Reflections on the closure of Capitola Book Café
Walking into the Capitola Book Café one recent afternoon, the clamor of patrons is close to overwhelming. Children pick through art prints as their parents study the selection of hardcover books that are neatly placed on displays at the front of the store. A group of women peruse a shelf of antiques, and a young couple smiles at each other over cups of espresso.
In the rear of the building, empty shelves sit like skeletons, lacking the body of books that once filled them. Save for ubiquitous signs marking clearance items, those sparse shelves provide the only hint that Capitola Book Café (CBC) will close its doors for the last time at the end of February.
“I love the people who run this shop,” says longtime customer Joan Davisson. “There will never be a warmer atmosphere and a kinder group of folks. I really am bereft about our town’s loss.”
Once co-owners Melinda Powers and Wendy Mayer-Lochtefeld are able to pry themselves away from the perpetual line of customers, they head past a gallery of black and white photographs of authors who have visited the store to an enclosed room. They sit around a large, worn table where countless others have discussed books over the store’s 34-year lifespan.
The pair breathes a heavy, almost synchronized sigh. They seem to forget about the chaos outside and begin to muse about the importance of spaces like CBC and the tragedy of its end.
“The closing of this store will be, in some ways, a huge loss to the area because of the way it has allowed strangers to find company—at author events, just browsing the shelves, or having a cup of coffee,” says Powers.
Mayer-Lochtefeld points to the role of bookstores as a place for people from all walks of life to shed their inhibitions and relate over the written word.
“We self-segregate a lot. All of us do. The ingenious thing about bookstores is that you get people who would never share space, sharing space together as they’re browsing for books,” says Mayer-Lochtefeld.
In 2007, Powers and Mayer-Lochtefeld, along with fellow CBC employees Janet Leimeister and Richard Lange, took ownership of the store from the original proprietors, a group of women whom Powers and Mayer-Lochtefeld refer to as “the ladies.” Although the four became business owners amidst an existent decline in book sales nationwide, their love for the CBC drove their decision to take the helm.
“I think that all of us would say that we love bookstores in general, but this particular bookstore has a lot of heart, and it has all of ours,” says Powers.
Even after the financial crisis hit, their hopes for the future remained high. But with other factors involved, such as the emergent success of online booksellers like Amazon and the rise of the e-book, the road ahead became rougher than the group had anticipated.
“I think what hurt us and what angers us about Amazon as independent booksellers is this brutal business practice of buying products and selling them at a loss to concentrate relentlessly on growth,” says Mayer-Lochtefeld. “You simply cannot compete if someone is buying something for $10 and selling it for $5. For us, we just did not see that aspect of it as clearly as we came to.”
The owners of CBC tried to fight the circumstances that plagued their store but felt ill-equipped to win the battle.
“The unique situation about this store unfortunately was that we were so new and our financial situation was so new that we didn’t have deep enough pockets to invest in things that would help us to gain ground,” says Powers.
Mayer-Lochtefeld points to specific factors facing CBC that led to their loss of profits over the years.
“We are large at 5,500 square feet, and we are a destination—you’re not going to wander past here like you would Logos or Bookshop Santa Cruz—and we’re also generalists; we sell a wide variety of books,” says Mayer-Lochtefeld. “The bookstores that are opening now are in killer walk-up locations, are often niche-y, and they are small. I don’t think you need all of those qualities, but we don’t have any of those qualities.”
CBC wasn’t the only bookstore to suffer from the effects of the recession and the ascent of online book selling. In 2011, the corporate giant Borders—once a major threat to independent bookstores—went out of business, closing its Downtown Santa Cruz location and eventually liquidating all of its stores. Local shops such as Bookworks, which had scaled down its size in order to combat a loss in sales, went out of business in 2011.
But CBC did not go down without a fight. In a final effort to make their store sustainable, the owners of CBC launched a fundraising campaign dubbed “Survive & Thrive” in May 2012.
“We were able to raise enough funds from amazing customers to help solve some problems and to buy us some time as we looked for larger, more game-changing solutions, but we didn’t raise enough funds to facilitate the game-changing solutions,” says Mayer-Lochtefeld. “The biggest one was becoming a smaller space.”
After the 2013 Christmas season, the owners realized that they would not be able to stay in business for another year. In January, Powers and Mayer-Lochtefeld saw that it was best to move on, despite their strong feelings for CBC and its legacy.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” says Mayer-Lochtefeld. “We had to face up to the fact that our wonderful, beautiful model for a bookstore is not long-term sustainable and the cavalry is not able to show up for whatever reason.” (Speaking of the cavalry, the closure of CBC comes on the heels of the announcement that best-selling author James Patterson is putting $1 million of his own money toward bailing out troubled independent bookstores. Last week, Bookshop Santa Cruz was announced as one of his chosen recipients.)
For Powers and Mayer-Lochtefeld, the reality of their situation hit after they had drafted a goodbye email to their customers.
“If you want a snapshot moment, it is when we pressed send,” says Mayer-Lochtefeld.
After the announcement, loyal customers were invited to the store on Tuesday, Feb. 4 to share wine and memories.
“Some years ago, I walked into the café and tango music was playing,” recalls Davisson. “Argentine wine was being served, and couples were dancing. They were the backdrop for a book called ‘Hold Me Close and Tango Me Home.’ The author was there and proceeded to speak. Her first question to the audience was ‘How many of you have ever had a broken heart?’ Well, every hand went up. I was hooked. I have been dancing the tango merrily ever since.”
The owners held a “last bash” on Monday, Feb. 24. The event featured an auction, live music, and drinks to celebrate the community space one last time.
Despite the fact that CBC will be closing, both Powers and Mayer-Lochtefeld are confident that another, smaller independent bookstore could prosper in Capitola, but in someone else’s hands.
“If some intrepid soul with a love for books were able to open something the right size in a walk-up location, I think it would do fine,” says Mayer-Lochtefeld.
Regarding their plans for the future, the pair see themselves involved in the book world in some way, even if just as ardent readers. For now, they are simply cherishing their final moments with the store and their beloved patrons.
“This is my chance to savor this place—here, right now,” says Powers.
Photos: Keana Parker