Steeped in family and tradition, the Coonerty clan takes the little bookseller that could into its milestone year
some years ago, the alarm started buzzing in Bookshop Santa Cruz. Owner Neal Coonerty looked up to find his thief, and there was a nun, decked out in her habit. Apologizing for what must have been a hiccup in the alarm system, Coonerty approached the sister. She inched away from him, grabbed a local newspaper and proceeded to head toward the exit. Meanwhile, Coonerty was still acting contrite.
The nun dropped the paper and darted out of the store. A little befuddled by the incident, Coonerty noticed the newspaper that she had dropped and looked under it. There was another surprise: a stolen book. This nun on the run actually had set off the alarm. Her pilfered goods? A photography book of gay men having sex.
“I couldn’t figure out if she did it for herself or for the parish priest,” Coonerty says, his trademark hearty laugh coming through. “I almost felt like calling out to her, ‘Sister, take it! More power to you.’ But I just let her go.”
The tale tells you a lot about the man in charge of Bookshop: He’s got a soft spot for everyone. And through the years, he’s become well known for other reasons. He’s a political leftie and the sort of guy who gets a thrill out of stories, which makes perfect sense, being that he’s in the storytelling business. The store celebrates its 40th anniversary this month.
It’s quite the milestone for a number of reasons. Over the last three decades, the Coonerty family has managed to create a legacy of not just promoting literature, but independent business and political activism. And a great deal of it would generate national news coverage and a loyal clientele. As most people who’ve lived in the area for some time know, Bookshop is not your average hole-in-the wall bookstore. Nor does it resemble anything like its big box competitors: Barnes & Noble or Borders.
But rewind to the wild, colorful, and acid-drenched days of the 1960s, when Santa Cruz was going through a transformation, and you’ll find the seeds being planted for Bookshop. Back then, a popular, groovy, political place called the Hip Pocket Bookstore was in full swing. Located at about the same place as where Bookshop currently sits, it was “ahead of its time, and the owner was sort of a radical,” Coonerty says. “There was an unveiling at the entry of the store; a Kamasutra statue. It was at the same time as Ken Keasey and the bus and all the acid stuff. … It shocked the town and for a while it was picketed every day by church groups from Scotts Valley who felt this was an evil place.”
Hip Pocket lasted for 18 months before it closed for nearly six months. Bookshop opened up in the same location but it was a completely separate entity, under different ownership.
In 1969, Bookshop relocated to what, today, is an empty hole in the ground next to Lulu Carpenter’s on Pacific Avenue. The concrete cavity once housed the 10,000-square-foot, two-story store. Neal and his wife Candy purchased the business for $400,000 from the Lau family in 1973.
Not long after, the Coonertys had two children, Ryan, born in 1974, and Casey, born in 1976. As the Coonerty kids grew up, they spent much of their childhood at Bookshop, their home away from home. Books, reading and retail were as familiar to them as gallivanting in a playground is to other children.
“My very first memory in the bookstore … I must have been maybe 4,” Casey says. “I was the same height as the rocking horse. (The customerfavorite rocking horse sits in the children’s section and was one of the things Neal rescued after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.) A little kid told me their parents owned the store and I was really confused because my parents owned the store.”
When asked to look back on her years growing up in a bookstore, Casey says, “One year, my dad wanted to surprise my mom by redoing her office (at Christmastime). She used to buy the cards and gifts and her office had lots of knickknacks, and he wanted to give her a more professional office. So we came down here in our pajamas on Christmas morning and she saw her office.”
Casey and Ryan’s mother, Candy, died in 1999, and Neal has since remarried.
Some of Casey’s other favorite Bookshop memories include when she was a youngster, handing out candy to customers while they stood in long holiday lines in the store, waiting to make their purchases; her first jobs there included spraying Windex and writing down license plate numbers of cars in the lot whose time had expired, even though her parents never told the people to move their cars.
From Windex wiper to bookseller, Casey is now taking on her biggest job yet with Bookshop: Co-owner. In April, she came on board as the new It Girl at the store, taking over running Bookshop for her father, who has now entered the political arena full-time. With an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, and two master’s degrees, as well as a lifetime spent in the store, Casey has been groomed for this position and it’s one she’s enjoyably throwing herself into.
“This is my boss,” Neal says, pointing his thumb at his daughter. “She tells me what to do. She’s finally getting revenge for when I told her to clean up her room.” Father and daughter laugh.
In January, Neal takes his post as third district supervisor, and Casey will run the store completely on her own. However, “it’s a family business,” she says. “We make big decisions together.” As for her brother Ryan, while he’s busy lecturing on law at UC Santa Cruz, and holds a seat on the city council, he is still often seen around the store, running myriad operations.
And the next generation? Well, there’s a new member of the family to consider—Casey is five months pregnant.
October 17, 1989. Ask any long-time Santa Cruzan what happened that day, and they’ll ramble on about their whereabouts when the Loma Prieta Earthquake demolished parts of the town, including much of Pacific Avenue. Just like the rest of us, Neal Coonerty reflects on that day with sorrow. It was the day, after all, that his beloved bookstore would crumble, and he’d have to rebuild it, nearly from scratch.
“At first, I was just given 15 minutes,” Coonerty says. “Employees had left coats and purses around, and I got some financial reports. I always thought I wanted to continue the store at some point, so I grabbed the rocking horse so we could at least have one memento of the old store.”
Not long after, Neal went on local radio and relayed the story about how he saved the rocking horse from the rubble that was once Bookshop Santa Cruz. “Some woman called up in tears that the rocking horse had been saved and downtown would rebuild,” daughter Casey says, remembering the life-altering event that happened when she was 13.
Coonerty was then told that he could gather up 40 people to trudge into the remains of the store to collect whatever they could find. They were required to sign a waiver, which recognized that it was a dangerous endeavor and that they knew they could die if they entered the site. Not having any idea how many people would volunteer, Coonerty was floored when 400 people actually arrived to assist—all of them signing waivers and carrying books for two days. Afterward, Bookshop set up camp among the other tents, which had been placed downtown to temporarily house local businesses devastated by the quake. Three years later, Coonerty moved the store into a space on the north end of Pacific Avenue, where it currently resides.
“After three years of port-a-potties, we appreciated indoor plumbing,” Neal says, laughing. “We were so wounded from the earthquake and from three years in the tent, that we knew we had to take a risk and go for a larger store. Very soon we would be challenged by chains rolling out super stores.”
Coonerty took Bookshop from 10,000-square-feet to 25,000-square-feet. He also introduced what would also become known as the most favorite—and, perhaps, only available—public bathrooms on Pacific Avenue.
It’s a costly venture, keeping toilets running, but even that—free restrooms—is another marker of what makes Bookshop so special. Coonerty is admittedly “for the people,” even if that means they mess up his bathrooms from time to time, which, unfortunately, has happened. Besides offering a kind-hearted gesture to the masses, it’s also become something of a marketing tool. “We spend a huge amount of money to get people into Bookshop and if a full bladder does that, there’s a benefit.”
Years ago, when a chain store was breathing down the neck of 41st Avenue, with plans to open a big box in the same shopping center that houses the Capitola Book Café, Neal Coonerty made enough noise and frightened them off.
But in May of 2000, Borders squeezed its way into town. “The stock market peaked in March of 2000 and they came in May,” Coonerty says. “The economy was bad and the way that people got books, with the Internet and sites like Amazon, it’s been a tough six years. … It’s hard to pinpoint how much Borders has [affected business]. [At the time], I was president of the American Booksellers Association and we were in the middle of a lawsuit with Borders and Barnes & Noble about secret discounts. It felt like they were seeking revenge.”
Candy Coonerty, Neal’s wife, passed away in July, 1999, and just one month later, in August, the Coonerty family found out about Borders’ impending arrival. “It was a very hard time for our family,” Coonerty’s daughter, Casey Coonerty Protti, says.
Sure, Borders takes its chunk of book sales in the community but “that’s the way the world works,” Neal points out.
He and Casey agree that many Bookshop customers are very loyal to the long-time family-run business. And even with competition existing, the Coonerty family has reached out to the big box down the street.
When 9/11 hit, a Borders store in the basement of the World Trade Center was destroyed. On this one occasion, Neal entered the local Borders to, as he tells it, “give them a card that we were sorry for their loss but happy that all their customers and employees got out safe.”
Crown Bookstore made a brief appearance in town, for three years during the mid-1990s. Neal explains that it was a family-run corporation and the father and son in charge were “having a horrendous feud, a King Lear sort of thing. They were much more raw and aggressive than Borders. They said they’d put us out of business. Three years later we were still here and they were gone.”