Noe Valley Voice July-August 2009

Phoenix Rises Again--a Block Up 24th Street

By Olivia Boler

The Phoenix Rises Again: The crew at Phoenix Books takes a break from putting books on the shelves at the store's new space at 3957 24th Street, right across the street from the old Bell Market (and the future Whole Foods). Shown front row, left to right, are Claire Rosenberger, James Koehneke, Claudine Richman, Phoenix owner Kate Rosenberger Waters, and Alison Faith Levy. In the back row are Nicholas Eymann, Todd Hanson, Christopher Hermelin, Michael Berger, and Robert Collins. Photo by Pamela Gerard


Without any fanfare, last month, Phoenix Books left its home of 20 years on 24th Street (at Vicksburg) and moved a block away to the former Noe Knit, right across the street from the future outpost of Whole Foods Market.

Of the new location, owner Kate Rosenberger Waters says, only half joking, "It's a lot cleaner. We built up 20 years of book grime in the old space."

The new space, at 3957 24th Street, is also twice as big as the old location, which was a "great corner" but a cramped cubbyhole, causing "butt-to-butt shopping," as Rosenberger Waters described it. "The aisles [at the Noe Knit spot] are wider, so there's more space for people to pass through."

Although the old space held approximately 14,000 books--"give or take 200"--the new location will have room for many more. However, don't expect the inventory to double--the shelves are shorter and the space also includes an office and storage area. Still, many popular sections of this mostly used bookstore will be expanding.

More Cozy Spots

Located in the back of the store, the children's section will be four times as big as it was in the old Phoenix. The extra space will make for a cozy area for the kids' lapsit and story time, held Tuesdays at 10 a.m. and run by Phoenix employees Patrick Sosa and Alison Faith Levy (also a member of the tot rock band the Sippy Cups). The store is on the lookout for a cushy loveseat and possibly beanbag chairs. There are already toys on hand, in case children need distraction while their parents browse the books.

There are three chairs in the main part of the store for sitting, and Rosenberger Waters hopes to find a few more. "We always like to have cozy spots in the store."

Other sections that will expand include cookbooks, fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. Memoir, poetry, self-help, do-it-yourself, and drama will stay about the same. Those that will shrink are books on collectibles, anthropology, science, reference, and history.

Records Make a Comeback

Rosenberger Waters thinks that these days readers are using the Internet to research the sciences and social sciences. "Even when people wanted to know what Obama reads--like the history book Team of Rivals, which did well--in general, history is not as popular these days."

But she's excited that she and her employees can "broaden and become less picky" about the inventory they choose. The store will also bulk up its remainders, which are new books sold at a deep discount. "For people being pretty broke in this poor economy, there are lots of good remainders around."

The store's audiobook rental program will continue as well. For $1 a day or $2.50 a week, subscribers can borrow CDs, although she says the program has become less popular lately. "I think people are downloading MP3s instead."

She's looking forward to carrying vinyl records as well, especially since the 24th Street Streetlight Records has closed. She hopes to keep record prices at about $3.

Considering a Music Series

With more room also come more opportunities for special events. Rosenberger Waters is toying with the idea of having a music series, as she does at her Bernal Heights store, Red Hill Books (the newest shop in her three-store empire, which includes Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street).

"If it feels like the neighborhood would support store events, we would do it," she says. "I don't know why some people come for some things and not others. Our Red Hill music series [Sundays, 3 to 5 p.m.] is often hit or miss."

A jazz musician recently encouraged her to get a piano in the new Phoenix space. "We'll see" is her response for the moment.

Noe Knit Stitched a Deal

One thing is certain: Phoenix Books will turn 25 in March 2010. At the tender age of 24, Rosenberger Waters opened the store in 1985, with then-business partner George Kirby Desha, in the spot where Ladybug Ladybug is now. Three years later, the bookstore moved to the storefront at 24th and Vicksburg, which because of its small size was at first considered a temporary home. Still, the years raced by faster than the pages in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.

In 2004, a new landlord failed to give the store a long-term lease, offering instead a month-to-month contract. Rosenberger Waters became very nervous for her store's future, but the Noe Valley community rallied around the store.

Last fall, Susan Herrick Cornish, owner of Noe Knit, stopped into Red Hill Books, and she and Rosenberger Waters started chatting. The bookstore owner mentioned she loved Cornish's store space, and to keep Phoenix in mind if she ever was thinking about moving. A few months later, Cornish called Rosenberger Waters "out of the blue" to say she was indeed looking for another business to take over her lease, since Noe Knit was losing too many customers to online shops. After a series of conversations and correspondence, the two made a deal.

Phoenix Books assumed the rest of Noe Knit's lease and will start its own five-year lease of the space this November. "It was a perfect storm of opportunity, frankly," says Rosenberger Waters.

A Cultural Oasis

With the Phoenix move behind her, she is looking forward to a busy summer. Though March and April were relatively slow, Rosenberger Waters thinks customers have started to loosen their purse strings. "A bad economy is historically good for the used-book business, and also the neighborhood has just been so supportive of us in general."

She'll continue her commutes to San Francisco via motorcycle from her home in Berkeley (she moved there four years ago after the birth of her daughter Hazel, and lives with her partner, Jonathan Waters, the wine director for the three-star restaurant Chez Panisse--"he's no relation to Alice Waters, and I don't drink--isn't that a riot?" she says with a laugh).

Despite the growing encroachment from online booksellers, Rosenberger Waters asserts her brick-and-mortar stores are here for the long haul.

"I feel a real devotion to the idea of keeping these shops open and providing a cultural oasis in Noe Valley," she says. "We lost Streetlight and the video shop, and part of that is the changing times. Part of it is the personal decisions of the shop owners. But providing the written word in an interesting space at affordable prices--I take that very seriously."