Books, Jazz, and Neighbors Fuse at San Francisco's Bird and Beckett
Story contributed by Polina Selyutin.
The weekly event calendar for Bird and Beckett, a small independent bookstore in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood selling new and used books and jazz vinyl records, is sizzling with jazz events, book readings, poetry events and book club listings. For Jack Kerouac fans, there is a feeling of the beat era’s restless enthusiasm to capture as much jazz, poetry and literature as possible into one week. I was drawn to the store for a visit because Jazz and books remind me of San Francisco’s beat history—and because I was enticed by the vision of listening to jazz music with wine in a bookstore.
Eric Whittington opened Bird and Becket in 1999, after he bought the bookstore from a previous owner. Eric took the leap and purchased the store because he felt books were “inherently a strike for good” and he wanted to find more rewarding work. At the time, Eric was able to purchase the bookstore through easy access to credit, but he is still paying for it and advises others to pay off debt earlier. Eric also advises aspiring bookstore owners to be prepared to spend all their time in their store or labor costs could interfere with their business plans. Despite his warnings Eric strikes me as a man exuding contentment with life. I consider my job and realize if I could leave the corporate world and be surrounded by books and jazz all day, I may also gain calmness with life without help from other, less healthy sources.
The store definitely has a feeling of stepping back into time. The combination of a piano, records, and posters of jazz musicians, along with the selection of wall to wall books, resembles a comfortable library/jazz bar. Books are stacked closely together, so it takes some dedication and patience to find what you are looking for, but Eric is happy to help you discover a book selection. Eric knows many customers by name and smiles when he mentions how romances have blossomed between customers who met at the store or how nice it is to see the kids growing up as they visit the stores.
Eric’s biggest reward of owning the bookstores is the community of musicians, writers and neighbors who enjoy the store. The musicians enjoy playing at the store because they have more audience attention than a restaurant setting, and the living room-type venue feels more intimate. When asked what he enjoys most about his store, he simply replies he does it for them. “Customers are beside themselves for a community gathering place with a cultural and intellectual atmosphere” Eric says. During the store events, the possibilities for conversation surrounded by the beat of jazz music and hundreds of books ranging from philosophy, travel or serious literature opens doors to hundreds of topics. I can’t think of a better way to meet neighbors and connect with a community. It would be hard to be at a loss for words or stimulation in this setting when you have hundreds of book titles to glance at for inspiration.
Although the neighborhood has several coffee shops, a local bar, and restaurants, Bird and Beckett’s unique blend of weekly jazz and book readings provide a meeting area to connect in a setting devoted to intellectual growth. In reviews from Yelp, an online ratings site for business driven by customer reviews, customers talk about Eric’s psychic ability to help find a title, the warm beat of jazz on Fridays, and the community atmosphere drawing in locals to sip jazz and talk, while kids play amongst an amazing selection of kids books.
Eric tries to ignore pressures from the publishing industry and focuses on books with “lasting value”, while maintaining a selection that is “deliberately broad”. He says there is an overall left liberal slant, but there is no intentional theme for the books. Since around half of the books are used, the store is already practicing sustainability. Just as books are inherently a strike for good, a bookstore selling around 50% used books is an inherently a strike for sustainability. Eric buys books from customers willingly, and in doing so, promotes an appreciation for reuse among the customers. To show their support for the store, some customers leave with stacks of books, even paying a premium for bestsellers that could have been purchased at deep discounts from large retailers such as Amazon. By providing a community meeting spot centered on music, books and neighbors, Eric has integrated sustainability and drawn his community closer together.
Polina Selyutin lives in San Francisco, spends her days as an operations manager, and her nights enjoying the city. In her free time, she is dedicated to finding ways to live sustainably, while supporting and promoting the fearless and innovative leaders who run sustainable businesses in the Bay Area.
Photo: Angela Lilley Bennett courtesy Bird & Beckett Books on Facebook