Almost 20 years ago, long-time Oakland resident, Luan Stauss, opened Laurel Book Store in the Laurel district of Oakland. Six years ago, it moved to downtown Oakland. But, it will close for good on September 15, 2020, after serving the Oakland community of individuals, families, schools, universities, and colleges for nineteen years. Why did Stauss open the bookstore, what was she able to accomplish, and why is the bookstore closing? Stauss reflects on operating a beloved bookstore in Oakland for the past 19 years.
“I have always loved bookstores,” Stauss said. She had spent several years working for booksellers and publishers and, when she decided she’d like to open a bookstore, she wanted to stay local. She lives in the Laurel District and there wasn’t a bookstore there, so she leased a space on MacArthur Boulevard in the Laurel District.
The opening was four days after 9/11, when the Twin Towers in New York City came down. At first, Stauss wasn’t sure if this was a good time to open a bookstore: “No one really knew would people actually want to be out shopping in the next few weeks. Travel had all stopped. Everything seemed to be at a standstill for a short time,” she said. But eventually, she understood it was a good time to open. “I realized the reason that I love bookstores is they’re gathering places where you can get information, you can chat. It becomes a community and really we needed that on September 15,” she explained. So, she went to a local bookseller and got books on a variety of topics, including grief and dealing with trouble, and put up the store’s first table display.
The store was a success. “(It was) a truly neighborhood bookstore,” Stauss said. She is proud of many aspects of her business, including online sales, hosting book fairs in preschools and elementary schools, stocking books on high school and college reading lists, author events/book launches, workshops of various types, writing groups, Harry Potter parties, reading to children, and teacher tea parties. “I created a place where community could come together. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to watch kids grow up, who were not as tall as the counter, and now they’re going off to college. And to make my living making other people happy and finding them information. It’s like, how cool could that be?” she said, adding, “I’m proud that it lasted as long as it did.”
Over time, the store became very cramped and Stauss recognized that she needed to find a new space. “I realized I really wanted a larger stage to operate on,” she said. In 2014, after 13 years in the Laurel district, Stauss moved the store to downtown Oakland on Broadway, in front of City Hall and by Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. “I probably wouldn’t have gone downtown if I could have found a place a little closer to where I started. But, I went downtown and there was a lot of enthusiasm for retail coming back into downtown at that point,” she said.
Although the store had a good lunchtime business, a lack of sufficient business overall led to Stauss closing the store in 2018, though she continued selling books online for an additional two years, including up to September 15, 2020. According to Stauss, several factors influenced the volume of foot traffic to the store, including the unwillingness of people who work downtown to stay downtown after work or once it’s dark to shop at small businesses, such as the Laurel Book Store.
An additional problem was the absence of easy parking. “Anyone who had an association with the store from being in the neighborhood, where you can find parking within a block, had a much harder time finding parking. So, access to the place. It was easily accessed to any and all public transit, right by BART, right by all the buses, and yet, that’s not the way people wanted to come,” Stauss said.
Unfortunately, despite all the building that occurred in the last few years in downtown Oakland, it doesn’t seem to have been an auspicious place for many small businesses. “I think something like 42 businesses opened up within about a year of when I went (downtown) and, one by one, over the four years that I was there, almost all of them closed down,” she said.
Stauss commented that difficulties she encountered as a small business owner could often be traced to a lack of support from City Hall. “I don’t think there was much of a concerted effort to really support (small businesses). There’s only so much that a city can do and yet I feel like Oakland could be doing more to have small businesses thrive a little better. It would just be really nice to hear from our city that we really value this and here’s how we’re going to help put you on the map and keep you on the map,” said Stauss, adding, “I know that there have been people in the past that have said they’re small business liaison(s). I don’t know exactly what they did. How do I put this delicately? It’s hard to get someone sometimes in City Hall. It’d be lovely to have someone really knowledgeable who knows, understands, small business and all the things that are going on with it, to be a resource. It would be nice if there were a small business office at City Hall. If there is, it’s not well-known,” Stauss said.
When did Stauss realize that downtown may not have been the best place to move to? “I was there for four years. After two years, it felt a bit shaky, but we really retooled and tried a little harder and by the end of year three, I thought, ‘We’ve got to give it one more year.’ And I asked the city and was a granted one more year lease and we put out the word and we had a lot of great response and a lot of folks learned about us for the first time, which was wonderful. So, for about six months, it was OK. And then it just petered out. I had promised to give it one more year. I gave it one more year and since it wasn’t going in the right direction, it was time to stop. We closed in 2018. This year will be 19 years since I opened (in the Laurel District).”
Was going downtown a good move for Laurel Bookstore? “It was a mixed bag for the health and vitality of the business. That store was beautiful and I had great events that were well attended. And that’s what I wanted to be doing. And yet it was too expensive to be downtown and not enough customer base to really keep it going,” said Stauss, adding, “It gave me a great taste of what a larger bookstore was like and to have the kinds of events and the kinds of selection that we were able to do. So, I can’t say I regret doing it. (But) I’m disappointed that it didn’t work out downtown.”
Stauss has moved in a new direction and is now working as an administrative assistant in the Facilities Department at Mills College, where she believes her skills are being well used. Although working with City Hall was not always easy, she loves Oakland. “We love living in Oakland. I’ve lived here 35 years or more,” she said.