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Laurel Book Store: A Small Bookstore for a Big City

By Jim Caton

"The book store is still the place where you can go to talk about stories and ideas, browse the shelves for interesting works by favorites and new authors, and meet people you might not otherwise." So says Luan Stauss, owner of downtown Oakland's Laurel Book Store. Stauss speaks with confidence, as well she should. With the disappearance a few years ago of Borders, the strategic closings of Barnes and Noble locations- including the one in downtown Oakland- who would have expected her little independent bookstore in the Laurel district to leap out of its 900 sq. ft. nook and into a space four times its size in downtown's landmark Lionel J. Wilson Building? Nevertheless, Stauss sized up the opportunity, and she and her staff at Laurel Book Store made the move.

"We outgrew the original store," says Stauss, "and moved to a larger location in the fall of 2014 to be near better transportation and the busy downtown scene." And Stauss couldn't have asked for better visibility for Laurel, which sits at street level behind large windows in one of Oakland's favorite buildings. The Wilson Building is a beautiful, eight-story architectural cousin to New York's similarly wedge-shaped Flatiron Building.

But in a time of vanishing big-box bookstores and in a market flooded by Amazon, how does an independent bookseller like Laurel experience such growth? The story might surprise you. The fact is that, since 2009, independent bookstores in the U.S. have increased in number by 27%, according to the American Booksellers Association. While it is fun to speculate on the social forces behind such an explosion of independents, Stauss stands by her core belief: "I think every neighborhood should have a book store. It becomes a gathering place for people and ideas and a great place to meet people." Some bookstores do shutter their doors, however, and Stauss did not grow Laurel into the success it is without a great deal of market savvy.

"Many people are now reading both electronic books and traditional books," Stauss notes. "We sell ebooks for download on our website so we can cover nearly any book need." Nevertheless, she adds quickly, "Traditional books are still important because they are social. Starting with children just learning to listen or read, having a book on your lap that you can turn the page of and enjoy together is an experience that's not replicated by the swipe of a finger on a screen. There are no batteries needed and you can use it anywhere. Older kids like to share books and talk about them with friends. Adults like to be able to find their page if they need to go back quickly and reread. There's a value to the object that is a book; someone wrote it, someone wanted to hear the story told."

It is the social aspect of books- of writing them, reading them and meeting over them- that seems to drive Stauss's love of her work. Certainly the social, intellectual and political links forged on the premises of private booksellers has a privileged place in American history, from Tom Paine's browsing in the Philadelphia store of Robert Aiken, which ultimately led to the conception and publication of Common Sense, to the Beat movement's gatherings at San Francisco's City Lights, and a continent of bookshop conversation in between.

Stauss relishes her role as just this sort of community resource: "We hold events because I feel it's my obligation to bring authors to my customers so that they can meet them and have an experience that they can't have online." Recent events have included readings by sports writer Susan Slusser and children's author Bethanie Murguia. Also, says Stauss, "Armin Brott and Will Ginnon were here in support of fathers in advance of Father's Day. They have both been writing about fathers since the mid 90s and the exchanges were fascinating. Support for fathers isn't always evident or encouraged and they were two eloquent and passionate speakers."

Laurel Book Store is located at 1423 Broadway and is open Monday through Thursday from 10 to 6 and on Friday and Saturday from 10 to 7.

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An English teacher for twenty-five years, first at a college near Buffalo and then at...

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