The Good Daughter, in our café. Jasmin’s latest novel, The Bohemians, follows the life of Dorothea Lange, who, having crossed the continent on her own, arrived at the Ferry Building in 1918 with a camera and $10.  

It’s amazing to me to think back to that time because my mother-in-law also used to talk about how much she loved commuting by ferry to San Francisco—and now we have a store in the Ferry Building! 

It’s wonderful to think that I started out hoping my kids would come to my store after school to read books. Now their kids are Book Passage fans.