From Ukiah Daily Journal
Ann Kilkenny, in her uniquely laid-back style, has captained the ship and kept The Mendocino Book Company afloat these many years. The original bookstore run by Jerry and Suzanne Cox and located between Wildbergers and Ukiah Tour and Travel on School Street, came into existence in 1978. She, a lover of books and a bit at loose ends, encouraged emotionally and financially by her brother and mother, bought the place in 1983.
“I didn’t know how to run a cash register and fortunately I inherited JoAnn Schneiter with the store who knew not only how to do that but also how to run a business,” she says.
Renting from the Palace Bar and Grill, which seemed to be thriving at the time but was soon to go under, they were forced out. She remembers sewage leaking through the ceilings. “We had to go.
“A representative from the Masonic Temple approached me. The space had been empty for quite awhile previously rented by Ben Franklin Five and Dime; they had gone out of business. He talked me into it and it has been a great thing; they have been fabulous landlords. We took over in the spring of ’88, renovated and opened in July,” says Kilkenny.
It stumbled along. “Fortunately the book world was far less complicated then and it was easy to just stumble along.” No Internet, no personal computers and the downtown had a more vibrant feel to it.”
Originally offered the whole space, she was hesitant to take it all. A partition was put up and they shared square footage with Aileen’s Dress Shop. After she went out of business in ’95, they took the wall down and occupied the full area.
From ’83 through ’07, business increased every year as they got better at what they were doing — getting into the rhythm of what Ukiah wanted, computerizing effectively, ordering in an efficacious manner. The business had a downturn in ’08 when the whole economy tanked, and since then their numbers have gone in the opposite direction.
“We still feel OK; we are hopefulŠbut it’s a bit scary,” she says. She has been ordering less and has had to make cutbacks in staffing. They are setting up a webpage, encouraging people to buy eBooks. The Internet has been a blessing and a curse trying to stay above water with Amazon but also allowing them to order and receive books within a day or two, minimizing the need to order an unnecessary surplus of books.
Tony Wheeler, recently hired, says, “Every retailer has been hurt by Amazon; the thing they don’t offer is personal service. When people come in the store, they know us and we know them on a first-name basis. They consider us part of their community, their everyday life; they come to us first for what they need.”
Kilkenny says that a lot of independent bookstores, particularly in urban areas, with large, young populations from which to draw, are doing pretty well, experiencing an urban renaissance. Some chains are going under: Borders is gone and Barnes and Noble is struggling, giving the independent book stores a lift. “Since we never had that kind of competition, that has not been an issue for us here in Ukiah.”
Many bookstore owners are going into retirement and younger people are stepping up to take their places, moving in the direction of small and buying locally.
In the beginning she experienced hard times, but the business has remained financially solvent all these years. Although she has yet to take out a loan, the Christmas season has not given her the same cush as in previous years, and she wonders that there will be a first for that.
As part of a national movement to support independent bookstores, The Mendocino Book Company will be participating in California Bookstore Day on Saturday, May 3. Wheeler explains that the event is a take-off on Record Store Day, which started a few years ago and has become an international event. “It is basically a shop-local incentive, a celebration to support independent bookstores.”
The idea was conceived a year ago by the owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and this year 93 bookstores in California will be participating, hoping it goes national. Limited editions, lithographs, signed copies and specialty items will be available to the public only on that day.
Some of the books include “Congratulations,” by George Saunders, a convocation address at Syracuse University; “Do You Smell Carrots?: A Jokebook for Kids,” with full-color illustrations; and “The Bookish Life,” by Lemony Snicket, a limited and numbered edition created especially for this event.
Children’s events are lined up for the morning starting at 10:30 a.m. with snacks and there will be wine, cheese and muffins with a few giveaways in the afternoon. “The whole idea is to get people thinking about their local bookstore, its importance, emphasize who we are and what we do in the community,” says Kilkenny.
Specialty items for the day include a Genius Tote Bag by Dave Eggers (you have to see it to understand what it is); A Literary Map of California, a full color giclee print of literary settings; Bad Citizen Stencil by Don DeLillo, a wooden stencil to hang as art; and a Signed Hugo Lithograph, gallery quality of Isabelle in the bookstore.
Kilkenny and company will be hosting a series of events in the coming months, beginning with author Gerry Burgan’s reading from his new book, “Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the folk-rock revolution on May 3 at 1 p.m.; and followed by Ariel Gore on May 7; a National Children’s Week Celebration on May 12; Tony MaCaulay on June 6 and Renée Gilley on June 7.
Kilkenny sums it up. “I have been lucky in finding wonderful people who work with me; the camaraderie and friendship sustains me. I feel like I am part of my community and can contribute in a meaningful way. We have a lot of loyal customers, people who are glad that we are here, who appreciate what we do in the book world and that we sell tickets to local events. I appreciate having a business in a place I love. Then and now we are a small town general bookstore trying to appeal to what the people of Ukiah want and need.”