A strange mood hangs over Logos Books and Records—somber, nostalgic.
“Can I sell some books?” a middle school kid asks the man working behind the counter on Saturday morning, July 15.
“We’re not buying books anymore,” the man responds. “Try Bookshop Santa Cruz.”
Word began leaking out this month among longtime customers that the two-story used book and music shop will close at the end of the summer—ever since owner John Livingston started telling a few friends. Employees began doing the same.
“Everyone has a different point of view on it. Some people only care about how they can’t shop here anymore. Other people care about how it’s a loss to the community. And other people come up and congratulate me because I get a chance to retire,” says Livingston, a sentiment resembling regret in his voice.
Not regret, necessarily, for any decisions he’s made in the 48 years since he first launched the business. It’s more the rueful reflection of a man who wishes things could have gone another way.
After several years subsidizing the beloved destination, Livingston, now 70, began to yearn for retirement—more time playing music and golf and helping with Kuumbwa Jazz, where he sits on the board of trustees. He had started to worry about what it would mean if something happened to him and his wife Fran Etow was stuck managing an increasingly costly operation.
“You know, I started thinking about the practical aspects,” he says.
Logos will be temporarily closed through Wednesday, July 19, while Livingston, his employees and a consultant complete an inventory and organize a sale, which will begin on Thursday, July 20, and last through the summer.
Livingston first got his start in 1968, when he took a job as a music buyer at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, where he went to college.
That store’s owner, Moe Moskowitz, became a mentor to Livingston, who left soon after to drive around the United States, searching for a place to open a book and music store of his own. After realizing he didn’t actually want to leave the area, Livingston decided on Santa Cruz. And at his boss’ insistence, he took extra copies of books that Moe’s had duplicates of and brought them to Santa Cruz to sell at his grand opening. It was something that rubbed some Moe’s employees the wrong way, Livingston recalls—not that his mentor really cared what they thought.
Doris Moskowitz, Moe’s daughter, who now runs the Berkeley store, says her father was a mentor to a lot of young people, and employees often questioned his willingness to help out fledgling entrepreneurs—and even would-be competitors—who followed in his footsteps. She remembers her father as very proud, and even a little bit “cocky.” He was so confident in his business that he felt no one could truly pose any threat. And regardless, he wanted nothing more than to spread the joy of book selling, and he wanted bookstores to do it “the right way,” like he did, explains Moskowitz, who’s been to Logos many times herself. The Moskowitz family earned a reputation for paying fair prices for the books that customers brought in, and building a relationship with those customers over time.
And so with a small loan from his parents, Livingston opened Logos at its original Cooper Street location in 1969, when he was 22.
“In those days, you could start a business for almost nothing,” he says. “They lent me a little bit, and I paid them back within a year. It was lights-out from the start. The doors opened, and we were flooded with books to sell. For the first 10 years, it was great. I was in my 20s with lots of money.”
Livingston’s favorite used-book memory involves a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that a woman named Charlotte Williams brought in. And instead of buying that day for a few bucks, the book buyers set it aside, telling her they thought it might be worth more, and they’d like to get back to her. The novel eventually fetched $18,000 at auction, with Williams and Logos splitting the proceeds.
The 1989 earthquake dealt the store a big blow, but Livingston was able to buy a new building—its current three-story location with a basement, offices on top and a skylight that beams down the center on sunny afternoons. Business peaked in the mid-1990s, Livingston remembers, “and then all of a sudden the downloaded music started happening.”
Livingston cut back Logos’ rent in the following years. When the numbers dipped again, he stopped taking a salary. After that, he reduced the store’s rent some more. Then in the summer of 2015, used book sales began nosediving. At first it was only a few percentage points per month. But even that meant a serious blow for the part of the business that had, until then, appeared relatively resilient. Suddenly, one month saw a 12-percent drop in sales. “And hasn’t picked up,” he says. “I can’t look at very many months that have been up, and I can look at a lot of them that have been down.”
People’s reading habits have changed, Livingston says, and shoppers are browsing for books less than ever.
Livingston had once prided himself on paying well above minimum wage, but that became difficult to do, he says. He listed his business on the market for a year, and had some serious talks, but couldn’t secure a buyer.
“Essentially, the biggest problem is the rents downtown are high, and I own the building, and because I’m trying to retire, I need to get at least a reasonable market rate for the space,” he says. “The economics of a used book store now, especially of that size, just don’t work.”
Livingston has started looking for new tenants.
In order to reshape a used bookstore like his into something that might survive, Livingston says, it would have taken an owner with a different model, a lot of time and plenty money to experiment with.
Moscowitz of Moe’s Books in Berkeley says her shop is on a long lease, and the building is in a trust, but they are still constantly trying to keep up, even selling books on amazon.com. “We need that, but we don’t like it,” she says. “We have to stay in business, so you have to stay flexible to just keep moving along.”
Meanwhile, Livingston keeps hearing from distraught customers.
“They come in and say, ‘What am I going to do now?’ Or ‘I have no more reason to come downtown.’ I’ve heard that several times because it’s a unique store,” he says. “It’s one of the things that makes Santa Cruz different from other places. In that sense, it’s horrible. There aren’t many great bookstores left in the world. I consider this to be one of the best.”