Interview with Alex Beckstead — Director of “Paperback Dreams”

 

Alex Beckstead is the filmmaker who produced and directed the documentary, Paperback Dreams. The film is a powerful story of the rise and decline of 2 iconic independent bookstores, Cody’s in Berkeley and Kepler’s in Palo Alto. Alex filmed myself and Clark Kepler for  over 2 years. The film was shown on national PBS in the Fall, 2008. It was broadcast in most major  TV markets, screened at independent bookstores across the country, and was probably viewed by over 1 million people in its initial broadcast run. You can purchase the DVD of the film for $19.95 at: http://www.filmbaby.com/films/3389

Here is the trailer:

  Andy. Alex, when and why did you decide to make this film?

Alex. I’ve been a fan of bookstores for about as long as I can remember, and it’s kind of sad that I’ve been able to mark time by the closing of stores near where I lived at various times – Waking Owl in Salt Lake City in the mid-1990s, Printers Inc. in Mountain View after the dot com bubble, Black Oak Books this past year in the Inner Sunset where I live now – but in spite of all this, I thought there must be a certain class of bookstore that would always survive, that the right combination of location, population and character could keep a bookstore afloat in spite of the conventional wisdom.  Kepler’s and Cody’s both seemed like this kind of store to me.  When Kepler’s closed in 2005, I was one of the people who stood dumbfounded outside the door.  Here was one of the last independent bookstores on the Peninsula, 10 minutes from Stanford, in one of the best-educated, wealthiest zip codes in the country, and located in the closest thing Menlo Park had to a town square.  And it couldn’t survive.  That was a real wake up call to me, and that’s really what planted the seed of the idea for the film.  I got in touch with Clark Kepler, and learned that Kepler’s might be reopening, and a few days later I met you and heard what you were doing with Cody’s San Francisco, and those two stories started the ball rolling.

Andy.  So tell us some more about why you chose Cody’s and Kepler’s for Paperback Dreams?

Alex. It became clear pretty early on that these stores were going to be the main focus.  Kepler’s because I thought it was interesting that this town that had made a lot of money in technology was aghast at the idea of not having an independent bookstore.  In fact, at least one of the investors who helped rescue Kepler’s was also on the board of Amazon.com at one point.  I was interested in Cody’s because of the risk you were taking.  I know that a lot of people have said with folded arms and some sense of arm-chair safety that you should have known that Cody’s San Francisco shouldn’t have worked.  But I never thought it was doomed to fail, and obviously you didn’t either.  It was clear to me that it was either going to be a huge win, or a terrible loss, and I wanted to see what would happen.

Andy. But your movie turned into a lot more than just a documentary about the travails of 2  independent bookstores.

Alex. Once I had those two contemporary stories in mind, I started looking for historical context, and I found that most of what I think of as the rise and fall of the “independent bookstore” is the story of Cody’s and Kepler’s. Both were founded by intellectual strivers who were part of a new post-war middle class that was wealthier and better educated than ever before.  Both seized a business opportunity from the upheaval of paperback publishing (which was having an effect not unlike blogging and electronic media are today).  Both became places that lead to new ways of thinking in the 1960s and 70s.  And both were struggling in this modern digital world of ours.  It also didn’t hurt that the Cody’s and the Kepler’s knew each other and were inspired by each other.

Andy. Did you know at the beginning that the overarching theme of the film would be about the rise and decline of the Independent Book Store?

Alex. I think that was always going to be the arc, but the end wasn’t exactly clear.  And it still isn’t clear to me that “decline” will be the final modifier for the independent bookstore.  There’s a lot of reinvention going on, and I’m pretty confident that bookstores and book culture will be around in 100 years, in some form. 

The more I learn, and the more time I spend around bookstores and book people, the more I realize that what Malcolm Margolin says in the film may be the most prescient take on the beleaguered book business.  He’s more eloquent about it, but basically he says that the last 50 years or so have been a bit of a bubble.  Books have always been important, and for a while, in the heyday of stores like Cody’s and Kepler’s, they seemed like they might even achieve a kind of cultural dominance.  But the book didn’t quite pull it off, and is now sliding back to something more like its historical significance. But books aren’t going away, and neither are bookstores. 

Andy. As you were putting it all together, were you surprised that the film actually addressed itself to wider social issues? The struggle  of small business, the growth of the Internet, the  decline of literary values, books and freedom of speech? Have other people recognized the grand vision that you intentionally or inadvertently captured?

Alex. This was my hope for sure.  It’s the kind of thing that tends to happen in the kinds of nonfiction stories that I like, and I’m glad that you see it in Paperback Dreams.. I really felt from the beginning that this was much bigger than the story of a couple small local businesses, but it might be a bit much to try and say I was the architect of these themes. 

As far as people recognizing these themes, I did a series of screenings at independent bookstores around the country.  At each of these screenings, I did a Q&A with a local bookseller (or in some cases a panel of booksellers) and very quickly the questions shifted from the film to what was going on with the local stores.  More than one bookseller felt the struggle on the screen acutely enough to tear up, and the questions from the audience really suggested that people were starting to see how what in the moment in an incidental and minor shopping decision starts to rend the fabric of community if repeated too often.  I think that’s a pretty common take away from the film.  One of the most common comments I get from people is that the film made them rethink how and where they spend their money, which makes me feel good.  I really think those small choices can make a big difference. 

Andy. For everyone in the book business who saw this movie, it was an incredibly emotional experience. What kind of feelings does the film engender in you?

 Alex. I really can’t understate how important books and reading have been to me personally.  My dad gave me a book for Christmas every year when I was a kid – that was the one present that I knew was directly from him.  And I remember getting in trouble in the third grade for reading books during class. The official curriculum wasn’t engaging me, so I escaped into books.   I thought my mom would punish me mercilessly, but instead she went down to the school and read them the riot act.  It was the first time I ever got into trouble for doing the right thing, which was a pretty sophisticated ethics lesson for a 9 year old.

Anyone who makes books accessible has my respect, but I hold a special place in my heart for booksellers. They take greater risks than libraries, without the potential returns of a publisher or the possible fame and admiration some writers achieve.  I think good booksellers really believe in the value of books, and quite provocatively put that belief to the test by jumping into the bloody fray of capitalism.  In her books about their years running Cody’s, Pat Cody quotes Fred on this subject, and the idea has stuck with me all through the process of making and screening the film:

“In America today we usually measure the success of things by whether or not they are earning their way.  And the point about a bookstore as distinct from a library is that in the bookstore the books are there to be bought.  They are out there in the thick of it competing with all the other goods on sale in an enormously productive and competitive economy. ‘There,’ says the student as he buys the book, ‘goes my lunch money.’

“All of this perhaps sounds rather exaggerated.  Yet I think that most owners of small bookstores have something of this far back in their minds as they take care of the daily mass of detail.  Most of them have a belief in books, some faint idea that books are still a vital force in people’s lives, and that bludgeoning people into buying them amounts to something more than a crass commercial transaction.”

Andy. I have to tell you, Alex, that to this day I cannot watch this film. It seems as though it documented every mistake that I made in the last 5 years. My wife, Leslie, tells me that most people don’t see it that way. Do you agree with Leslie or with me?

Alex. The short answer is that you’re not likely to go wrong listening to Leslie.  She’s very smart.

But the long answer is that you’re both right.  One of your traits that I came to admire making the film was your honesty and willingness to let us in at what were some pretty fragile moments.  In the last interview we shot with you, I was floored when you said that the San Francisco store was an act of hubris.  That’s some pretty naked truth, and I give you a lot of credit for owning up to it.  I think that takes character. 

I also think that hubris and courage aren’t that different, the final distinction between the two often can’t be made until the outcome of one’s actions is revealed It seems to me that you had a choice between watching the company atrophy (and I can’t help but think that had you not expanded, the current economic decline may have done Cody’s in anyway) or making an aggressive attempt to get growing again.  Had your gamble paid off, opening the San Francisco store would have looked like an act of brave genius.  But the truth is that would have been the same decision for the same reasons that you made it.

For what it’s worth, I think Leslie is right about the way most people see you in the film.  Based on what they say to me, people are sympathetic more than judgmental. And when they are judgmental, I don’t think that they’re particularly fair.  Everyone has a theory – Telegraph became seedy, the street level part of the San Francisco was deceptively small, Union Square was not a bookstore friendly neighborhood, new books are too expensive, etc.  And there’s an element of truth to all those theories.  But I don’t think you can pin the end of Cody’s on any of them.  Large independent bookstores simply are not a viable model right now, and that’s not because of any mistake you made in the last 5 years.  I think most people get that.

The failings of Andy Ross are part of the story of Cody’s, but so are your victories and your positive traits.  As I told you when Cody’s closed for good, I think that we tend to look at the end of a story and extract the meaning from the resolution, but a wiser storyteller than I once said that the end of a thing is not the meaning of a thing, and the aggregate joy and good that came from Cody’s ultimately outweighs the sadness of its demise.  In fact, the sadness is only so strong because it’s cast into relief by what we all loved about Cody’s, and you and Pat and Fred and Leslie made Cody’s what it was.  People who knew they store get that, and people who only know the store from the film seem to get that, too.

Andy. Alex, it has been really hard for me to think about Cody’s during the past year. Even harder to watch your movie. But I’m beginning to be able to think about it again. Somebody interviewed me the other day. And asked what it all meant to me. And I remembered the last unforgettable line by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. He said “the struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart”. I think that is sort of what you are saying and what I am feeling.

Have you spoken to anyone from the big chains or the Internet booksellers about this film? How do they react?

Alex. I requested interviews with representatives from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.  They all declined or didn’t respond.  None of them have responded to the finished film.  Not to be snarky, but I don’t really think they’re in the business of responding to human beings who are concerned about the cultural implications of their operations.  It just dignifies our concerns and that’s not good for them.

Andy. What about people in publishing? Do they have the same feelings as the booksellers? Or do they just believe that the decline of the small businesses are just a fact of history; and your movie, an exercise in nostalgia?

Alex. I think publishers know that they need good independent bookstores.  There’s still no better way to cut through the clutter and make the market for a book than word of mouth, and the most passionate readers who are likely to try something new and then champion it are working or shopping at independents.  But publishers need the chains, too.  And to be fair, as Morgan Entrekin says in the film, the chains don’t make perfect villains.  They sell a lot of good books, and in some communities, the arrival of a Barnes and Noble or Borders was a leap forward for book culture. 

We also interviewed a few other publishers and writers (Jonathan Galassi, Peter Mayer, George Saunders) who were cut from the film for time reasons, not because they lacked insight, and on the DVD there’s a 15-minute piece featuring some of those outtakes that is probably the best answer to this question.

Andy.  Alex, it was an amazing experience working with you over the years. I really admire the tenacity you showed throughout. But I also want to thank you for your incredible sensitivity. You were around during some pretty tough times. And I never felt that you ever exploited the situations. I guess they were dramatic enough without your help. And the movie turned into something much larger than the sum of the parts.

You can buy the DVD of Paperback Dreams for $19.95 at: http://www.filmbaby.com/films/3389

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: