The death knell for independent bookstores has been relentless, with shape-shifting enemies emerging at a steady clip: big box stores like Barnes & Noble, the tiny brown boxes of Amazon deliveries, the humorless screens of e-readers. Yet Dog Eared Books, and other stores like it in San Francisco, endure.
“If you can’t have a bookstore, you can’t have a neighborhood,” longtime Dog Eared customer and native San Franciscan Bryan Foster said. “Once a bookstore’s gone, everything’s gone.”
Of the nine bookstores that used to operate on Valencia Street alone, Dog Eared Books is the only one still in business—a scrappy mutt that has persevered for three decades under the steady stewardship of Kate Razo. The store will be celebrating its birthday on Sunday with an all-day party. Bring a canvas tote bag, a blank T-shirt—even your bedsheets or boxers—because you can silkscreen anything with the store’s logo while enjoying 30% off most books.
Razo contends that bookstores like hers continue to offer an invaluable service to the communities—something online shopping can’t replicate. Used bookstores reflect the personalities of the neighborhoods they’re in, populated with the book collections of the people who live there. Stores like these become protagonists in their own right.
“It's an experience. I think people like to be around people. They like to be around books,” she said. “We always say that the books will find you. It's not an algorithm or some set formula.”
Dog Eared is not Razo’s first rodeo. She opened her very first store, Phoenix Books in Noe Valley, in 1985. Then came Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights. Then the flagship Dog Eared Books, Alley Cat Bookstore & Gallery and Dog Eared Castro.
Many of the stores that Razo has opened in her time are still selling books, though they are under new ownership: Phoenix became Folio Books; Alley Cat reopened as the worker-owned cooperative Medicine for Nightmares; Dog Eared Castro is run as Fabulosa Books by former Dog Eared employee Alvin Orloff.
“It seems I open a new bookstore every seven years or so,” Razo said. It’s all a part of the cycle.
Razo moved to the Bay Area in 1983. In her early days here, she worked a string of bad jobs, played in a bunch of bands and even went to horseshoeing school in Watsonville before finding her calling at Half Price Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.
“This is it,” Razo remembered thinking of her first job working at a bookstore. “This is the thing I want to do.”
Dog Eared Books used to be further up Valencia Street, in what is now Needles & Pens. Razo always knew she wanted a better space for the bookstore, and one day she wandered into a nearby rummage store called Hocus Pocus to discover they were moving out.
“I just stood on the corner and was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the spot,’” Razo recalled. “It was one of those crazy serendipitous things you only dream of.” The store has been there ever since, and it’s officially a San Francisco Legacy Business.
Razo and her team credit adaptability for their success, citing the addition of new books to their inventory, but the business still seems to exist in another era.
When resident dog Tess—an 8-year-old Border Collie and German Shepherd rescue with a sweet demeanor and even softer fur—wants to wander, Razo tucks a Dog Eared bookmark into her collar with a binder clip so she doesn’t get lost if she makes her way out onto the street. They write up every sale by hand, and they don’t have a digital inventory.
“Who wants to hear ‘beep beep’ all day? Where’s the joy in that?” Razo asks. “You might as well go to Costco.” The store, other than lower bookshelves and newer inventory, looks the same as it might have when it first opened.
Part of what the shop has to offer is what makes all old bookstores great: atmosphere. And in an increasingly digitized world, there's a certain unique appeal still to a place where you can scratch a pooch and sniff a spine.
“What people respond to again and again is the smell, the flavor of the bookstore,” Razo said.
The bookstore is an analog, sensory experience. The creaky floorboards were once part of a manufacturing operation. The tall stacks of books have light streaming through them. The air smells faintly of mildewed paper, the must that comes from entire collections of used books dropped off when someone dies, an interior life made exterior through the hobbies and tastes reflected in a stack of paperbacks.
“You can find the answers on the Internet in a split second,” Foster said. “But unless you read books, you don’t know what the questions are.”
Dog Eared Books 30th Anniversary Celebration
900 Valencia St.
Sunday, Sept. 18, 10 a.m. | Free
Julie Zigoris can be reached at [email protected]