by Pat Holt

Tuesday, October 27, 1998


Note to Readers: The following story about GAIA Bookstore seemed to me so representative of the challenge facing many independent bookstores that I've devoted today's column to it. The Independent Website of the Day series, another take on Bigness and a whole passel of Hot Tips from the Stores will appear next Tuesday - and our industry spoof, Remainders of the Day, continues this Friday. Many thanks. Pat


That fine old Yankee ingenuity we've seen demonstrated by independent booksellers got a new - well, face this summer when Patrice Wynne and Eric Joost, owners of GAIA Bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., found themselves selling books in the nude.

"Yes, it came to that," says Patrice. "I have pictures that I threatened to send to Publishers Weekly with the two of us holding a copy of 'The Soul of Sex' by Thomas Moore, which we were selling at a sexuality conference center at Harbin Hot Springs." She laughs with the kind of spirited abandon that makes her sound mystical and warriorlike at the same time - a fine and much admired tradition in a store like GAIA, which specializes in books on spirituality from ancient to futuristic times.

"I was going to put a little black bar across all the right body parts and a caption next to the GAIA sign that said, 'Northern California booksellers: We'll do ANYTHING to sell a book.' " Her laugh practically pierces the ceiling this time, her high energy and huge tangle of hair contrasting beautifully with the startling blue eyes and placid demeanor of Eric, whose body seems chiseled out of the woodwork that he himself built to hold all the books in the store.

"We have been selling books at conferences for some time as an alternative way of bringing income to GAIA," he says. "It was extremely hot at Harbin, so at the conference people got comfortable walking around naked and, well, when in Rome . . . " and the two burst out laughing again. It's as though the conference at Harbin were a lark, not a lifeline infusing cash into the much embattled GAIA.

Founded in 1987 as "the country's first spiritual feminist bookstore," what Patrice calls "baby GAIA" was a tiny closet-like space of 300 square feet that grew out of her home-based Womanspirit Catalogue. "It was so small we didn't alphabetize the books," she recalls. "We'd see a space in the shelf and say, 'That looks nice - why don't we put it there?' It was very casual. We opened it because we were in love and wanted to move out of our house and explore this new consciousness toward community." Sales that first year were a whopping $300,000.

GAIA became a very popular "niche" store from the beginning. Authors didn't just sign or read their books at appearances - they engaged in discussions with the audience about their own "search for authentic experience," as Patrice puts it. "We more than doubled in size the following year to 800 square feet, then to 1300, then a few years after that we took down a wall to an adjoining business and opened our current store of 2500 square feet."

It's still quite small compared to a chain superstore, which is nearly 10 times as big, or even Cody's or Black Oak, the largish independents just a few blocks away. But physical size is not a good way to measure the power of a place like GAIA.

"We began promoting authors we loved to the media as well as to our own customer base," recalls Patrice. For example, she "fell in love" with an early audiotape by an unknown and unpublished writer named Clarissa Pinkola Estes and spotted Caroline Myss as an up-and-comer so early that "we sold thousands of her books," says Eric. "For a while we were toying with the idea of putting out a Caroline Myss toothbrush line - anything with her name on it just flew out of the store."

Smirking critics who try to type GAIA as a touchy feely or woo woo store miss the vast and significant inroads GAIA has made in opening up the world's sensibilities to the very meaning of the term "spirituality." On GAIA's bookshelves, that umbrella term covers a wide variety of serious literary categories relating to health, religion, creativity, family, feminism, environment, fiction, poetry, race, gender, politics and cultural change.

Because of that, the heavy hitters who got their start or found new audiences at GAIA count in the hundreds - among them Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, Riane Eisler, Andrew Weil, Rachel Naomi Remen, Isabelle Allende, Alice Walker, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Gloria Steinem, Susan Love, Marion Zimmer Bradley, even Allen Ginsberg, Robert Haas, Robert Bly and Czeslaw Milosz - just to name a few.

So we aren't talking about a place that helped Shirley MacLaine retire to a life of bon-bons, though GAIA did not turn away from the channeling or other passing fashions of years ago. In fact, one of the most inviting aspects of the store is its welcoming atmosphere and lack of judgment - its invitation to explore whatever spiritual representation seems of interest, from Tibetan bells that ring with a purity you'd swear rises out of ancient monasteries to sacred music tapes, Buddha statuettes, altar and prayer items and such small-press gems as Dennis Lewis' exquisite "Breathing as a Metaphor for Living."

Sales grew steadily for the first five years until Barnes & Noble built a superstore about a mile away, and GAIA - never capitalized except for Eric and Patrice's $2000 nestegg - took a nosedive. At first, the staff tried to keep a serene and everything's-in-harmony face to the world, but eventually word got out and Patrice had to "own up" to the problem. "A true grass-roots appeal got started," she remembers of the Friends of GAIA association that raised an unbelievable $40,000 for the store. That got GAIA through the by-now predictable year many independents need for customers who've been lured away by the promise of heavy discounts and wide-ranging stock of a chain store to come back to the sense of community and personalized selection of books one can find only in an independent store.

"GAIA kept following a progression of our own interests, but always with the central principle of looking at the spiritual life broadly defined - how one lives a conscious life, an awakened life, an engaged life," says Patrice. Sales rebounded with a 6-10 percent increase every year until 1997, when the El Nino storms hit California, keeping even the most loyal walk-in traffic indoors to discover a new lure:

It would not be fair to say the store began hemorraging from Internet book sales alone. Publishers themselves were now demanding payment at 90, 60 and even 45 days after delivery rather than the traditional 120. "Unless you're well funded to carry that kind of inventory debt," says Eric, "it's impossible to live under these terms because a bookstore doing good inventory management turns the stock at least three times a year, so you need the full 120 days. In fact, hardly any publisher allows even 90 days anymore.

"So chances are if a book isn't selling right away, it goes back to the publisher. If your credit is shaky you might start returning the very books you know you're going to buy later on, after you've re-established credit. That is an insane way to control debt, and everybody loses, but it's a pervasive practice."

But GAIA was founded on the belief "that business can never be separated from the world we live in," as the employee handbook states, and so its ties to the community are as strong as its interest in seeking meaning and personal growth through the books it sells. Thus when a huge retail space opened up in downtown Berkeley, which is undergoing a radical urban renewal, GAIA was given the chance to "triple in size for little more rent than we are currently paying" by moving into a new building - the GAIA building - that would create an "enhanced cultural center" - cafe/teahouse, Internet mail-order services, artistic programs and a far greater inventory of books.

What a great opportunity, people say, and so do Eric and Patrice. But with sales down 13 percent and $250,000 nut up front just to move in to the new premises, the GAIA founders are facing "a dark night of the soul," as Patrice puts it. Investors know that independent bookstores, which have lost half their number to the chains and to Amazon, are hardly good prospects. Even if the community rallied behind GAIA again, "because of declining sales the money we'd raise would have to pay off some of the debt we've acquired this year," says Eric. "So we're that much further behind the 8-ball going in to a new place."

Still, there is the belief that GAIA's original concept may save the day - that when a business resonates with heart and soul, regeneration is possible in all things. Precedents have already been established for socially responsibile investments and long-term, low-interest loans. And now is the time, says Eric, to think beyond the old language entirely. "The classification of profit or nonprofit business is an irrelevant point relative to the larger question of who and what we serve," he says.

Unique partnerships with publishers (kiosks and corners devoted to a single imprint, perhaps like Penguin sections in England), collaborations with vendors, coalitions with other retailers and customer interaction are all being discussed in terms of the cultural profit everyone reaps from a store like GAIA, and for which there must be a sense of reciprocal responsibility.

But something has to break, and let's hope it happens fast. For all their good will and humor, these are two exhausted booksellers who some days feel like they'd like to close their bookstore and take a three-month-long nap. The tide may turn tonight, when a "Wisdom Circle" of socially conscious business people will gather to find an answer for this independent's do-or-die situation. After all, "if GAIA closes," says the invitation, "our dream of community and of spiritual values in business will die, too."