Elaine Petrocelli

WHEN TALKING WITH Elaine Petrocelli, co-founder of two Book Passage stores, you notice contentment on her face, laughter in her voice and a sparkle in her eyes. That’s nothing short of remarkable, considering she’s been in the brutal business of retail bookselling for almost 40 years. But for Petrocelli, books aren’t only a business — they’re a passion.

And fair warning: she has another love: family. She has been married to Bill, her partner in life and business, for 41 years. It is a second marriage for both and they have four adult children who in Petrocelli’s words are “his, hers and ours.” Recently, and in near record time, those children presented her and Bill with six grandchildren. A Tesla can zoom from zero to 60 mph in under four seconds; the Petrocellis raced from zero to six grandkids in less than four years. However, the couple is accustomed to moving at a fast pace.

Their flagship store, Book Passage on Tamal Vista Boulevard in Corte Madera, not only sells every possible type of book but also hosts a wide range of writing and language classes, as well as seminars, writers’ conferences and author events. The Petrocellis also have a second Book Passage store inside the iconic Ferry Building on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Together, the two stores have more than 14,000 square feet of retail space and, according to Petrocelli, “several hundred thousand, if not a million, books for sale.”

The Petrocellis continue to live in the same house in Strawberry that Elaine owned when they married, and where the clan often gathers. They plan to be there together on the second Sunday in May to celebrate Mother’s Day. The couple also has a home in Italy, which they visit at least once a year.

Will you give an example of books being not only your business but also your passion?

I read all the time. In the morning, I usually read nonfiction for about an hour while Bill fixes breakfast. And I always have a book in my purse; that way if someone is late for an appointment, I can be reading while they’re feeling guilty. I even like it when doctors are running late. Of course, I read a lot in the evening. I don’t see a lot of movies or watch much television and, because of that, it’s sometimes embarrassing when I don’t recognize the famous actors and musicians who come into Book Passage. I’m not a particularly fast reader and, if I really like the book, I’m not fast at all because I want to savor the beautiful writing. There are certain books, like thrillers, that I can read fairly fast, but I don’t think I’m really a speed reader. I read between four and five books a week. That’s my idea of fun, and it has been all my life. And for the past almost 40 years, I’ve never felt guilty about it because that’s my job.

Do you ever stop reading a book because you just can’t get into it?

Oh sure, I’ll give a book about a hundred pages and if it just doesn’t make me forget about going to work, I’ll stop reading it. But that doesn’t happen very often because I’ll usually know something about a book before I start reading it. Maybe one book out of every five I pick up I won’t finish. If I can’t recommend a book, there’s no point in finishing it.

Please share how you got into the book business, and some of the history of Book Passage.

We opened a little store, Lark Creek Books, in Larkspur in 1976. I had been an educator and didn’t know anything about business. Although I had carefully selected the books, I’m chagrined to admit I opened without a cash register, a tax table or any change. Fortunately, a generous woman who owned the gallery next door loaned me the things I needed to actually sell something. She also showed me how to make change. We weren’t open long before we realized our customers loved to travel, so we started a mail-order division in travel books and called it Book Passage. We had a small sixth floor office in San Francisco and although we didn’t do much mail-order business, people who wanted travel books found their way there. One day a customer said she didn’t think it worked to have the mail-order business so far from the store and that we should combine the two businesses, which we did. We moved into our Corte Madera location in the late 1980s and opened a smaller store in the Ferry Building in 2007.

Besides books, does Book Passage have other forms of income within the store?

Yes, definitely. Classes are a very important part of our success here. On a typical workday, we’ll have four or five classes, then a couple more in the evening. So we’ll have several hundred classes each year. Some are short, others long. For instance, Don George gives a graduate-level course in travel writing that lasts eight weeks. Our language classes — Spanish, French, Italian, even German and Japanese — run seven or eight weeks. And some of our writing and art classes go for only three or four hours on a given afternoon. Over the years, our classes have grown in size and in the subjects being covered. I guess you could say the educator in me has resurfaced, and I love it. Best of all, many of the people who came as students to our classes and conferences are now successful authors who teach for us. For example, Cara Black came to our Mystery Conference as a student. She says it was this conference that made her dream to be published a reality. In July, she will co-chair our Mystery Writers Conference.

We all know independent brick-and-mortar bookstores have, of late, endured some punishing blows. Would you talk about that?

Bookselling is a tough business. One of the interesting things about bookselling is that books have a price printed on them by the publisher. And sellers who are perhaps predators go below that price, making it appear that we are greedy when we ask the list price. It’s not like a scarf or an item of clothing we sell in the store. We can ask whatever we think is fair for our gift items, but books are different; their prices are set. I can go below the list price but not above it. So a well-run independent bookstore might make 1 or 2 percent profit margin on books. You have to have lots of customers, lots of space and plenty of inventory in order to make it work. The minimum wage laws are going to have a definite effect on small businesses. People need a living wage, and it’s been suggested that if towns and cities want to keep their small businesses, they might want to offer them some sort of tax abatement, or give tax credits to landlords who agree to reduce rents for locally owned stores. Because people need a living wage, there’s no question about that. But the quality of our lives is going to change drastically if we don’t do something to keep our small businesses viable.

What about the online booksellers who offer discounts? How do they get away with those low prices?

The books the online people sell might be loss leaders; they may be selling some books at below cost in order to get you to buy other titles that are more profitable. Also the predatory online people have convinced publishers they will ruin them if they don’t receive the margins they demand; and they’ve become so large, the publishers are frankly afraid of them. And when a publisher fights back, books from that publisher are made hard for people to buy. This is what happened between Hachette and Amazon. Also, online booksellers are data-mining: they are willing to take a loss on a book, or sell it at very little markup, in exchange for information about you. This information is more valuable to them than the sale of a book. Mr. Online Person knows what books you read, and by using algorithms or whatever, knows what else might be sold to you at a much bigger markup — from underwear to refrigerators. So the books are the stalking horse, so to speak. I don’t know where that will go. People are making the choice whether they want to support that, or not. It’s an ethical choice we all have to make.

If online booksellers aren’t enough competition, the big-box chains are. For example, Barnes and Noble moved nearby eight years ago — how has that impacted your business?

Do they hurt us? Tremendously! Yes, we’re still here, but there’s a lot more we could be doing if they were not here, there’s no question about it. When Borders went out of business, our business improved and we were able to add more events for adults and children. It’s a very competitive world, and Marin and the Bay Area in general are fortunate to have so many independent bookstores. And we’re fortunate that Marinites, when they buy books, make the decision to keep us here.

Let’s talk about the good news in the book publishing industry.

Well, the publishing business is alive. It’s a very different business, but it’s definitely alive. Big publishers have tended to consolidate and there are now really only five big publishing houses. Random House recently bought Penguin Books and they are huge. Perhaps now they can talk back to the big online retailer. Also, small publishers are growing and many are thriving. Often, these publishers get bought, some say “eaten,” by large publishers because it’s hard to make it as a small publisher. But some small publishers are thriving. There is also a lot of self-publishing going on — but you have to be careful with it. We started our Path to Publishing program to help authors get published either by an established publisher or on their own. A number of companies say that for a few hundred dollars they’ll publish your book. The problem is that there’s no way to get your book to the public. But if you publish carefully, and get it distributed properly, you can get into numerous bookstores. It all comes down to the fact that writing a book is a business, and you have to approach it like a business. Whether you self publish or are published by a big publisher, there is still editing, design, copy editing and selling that needs to be done — and that costs money. But thanks in part to technology, it is a very exciting time in the book publishing and the bookselling business.

What does the future hold for Book Passage?

We just signed a new 10-year lease — so we definitely have a future. The future of Book Passage is something I think about a lot, but I haven’t quite figured it out. I feel very lucky that I have this great team of directors who are working to move both our stores and all aspects of our business forward. But I’m open to anybody’s great ideas on what we should do from here. I think Book Passage has become something that belongs not just to Bill and me, but also to the entire community.