Noe Valley Voice April 2011

Closing the Book on Cover to Cover

Tear-Stained Last Page for Neighborhood Bookstore

By Tim Innes


Notes of gratitude and sympathy sprang up on the door of Cover to Cover last month, as customers got word the bookstore had closed.    Photo by Pamela Gerard

Cover to Cover Booksellers, a Noe Valley fixture for nearly three dec­ades, has closed, a victim of the lingering recession and changes in the way people buy and read books.

The end came quietly on March 6, when owner Mark Ezarik emptied the front display window, posted a note announcing the closure, and locked the front door of the shop at 1307 Castro St.

“Every year, every month, was worse than the last," the note said. “It was time.”

The fate of the store’s inventory, fixtures, and popular children’s playhouse is in the hands of a bankruptcy trustee. Ezarik hopes that a buyer will step forward and open a new bookstore on the site. If not, the trustee will order a liquidation sale.

“It's sad,” said mystery writer Cara Black, whose first book-signing was hosted by Cover to Cover in 1999. “It was a very special store,” said the Alvarado Street resident. “I feel awful.”

Black, who returned to the store for readings each time a new Aimée Leduc novel was published, is now on a national tour promoting the 11th book in the series, Murder in Passy. She’s scheduled to appear at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, 4175 24th St., on April 16.

Besides the Mystery Bookstore, the closure leaves only two other bookstores in the neighborhood: Phoenix Books, at 3957 24th St., and Omnivore Books on Food, at 3885 Cesar Chavez St.

Roots on Clement Street

Children’s book illustrator LeUyen Pham captured Cover to Cover’s essence in her sketches for bookmarks and store ads.

Cover to Cover began life on Clement Street in 1976. Seven years later, founder Nicky Salan moved the business to a storefront on 24th Street near Sanchez (now occupied by See Jane Run). In early 1999, the store moved two blocks east to a larger space at 3812 24th St., near Church, helped by some 200 customers who formed a “book brigade” to pass volumes by hand down the street.

The additional space came in handy several months later when British author J.K. Rowling attracted a crowd of 250 youngsters—many garbed in wizard and witch costumes—to a reading from The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third of her wildly popular Harry Potter books. By pushing back display tables and shelves, the staff was able to squeeze in every one of the children, some of whom had camped outside the store all night to be sure to meet their idol.

“It was like hosting a rock concert,’’ an employee recounted later.

In 2000, Salan retired and sold the business to Ezarik and Tracy Wynne, both longtime employees. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the new owners. With the dot-com bust, the rise of online booksellers such as Amazon, and the economic downturn after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, small shops like Cover to Cover soon saw their sales dry up. In June 2003, Ezarik and Wynne bowed to what seemed to be the inevitable and announced their intention to close.

Reaction was swift. Shock, dismay, and anger gave way to determination. “You’re not closing,” neighborhood activist Peter Gabel said to a tearful Wynne. “How much do you need?’’

Told that Wynne and Ezarik needed $200,000 to pay creditors and restock shelves, Gabel replied, “I think we can raise that.’’

Longtime owners Mark Ezarik and Tracy Wynne are sad to see the store go, but they cherish the joy they felt at nurturing a gift of reading to an entire generation.    Photo by Pamela Gerard

‘Mag 40’ to the Rescue

What happened next is the stuff of neighborhood legend. Gabel, an Elizabeth Street writer and attorney, set about to find 40 people—known colloquially as the Magnificent 40—who would agree to loan the owners $5,000 each in exchange for a 25 percent discount on books purchased at Cover to Cover. He also launched a campaign to get 1,000 people to pledge to buy one hardcover book a month from the store.

To get the word out, Gabel created a site called Savecovertocover on Yahoo—this was back in the infancy of social networking, remember—and set up an ironing board on the sidewalk in front of Bell Market with “Save Cover to Cover” pledge sheets to sign. “Within two hours I had my first 50 signatures,’’ he recalled in an article he wrote for Tikkun magazine.

Ultimately, Gabel rounded up 43 lenders plus some 700 pledges. In addition to their financial help, the “Mag 40” helped Wynne and Ezarik formulate a new business plan and strengthen financial management. They also helped Cover to Cover find a more affordable space, on Castro just south of 24th.

The renaissance lasted a surprisingly long time. Reflecting on Cover to Cover’s closure, Gabel said that while he was sad that the store was gone, he was grateful to have had the opportunity to help it succeed for almost nine more years. “People are willing to step up to support something of value,’’ he said. “And that’s a beautiful thing.”

Writing on the Wall

There would be no storybook ending, however. First, Wynne left in mid-October, taking a job at Books Inc. in Laurel Village. Then, employee Jon Hioki left in January to return to school. That left only Ezarik and Andrew Yakas, an old friend who volunteered six days a week, to run the store.

With the stress beginning to affect his health, Ezarik said he and his wife, Janet Gillen, an administrator at Laguna Honda Hospital, agreed it was time to close—“the quicker and quieter the better.”

“The writing on the wall has grown increasingly sharper over the last couple of years,” Ezarik wrote in his farewell note. “When the calendar page turned over to March, there could be no more standing around with our backs to it.’’

Ezarik, 57, said he would take some time off to recharge before starting the next chapter of his life. He said he was enjoying spending more time with his family, especially sons Conor, 14, and Andrew, 20, a student at USC who was home recently on spring break.

“It’s very draining emotionally,’’ said Wynne, who is now a book buyer for Books Inc.’s Alameda store. “Times are so hard.”

She said she took no comfort in the problems faced by large competitors such as Borders, which sought bankruptcy protection in February and is closing nearly a third of its stores. “It’s hard to lose any bookseller,” she said.

‘A Great Loss’

“It’s a great loss,” said Kate Rosenberger, owner of Phoenix Books and one of the Mag 40. She said that in the close-knit community of independent booksellers, competitors were more often thought of as colleagues than rivals. “If a customer was looking for a book we didn’t have, we’d call Mark and Tracy to see if they had it. And they’d do the same.”

She said her store would offer a 15 percent lifetime discount to the other members of the Mag 40. “I’m sorry it can’t be 25 percent, but our margins are just too thin.”

Rosenberger said she’d “love to have” the playhouse that was the centerpiece of Cover to Cover’s popular kids section. “I’ve absorbed so many fixtures from stores that have gone out of business—Acorn, Cody’s, Black Oak,” said Rosenberger, who also owns Dog Eared Books in the Mission and Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights.

Ezarik and Wynne, whom her partner called “the best children’s book buyer I’ve ever known,” said that what gratified them most about their years in the book business was helping to spark a love of reading in an entire generation.

“Over the past couple of decades I have seen countless children grow from baby-bumps to college grads; watched as toddlers crawled in and out of The House just as their parents did before them,” Ezarik wrote in his farewell letter. “To have been here at the center of it all has been for me a gift very few people can claim to have received.”

Fans Pay Tribute

Longtime customers responded in kind.

“My daughter and I spent hours in the bookstore, me in the front and she in the back of the store in the reading house,’’ recalled Stephanie Levin. “This is where I purchased all of her first books: The Runaway Bunny, The Rainbow Fish, and many more.… It was a lively bookstore where I always ran into a neighbor I knew and always found an author I loved to read.… Cover to Cover was a gathering place of good people, vibrant minds, and a magic environment for children to fall in love with books. I wish Tracy and Mark all good things.”

Added Karen Levesque: “Our whole family is sad about Cover to Cover closing. Over the years, we developed a neighborly friendship with their very caring and knowledgeable staff. My son and Mark were both big fans of Bernard Cornwell, and Mark even lent us his personal copy of a Cornwell book one time. The Harry Potter…party will go down in history as a great neighborhood event.”

And this from Jenifer Wana, who held a launch party at the store last August for her book How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child: “Their passion for books, promoting reading (especially to kids), and local authors is clear. While I’m sad to hear that the bookstore is closing, I know Mark and Tracy will continue to inspire those they touch no matter where their next adventure leads them.”

Ezarik was surely feeling the love when he concluded his farewell note with these words: “Thank you for all your friendships, your generosity, and your loving kindness.”

Celebrate Cover to Cover

Former Cover to Cover owners, employees, and friends will gather later this month to share memories and salute supporters of the Castro Street bookstore, which closed suddenly in early March.

“The whole neighborhood is invited,” said neighborhood activist Peter Gabel, who spearheaded the drive to save Cover to Cover when the shop fell on hard times in 2003.

The wine-and-cheese party, hosted by Phoenix Books owner Kate Rosenberger, will be held at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 17, at Phoenix Books, which is located at 3957 24th St., across from Whole Foods.

—Tim Innes