Andy Weinberger’s mission
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Andy Weinberger remembers browsing through a selection of used books at a Jewish rummage sale when he was a kid. A William Saroyan title caught his eye, something called “The Human Comedy.”
Just 12 at the time, Weinberger shelled out 10 cents for the novel, which turned out to be a first edition.
If the book had monetary value, it’s of little concern. Of greater importance, Weinberger loved the story. More than 50 years later, “The Human Comedy” remains his favorite book.
“It’s about a family during the second World War. It’s a story about the decency of people, how decent people live through hard times,” says Weinberger, 65. The story touched him, just as a good book should.
Today it’s Weinberger’s mission to connect readers of all ages with books they’ll love and maybe even treasure for decades to come. He is the owner of Readers’ Books, Sonoma’s only remaining general bookstore. The town’s only other bookseller is Chanticleer Books, which specializes in rare and collectible books.
At Readers’ Books, titles range from the children’s bestseller, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel,” to the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” with everything in between. If it’s not on the shelves, Weinberger and his staff will place a special order to get it.
It’s been a tough road for the 21-year-old independent bookstore, located just steps from Sonoma Plaza and across the street from Chanticleer Books.
The down economy is just one concern. Competition comes from mega bookstores like Barnes & Noble and from the popularity of digital readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad, which allow readers to download books without ever walking into a bookstore. Amazon.com, the online bookseller, presents an even bigger headache.
“It’s always a roller coaster,” says Weinberger. “I love what I do, but some days I say, ‘What’s the point of it?’ ”
Weinberger was shaken when another treasured Sonoma bookstore closed just over a year ago, Sonoma Bookends, which had been in business for 32 years. While Readers’ Books pulled in some new customers after the closure, it was bittersweet.
Weinberger says business has been down the past four years but is hopeful the holiday season will help. One in three books is purchased as a gift, he notes. “That’s why Christmas is such an important time.”
Weinberger advises customers to purchase gift books that have personal meaning.
“Buy a book that you have read and really cared about. When you are giving a book, you’re really giving part of your heart,” he says.
He and his staff, many of them longtime employees, enjoy making recommendations and helping customers find the perfect gift. He’s amused by last-minute shoppers who show up just before Christmas, that “sense of desperation” taking over their sensibilities. Even then, Readers’ Books rises to the challenge.
The bookstore prides itself in being a community destination, one that’s far more than a retail outlet. The Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce named Readers’ Books its “Business of the Year” in 2007.
Weinberger and his wife, Lilla, set out to create a bookstore reminiscent of the ones in New England where they lived, warm and welcoming and sharing a wealth of knowledge and differing points of view.
When they visited relatives in Sonoma in 1990, Lilla Weinberger convinced her husband it was time to sell their home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, leave their jobs in social services and pack up their adolescent sons, Gideon and Tobias.
“All of a sudden things were happening,” Andy Weinberger recalls. “It seems a little serendipitous.”
Today the bookstore has eight employees; Thea Reynolds, the store manager, has been with Readers’ Books for 13 years.
Lilla Weinberger spent some time away from the business in recent years. She worked for two years as a regional field director in Northern California for Organizing for America, and in March became a state field director at Obama for America in Maryland. She’s now back home and part of the Weinbergers’ beloved bookstore.
Although “the whole book business has changed dramatically,” the Weinbergers continue to schedule authors and literary professionals for readings, book signings and conversations, just as he’s done the past two decades.
The bookstore typically hosted up to three special events a week, but that has decreased lately as publishers cut back on author tours. Still, for an independent bookstore in a small town, Readers’ Books has drawn some big names: Bill Moyers, Anthony Bourdain and Deepak Chopra among them.
“We had Elizabeth Gilbert before her book was famous,” Weinberger says of the immensely popular “Eat, Pray, Love” author, a favorite guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Weinberger’s mother was in the small audience when “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” author John Berendt visited Readers’ Books. She listened politely as Berendt discussed the male prostitute, transexual woman, drag queen and other eccentric characters in his debut Southern murder tale set in Savannah, where she had grown up.
At the end of the talk, she had one comment: “That’s not the Savannah I remember.”
Weinberger laughs at the memory, but says it’s simply part of the engaging process when the public meets together to discuss literature. That’s the bookstore he and his wife envisioned.
“We didn’t want a bookstore where we’d sit on our hands and wait for customers. We were interested in reaching out to different audiences,” he says. “The idea was for this to be a gathering place.”
Weinberger doesn’t rely on publishers for his offerings – he looks out his front window.
Readers’ Books hosts a variety of community events, some with little emphasis on books. In addition to poetry readings and book discussions, the 2,500-square-foot bookstore has been the setting for musical performances, plays, Italian classes and even a few memorial services.
“It’s a community space,” Weinberger says. “That’s what we envisioned and hopefully people buy enough books to support it.”
Readers’ Books also supports the community by donating to fundraisers, hosting in-store school benefits and maintaining a directory of local book clubs – efforts to knit together community resources.
Four years ago the bookstore established a “Book Stars” program, now a successful book drive for local charities. Each Christmas season customers are invited to buy books to donate (this year for La Luz Center and the Teen Parent Program at Sonoma Valley High School). Customers earn a star for each book they donate.
On New Year’s Day, Weinberger hosts a party that features discounts, half-price calendars and a drawing for $50 gift certificates picked from the stars.
“It’s a nice, warm feeling,” Weinberger says. “It’s a win-win-win helping the community.”
Readers also benefit from the bookstore’s used-book program. On hold during the holidays, the program resumes in January when readers can bring in used books to receive store credit. Books are then sold in the bookstore, with some titles donated to nonprofit groups.
In addition to new and used books, Readers’ Books also sells “remainders” at bargain prices (overruns that publishing houses need to clear), as well as select gift items.
Also on display is the new KOBO, a digital reader endorsed by the American Booksellers Association that will give independent booksellers a small piece of the e-reader market.
Weinberger is just hopeful that customers young and old will continue to visit bookstores rather than shopping online or downloading titles.
He says his Jewish upbringing instilled a sense of community that’s true to his core.
“For Jews, life is about people. If you don’t interact with people, what’s life about?”
Readers’ Books, at 130 E. Napa St., is open during the holidays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
For a list of books for holiday giving suggested by Readers’ Books buyer Jude Sales, click here.
For more information, call 939-1779, visit readersbooks.com or check out Readers’ Books on Facebook.