Earthling Bookshop Stands Its Ground

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY / OCTOBER 7, 1988

Earthling Bookshop Stands Its Ground

Nearly forced from its downtown location by City Hall and developers, this Santa Barbara bookstore has not only survived but prospered

BY JOHN BETHUNE

The baroque mural of St. George slaying the dragon on one of the back walls of the Earthling Bookshop in Santa Barbara, Calif., aptly illustrates a pivotal event in the store’s history: the successful fight against the city council, the city redevelopment agency and one of the largest retail department stores on the West Coast, each of which wanted to force the store from its downtown location to make way for a Bullock’s department store.

The events, which took place in the early 1980s, have not only defined the store’s image—it’s widely known as “the store that beat Bullock’s”—but have also articulated the values that could buttress other independent bookstores in similar situations.

Early in their battle against the developers, owners Terry and Penny Davies realized that in exchange for packing up and moving, “we could have struck any deal we wanted.” Indeed, viewed strictly from the bottom line, such a compromise seemed in order. But as the mural of St. George and the dragon suggests, they saw the battle as a symbolic one—pitting a corporate, profit-minded mentality against their own people-oriented principles. Despite considerable expense and steep odds, they chose to fight.

With characteristic self-deprecation, Terry insists, ‘We’re not really good business people. What we do is look for signs.” Not that the store hasn’t done well in the kind of “signs” dear to accountants: Earthling’s annual sales are currently approaching the $2 million mark. But with the Bullock’s battle behind them, the Davieses say their present challenge is to make sure that business keeps on “booming”—mainly through adapting to computerization (see box)—without diminishing the store’s emphasis on personalized and community service.

New Age Beginnings

As might be expected in Santa Barbara, with its substantial New Age culture, Earthling’s best-selling sections are metaphysics, psychology and philosophy. “That was the emphasis of Earthling when we bought it in 1974,” Penny explains, adding that “this is Southern California, and every new kind of crystal gazer and channeler seems to come out of this area.” But while New Age subjects are a specialty, Earthling is very much a general interest store, with 30,000 titles in stock, of which backlist fiction is the largest category.

With 5500 sq. ft. of selling space—including a freestanding stone fireplace in the center of the store surrounded by chairs in which customers can chat or read at leisure—and a wholesale inventory of $500,000–$600,000, the current Earthling dwarfs the tiny bookshop the Davieses purchased 14 years ago. At the time, Terry was a scientist employed by a local engineering firm, a job he still holds today, while Penny was between preschool teaching jobs.

The original Earthling was a 400-sq.-ft. shop (located in a “very ‘60s cooperative mall”) that was owned by two friends of theirs who, having found Santa Barbara too expensive, were looking to sell the one-year-old store to buy land in Oregon. While the couple went to look for land, Penny watched over the store, and discovered that “it was fun.” Soon after, the Davieses purchased the Earthling for $6000—and doubled sales by their second year.

The Wages of Success

The couple’s success was not without liabilities, however. “The landlord noticed how well we were doing,” says Penny, “and eventually tripled our rent.” The day they were informed of the increase, Terry ran into a friend who offered him space in a building he had just bought. As this chance encounter was exactly the kind of sign he could not ignore, Terry decided to rent the entire 3500 sq. ft. of space. “After a year of running the store by ourselves we knew that we wanted to be big enough to have a manager,” he says, explaining his reason for moving into such a larger space. ‘We didn’t want to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and never be able to leave it.” With so much more room, the Davieses decided to open a 1500-sq.-ft. restaurant in the store. ‘We noticed in our first location that customers would leave at lunchtime and not come back, so we put in a restaurant—and they stayed,” Penny recalls. Despite the restaurant’s popularity, the Davieses closed it after five years when their manager quit. Citing the extra work involved and an “uncontrollable” roach problem, Penny admits that while the restaurant “was a wonderful attraction and lots of fun, it wasn’t really a very good business and we would never do it again.”

A year later, their rent was raised, and the owner of an empty building around the corner began to court them. At first they resisted, because the building was dilapidated, but they ultimately moved in, late in 1981, drawn by its location on State Street, Santa Barbara’s main commercial thoroughfare.

Alien Developers Invade

After upgrading the space and finding business better than ever, the Davieses heard rumors that the city redevelopment agency had slated their block for demolition in favor of a new Bullock’s department store. They investigated, and as Penny recollects, “The rumors were true, although no one from the city ever bothered to inform us.”

Because downtown Santa Barbara had been declared a blighted area, the redevelopment agency had the right to take away property at will. It appeared that neither the Davieses nor their landlord had any rights in the matter. Terry recalls that “we were all white with rage.”

Uncertain how to proceed, Penny came across a Publishers Weekly article (July 30, 1982) describing how Robert Werner, the president of Gateway Books in Knoxville, Tenn., had successfully dealt with a similar challenge. Terry was going to Knoxville on business, and looked up the owner to ask his advice. “He had taken out full-page ads in the local papers asking readers how they would feel if their homes were taken away and given to a developer,” says Terry, who immediately followed suit by placing similar ads in the Santa Barbara press and posting signs in windows around town.

The Davieses then tried to find an attorney to help them, but it appeared that no one in the area was willing to take them as clients. Penny recalls, ‘We were told we didn’t have a chance, that you can’t fight the redevelopment agency, and that no one had ever beaten them.”

Lawyer on a White Horse

They had nearly given up their search for a lawyer when they learned that the father of their preschool daughter’s best friend was an attorney well-known for taking on difficult cases. ‘We called on a Sunday, and he invited us to his house. At first, he didn’t seem interested in our case, but towards the end of our story something clicked, and he looked at us and asked, ‘Are you really going to fight this?’ We told him we were, and with our last penny if that’s what it would take.” The lawyer agreed to help, but explained that the Davieses were facing less of a legal battle than a public relations battle. He advised them to present themselves as the little bookstore fighting the redevelopment agency and Bullock’s. As Terry is quick to point out, “That wasn’t hard to do—because we were!”

The attorney put them in touch with a local group of activists known as the Network. Under its direction, the fight against the city became a political campaign, with Network members raising funds and collecting some 15,000 signatures on a petition to put the issue on the ballot. But when they presented the petition, the city council (whose members also constituted the redevelopment agency) refused it. Instead the council members put together a ballot measure of their own.

“That was our big break,” Terry says. “Their wording was such that everyone saw right through it. It was to the effect of, ‘Are you willing to redevelop the downtown area so that you can have a police force, roads to drive your cars on, and assure the safety of your children?’ Bullock’s wasn’t even mentioned!” Measure D, as it was known, became the most controversial issue in the 1982 election.

To gauge their support on election eve, the owners threw a daylong public party at the store, to which hundreds of people came. It was a good omen. The Davieses and their supporters won, defeating the measure with 60% of the vote, forcing the redevelopment agency to back down.

In the aftermath of the victory, the Davieses were both elated and exhausted. ‘We had been fighting for a year, and we were in bad shape physically,” Penny recalls. “We both had insomnia, and I had lost 20 pounds and developed high blood pressure.”

Free Publicity

But in retrospect, both agree that the campaign was, as Penny says, “one of the highlights of our lives.” The battle also had unforeseen benefits for their business. Late campaign polls revealed that 75% of Santa Barbarans knew the bookstore. “It cost us a lot to fight the battle,” Penny Says, “but it was the best advertising we ever did! To this day, people still come in and say, ‘I voted for you.’”

Since winning their battle, the couple has felt a redoubled “obligation to make the store better” for the community. ‘We even talked about putting back the restaurant,” Terry says wryly, “but we couldn’t figure out how to deal with the cockroaches.” They make their prominent display windows available for local causes, and sponsor monthly poetry readings. They also serve as the official booksellers for the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference every June.

The most visible display of the couple’s gratitude, however, is the prominent mural of St. George and the dragon. Following the defeat of Measure D, Penny was looking for a way to commemorate the events. By chance, she met an Italian sidewalk painter who was visiting Santa Barbara. He happily agreed to her suggestion of doing an oil painting of St. George on one of the bookstore walls in exchange for a combination of books and cash.

Terry plans to take early retirement from his engineering job next year to devote himself full-time to the bookstore. In order to more effectively amortize the physical improvements they want to make, and because rents in Santa Barbara can go up as much as 300% in one leap, the owners are also negotiating to buy their building. And they are also looking into the feasibility of building a satellite bookshop in nearby Los Angeles.

The Davieses confide that several years ago, worn out by their battle, they briefly discussed selling the store. But as Terry explains, they quickly realized that “we had been completely seduced by the store— and there was no way in hell we were ever going to let anyone take our baby away again!”

Bethune is a freelance feature writer based in Los Angeles, Calif.

Sidebar:

Computerization with Some Glitches and Many Benefits

The Davieses’ latest effort to improve their store is the installation of a computer, a process that has caused a sizable part of the staff to leave, but which, the Davieses say, has brought benefits even they had not anticipated.

For years the business had relied on intuition—until this year, the store had no inventory system at all. Terry says, “We had the luxury of being able to be stupid about running the store and then having the store grow fast enough to cover our mistakes.” But they’ve reached the point where they “are trying to increase the volume of a store that isn’t increasing in size.” They decided to get a computer.

After a long and unsuccessful attempt to get their first system up and running, they returned it to the manufacturer and began a search for another system. They ultimately chose the Thunderbird Information System, produced by the Thunderbird Bookstore in Carmel, Calif. Once the computer was installed, and it was clear that it was going to work, some of the long-term staffers had difficulty adjusting to the change. In the end, the Davieses lost six employees as a result of computerization. “They were on average 7-year employees,” Terry recalls. “Over the years they had developed systems of their own, so the computer must have seemed like a slap in the face to them.”

Now that they have restaffed, with everyone fully trained on the new system, the Davieses hope to use the information they have gathered from the computer to build up their backlist. The computer also helps them redefine their bestsellers. “The first time I saw the computer’s bestseller list, I couldn’t believe it,” says Penny. “I had no idea that our top 30 books had to do with addictions.”

The couple’s enthusiasm for their computer is tempered by wariness that it may promote the kind of corporate impersonality that they have fought so hard against. At a recent weekly staff meeting, some of the staff observed that they were no longer making eye contact with customers but keeping their eyes on the terminal instead. ‘We’ve never run that way,’ Penny says, “and we don’t want to. So we decided that the computer will be the last resort when a customer asks about a book.”

They both admit that they’ve come to computerization relatively late. “But,” says Terry, “we’ve been selling books for 15 years, and it’s never been more fulfilling than it is for us now. For the first time we feel that we have total control of what’s going on in the store.”

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