Copperfield's bookstore writing its own story

The challenges Copperfield’s Books has faced in its 34 years can be encapsulated by the genres it stocks on its well-worn shelves.

Business and Finance: There’s the story of 1980s upstart Crown Books looking to revolutionize book-selling by offering bargain books nationwide. That was followed by the onslaught of big-box juggernauts Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Economics: The tale of Internet whiz kid Jeff Bezos using to undercut brick-and-mortar stores, disrupting the industry and sending now-defunct Crown and Borders on a metaphorical trip to the horror section.

Science Fiction: The digital platforms that allow e-books to be downloaded instantly by younger readers and those on the go couldn’t have been foreseen when Copperfield’s opened in Sebastopol in 1981.

Ultimately, the Copperfield’s story is one of survival and resurgence as the retailer prepares to open its eighth store in redeveloped downtown Novato by the end of the year. The company is ahead of last year’s sales mark by 7 percent, with annual revenue projected to be around $11 million. At the same time, a dizzying 500 book-related events continue to attract readers to Copperfield’s stores.

“We feel, being in the North Bay for 34 years, we do have a tremendous following that we are very grateful for. I never take it for granted,” said Paul Jaffe, Copperfield’s president and co-owner with Barney Brown. “We have to continually find ways to partner with the community.”

Copperfield’s bright outlook is a part of a national trend, as for six consecutive years the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores, has seen its membership increase. There are now more than 2,200 member locations; in 2009, there were 1,651.

“There’s the popular presumption out there about how bookstores are operating at a real disadvantage and they are being pushed out of business by online shopping, big-box competition and digital books,” said Oren Teicher, the association’s chief executive officer. “The fact is, we are in a little bit of a resurgence. … Copperfield’s is part of that resurgence.”

Jaffe is the first one to admit there were some slim times, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Three stores were downsized to save on rent, a used-book store location was closed, and personnel changes were made. But he never thought of throwing in the towel.

“It was more begging the question of how we could create something that would be sustainable. Was there a time during the Great Recession that things got difficult for us? Absolutely,” Jaffe said of his business, which employees more than 100 people, half of them full-time. “We were severely impacted, as well as lots of retailers. We had to take some pretty hard steps to survive.”

When Tom Scott published a case study on Copperfield’s back in 2006 as part of his MBA studies at Sonoma State University, he said he “felt the prospects were somewhat bleak at the time.”

Scott noted that in a follow-up conversation, then-CEO Tom Montan told him that the goal for the year was just to break even.

Scott, now the chief executive officer at Oliver’s Markets, said Copperfield’s has succeeded by embracing its authenticity and integrating itself into the community, an ethos he also is striving for with his business.

“It’s created something experiential that you can’t get by ordering a book online,” Scott said.

The key change occurred when Jaffe came out of retirement in April 2011 to run the day-to-day business again. He made the decision to scale down those three stores. He called the move “right-sizing,” given that he paid about 50 percent less in rent at those three stores but only lost about 5 to 10 percent of sales.

“The business needed a lot of attention,” Jaffe said. “Sustainable doesn’t mean to me just barely breaking even.”

Jaffe made some key hires that bolstered the business, such as book buyer Sheryl Cotleur, who was named as a judge for the National Book Foundation’s annual fiction awards last year, and Vicki DeArmon, director of marketing and events. He brought in some new store managers, as well, said Ron Shoop, a sales representative for Random House.

“He had pretty much been absent until then,” Shoop said.

As part of the revamp, Copperfield’s focused on growing its events program to a point where it’s now one of the most robust in the nation and even has New York publishers taking notice, Shoop said.

Its fall program could likely meet the acceptance of even a finicky New York arts connoisseur with a lineup of authors such as Elvis Costello, Mitch Albom, William Gibson and, most notably, Jonathan Franzen, who appeared at the auditorium of Santa Rosa High School on Sept. 2, the day after his latest novel “Purity” was released to considerable attention and media coverage.

The events are curated to make sure they reach the right audience in the right environment. Copperfield’s has a free program called “Debut Brews” featuring first-time authors speaking about their books at Hopmonk’s outdoor beer garden in Sebastopol. Shoop joked that an author of feng shui books would probably be a good fit at its Sebastopol location, given the city’s counterculture ethos.

For instance, Copperfield’s targets food and wine-related events in the foodie locale of Healdsburg. On Thursday, noted chef and food writer Ruth Reichl appeared at Raven Performing Arts Center to talk about her new book, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life.” Also on the agenda was a pre-event reception at the Hotel Healdsburg.

“The Copperfield’s in Petaluma is fantastic. It’s an anchor of downtown Petaluma. Everybody is so friendly and knowledgeable there,” said Brian Christensen of Petaluma, who attended Reichl’s talk. “We read books, and I think it’s a lot better to read a book than to stare at a screen. The screen is cold. Getting caught up in the iPhones and iPads, we’ve gotten away from the feel of things. Books are more tactile.”

The events serve as more than a revenue generator, Jaffe said. “There might be a couple that generate some serious revenue,” he said, but “most of them not are big revenue producers.”

At their core, the events help attract new customers and keep people like Christensen coming back, whether for a book or a journal.

“The events help promote the store itself,” Shoop said.

The events also have put Copperfield’s on the map in the book world. A publishing house that once might have sent an author to do a one-day stop in the Bay Area will now have the writer spend two or three days in arguably the country’s strongest book-buying region, Jaffe said.

As part of its event business, Copperfield’s also has focused on local schools, having a staff member who specializes in book fairs where the company can introduce children, educators and parents to new titles. Copperfield’s sponsors educator nights and has a program in which it will give 20 percent of its sales during a week to a sponsored school.

Copperfield’s children’s section gives it a definitive advantage over rival retailers, as parents who are unsure what type of book to buy for their children can rely on the expertise of its staff. Children’s books represent about 16 percent of Copperfield’s business, the same share as its fiction sales, Jaffe said.

“It’s probably the most intimidating section in the bookstore,” Jaffe said of the children’s section.

Those sales have helped cover losses in areas that have suffered a decline, such as mass-market fiction - popular in airport stores and kiosks - and nonfiction paperbacks, he said.

Another strategic decision Jaffe made was to begin selling non-book items such as journals, cards (“un-Hallmark,” as Jaffe called them) and taper candles, of which Copperfield’s sells about 6,000 annually. Those items are about 15 percent of its business, he said.

In a sense, it resembles Starbucks’ move into non-food items such as music. In some stores, such as Healdsburg and Calistoga, merchandise is tailored to a customer base that is likely 50 percent tourists.

“I’m not a snob, but what I do want is to provide our customer with an experience,” Jaffe said. “We really feel that we are curating a selection of merchandise, not just books.”

Challenges remain in the industry. E-books were thought to present a major threat, but their sales have plateaued recently. E-book sales through the first half of 2015 were 10 percent lower than the year before, according to the Association of American Publishers. In 2014, $3.4 billion was recorded in e-book sales, according to the association. The most popular format is paperbacks, which reached sales of $4.8 billion last year.

Copperfield’s customers may read books online, but they read print versions as well, Jaffe said.

“I think that is fairly typical of our customers,” he said. “They really like to read actual books.”

An advantage for his stores is that customers like to give books as gifts, especially during the holiday season, when sales pick up. The bookstores’ personnel again plays a major role because, Jaffe noted, staff recommendation are “very, very important” in driving sales.

“Its staff is well-known across the country for their incredible book knowledge,” said Teicher, the American Booksellers Association CEO.

“What I think is most important is they really like to give books to people,” Jaffe said.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson contributed to this article. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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