'Leap of Faith' Enables Employee to Purchase Northtown Books

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By Amy Stewart

When Art Burton and Barbara Turner decided it was time to sell Northtown Books, they knew how hard it could be to find a buyer for a small, independent bookstore. After all, they had only been able to purchase the bookstore from its previous owner, Jack Hitt, because he was willing to carry the note. The best way to keep the store alive, they realized, was for them to do the same. On June 1 -- right around the store's 40th anniversary -- longtime employee Dante DiGenova became Northtown's newest owner.

"We were incredibly lucky to have Dante in the wings," Barbara said by phone from Santa Fe, where she and Art have moved to be closer to family. "He's entirely suited to be the owner. He cares deeply about books."

Carrying the note for the new owner is "a leap of faith," Barbara said. "We have to trust that the bookstore's going to be around for a long time. But we think of it as the Northtown good luck charm. Besides, even if somebody had walked in with a lot of money, they might not have been the right buyer for this store."

Barbara and Art both said that the years they spent owning the store were the most incredible years of their lives. "What this community reads is just amazing," Barbara said. "They're fun to buy for. I always knew somebody would pop for that quirky book I found in a catalog, and usually they did."

Dante has been with the store 15 years, since just before Jack Hitt sold it to Art and Barbara. Before that, he worked at Paperback Traffic in San Francisco, the bookstore owned by the parents of comedian Margaret Cho. Cho's father, Seung-Hoon Cho, told Dante, "I just want you to turn this into a good bookstore." Dante developed relationships with book distributors, and they in turn recommended him to Jack Hitt when he moved to Arcata. "Jack opened a little shop next door to Northtown just for sale books," he said. "He was really just doing it to give me a job. But I've been here ever since."

Although Dante is often behind the counter at Northtown, he's been involved over the years with almost every aspect of the store's operations, from buying and receiving, to special orders and inventory, and the newsletter. In spite of his experience, he wasn't totally prepared for his first month as a bookstore owner. He tackled a tricky interior painting job that he'd been wanting to do for a while, tried to find an employee to make up for the counter work he wouldn't have time for, and was challenged by the necessary changes to the store's banking and vendor accounts. "It's all worked out now," he said, "but during that first month, I had my moments of doubt about what I'd gotten into."

The support of longtime customers has kept him going. "I'm surprised at the number of people who have come in and said, 'We're so glad it's you taking over the store,' and then bought a book on the spot, just to show their support. I'm a pretty quiet person, and I've just been overwhelmed at the number of people who seem really glad that I'm the new owner." (He mentioned that he overheard one customer saying that she had heard that the store was going to close. "Please squash that rumor," he told me. "We are absolutely not closing." Consider it squashed.)

Dante has seen a lot of changes in the book industry since his early days at Paperback Traffic. "Special orders have completely changed," he said. "In the old days, we had a huge inventory -- practically a mirror of the whole bookstore was downstairs in our storeroom. We never did special orders. There were so many bookstores in San Francisco that if we didn't have a book, we'd just send them to another store. Now we have just one or two copies of most titles, but the flip side is that we can order a book on Monday morning, and it's usually here Tuesday afternoon." Special orders for customers represent a healthy portion of Northtown's business, and the ability to keep a close eye on inventory and then restock popular titles quickly allows the store to have a diverse selection even in a space of less than 2,500 square feet.

Dante doesn't expect much to change now that he's the owner. "Art and Barbara knew what books the community was interested in, and I think I have a good feel for that too," he said. "We'll keep our lefty/political slant. That's just right for this town. We'll keep doing the special orders, and we'll try to do more author events when we can." He wants to continue doing events for local authors, but he'd also like to add more well-known authors as they tour the West Coast.

He added, "One thing that might change is ... the quirky titles that Art and Barbara might have ordered just because they liked them. Those were the books that just sat on the shelves for four years, but we liked having them around. Now there will be a different little set of quirky books that nobody buys, but they'll be the ones I'm interested in."

Amy Stewart is the author of the forthcoming Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers (Algonquin Books, February 2007). Visit www.amystewart.com to find out more.

This column originally appeared in the August 3, 2006, issue of Humboldt County, California's North Coast Journal.