Final chapter for Petaluma bookstore - take it over for free

Michael Bearden hopes to pass on his business to someone else who may be interested in maintaining the collection of approximately 12,000 books.|

Jan. 1 marks the beginning of a new chapter in the storied life of self-proclaimed book addict Michael? Bearden.

In 2017, he’ll be shuttering Petaluma Paperbacks, the used bookstore he’s poured his heart into since he purchased it more than a decade ago. Instead of putting the collection of more than 12,000 books on the shelves up for sale, he said he’d prefer to pass on his literary legacy, free of charge, to a successor of his choosing.

“Instead of selling the store, I’m going to give it to someone who will go out and get a lease - they need good credit to sign a commercial lease, and I will tell them that I can’t move it again myself, but I sure know how it works,” he said, adding that he will also hand off the website, registers and other aspects of the business. “I’ll be there to be a consultant as long as they need help. I need books in my life.”

The 69-year-old bought the used bookstore from its founder, Howard Brown, in 2003 for $60,000, he said. Since the 800 Petaluma Blvd. South building where the bookstore is now housed was sold last year, and as Bearden is grappling with health issues, he decided it was time to turn the page.

While he’s not sure what the business is worth now, he said what’s most valuable to him is keeping the store in the city it has served since 1978.

“My interest is in seeing the bookstore stay here in Petaluma,” he said, adding that the shop has become a fixture in the community, drawing loyal customers from as far as San Francisco, Point Reyes, and Napa. “This way I can have some say over who I give it to.”

He’s seeking a financially stable person or group to helm the store, plan budgets, find a space in Petaluma and make a legitimate game plan that will ensure the longevity of the future of the only dedicated used bookstore left in Petaluma.

When Bearden took over the bookstore, he retained the business model from its previous owners – offering most books at half-off of the publisher’s price. Readers trade in their books, and can apply trade in credits to a purchase for up to 70 percent of the total sale price, a deal that appeals to avid readers and one that he hopes the new owners will continue, he said.

Bearden, who had been a regular customer of the store before he took over ownership, grew up with a mother who was deeply involved in theater. Tapping into his love for entertainment, he’d worked handling lighting at various venues around Sonoma County, illuminating the set for legends like Jerry Garcia, Tom Waits and David Grisman.

He moved to Petaluma from Freestone in 1980 to take a post at Sonoma State University as a stage tech, and he worked his way up to the role of production manager before drawing the curtain on his career to run his beloved bookstore, a change of pace that he said he welcomed.

Since his childhood in the 1950s in Texas, he’s loved literature, learning to read before he went to school. His family didn’t have a TV, so books were his golden ticket to another world.

“The house was full of books and we’d go to the library at least once a week, and for me, I think that was how I escaped Lubbock, Texas, one of the flattest, most featureless places on the planet,” he said.

Now, his store is filled with meticulously organized shelves of paperbacks and audio books, with hundreds of titles in categories ranging from nonfiction to Christian literature to suspense to science fiction to romance. The familiar, somewhat musty smell of old paperbacks hung in the air as rays of winter afternoon sunlight beamed lazily through the windows while a steady stream of customers last week perused titles or traded in bags of books.

To Bearden, the business is more than a bookstore: it’s a place for solace and for conversation, a “sanctuary” to bring out the goodwill in people as they talk about their favorite stories and leave their troubles at the door.

“For example, the recent election was a very, very divisive time in this country and still is and I had signs up asking people to let this be a place of peace, a politically-free zone,” he said, “No matter how strong your feelings are, the person next to you might have exactly the opposite views that are just as strong... People connect here. People come in and start talking to people they’ve never met before.”

For Petaluma resident Larry Borsian, a self-described “compulsive reader” the store has long provided a place with a knowledgeable bookseller who offers insight about the next book to choose from the varied selection. Borsian left Wednesday with a hefty bag of mystery novels, or a “week’s worth of reading.”

“I’d miss it terribly … it’s been a great resource for the town,” he said.

Sheri Spurgon, another longtime Petaluma patron, was disappointed to hear that the store was closing. She said reading became a big part of her life as she was going through treatment for cancer, and she’s enjoyed coming to the store to pick up fresh titles.

“I completely understand, but it’s a shame and I’ll miss Michael,” she said.

From his post behind the register, Bearden chatted with the customers and asked them to sign up for updates about the fate of the store as he bagged their books. Those kinds of interactions are what he’ll miss the most after he closes down his business, he said.

“I have the best customers in the world,” he said. “I’m not in the book business, I’m in the people business. It’s so wonderful.”

The 9,200-square-foot building was purchased by Frank Dostal, according to county recorder’s records and real estate documents. Dostal, who is listed as the owner and president for Dostal Studios Inc., a picture framing business in San Rafael, could not be reached for comment about plans for the building, which also houses Luma Fitness.

Bearden, who said he is the store’s only employee aside from volunteers, is in talks with two potential successors, though he declined to name them as conversations are ongoing. If he can’t find anyone to take over, he’ll sell the collection, he said.

“What I’d like to see is someone grow into this and come in and say ‘I don’t know how this is going to work,’ but learning as they go and being excited and staying engaged,” he said. “They should be able to stay immune to the ups and downs in the number of customers and books that go out and come in and be able to appreciate it. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I’d like that.”

For more information, visit petalumapaperbacks,com.

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