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I love independent bookstores even more for supporting new writers!

Meet the Godmother of San Francisco’s Independent Booksellers

by Maryann Jones Thompson Published Apr. 23, 2023

When Barnes & Noble opened a megastore in 2006 just blocks from Marin County’s most popular independent bookstore, even its fans were a bit nervous.

Seventeen years later, only one bookstore remains.

Book Passage continues to thrive from its anchor position in a basic Corte Madera shopping center that has lost many other retail tenants in the past few years. A quiet weekday morning finds shoppers looking through the stacks of books, a tea drinker writing longhand in the cafe, staffers arranging chairs for the evening’s author event and the conversation of Spanish learners in a back classroom.

And though Barnes & Noble attributed its March closure to real estate issues rather than flagging sales, Book Passage’s success can be pinned to the work of its founder, Elaine Petrocelli, and her tight connections to both the authors and readers that her store serves.

The personal curation of offerings is what has fueled independent bookstores’ growth—rather than their long-foretold demise—over the past decade. A look around San Francisco and the Bay Area finds dozens of unique and successful booksellers—some large, some small, but all dedicated to meeting the needs of their clientele.

Soon after opening her store in 1976, Petrocelli’s “book” business immediately expanded beyond printed words into nurturing the creative community in her vicinity. For nearly 50 years, she has spotted standout fledgling authors and artists and fed their exceptional works to a passionate army of customers attracted to the store by personally picked titles, conversations with authors and a wide variety of classes.

When a hot new book comes out, Book Passage is the must-stop Bay Area book shop for authors on tour, whether held at the main location in Corte Madera, the San Francisco Ferry Building outpost that opened in 2003, online or—for the biggest names—at a larger venue like Dominican University or the Marin Center. Book Passage runs an active calendar of almost-daily speakers that has included not just prominent authors such as David Sedaris but also politicians including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In the next month alone, Book Passage has talks lined up by bestselling Oakland author Leila Mottley, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku and actor Laura Dern, who has recently published a memoir with her mother, actor Diane Ladd.

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