Welcome to B Street Books

Jun 6, 2019 | Culture, Features


rom his perch on a black swivel chair, Lew Cohen greets everyone who walks into downtown San Mateo’s B Street Books.
“Hi, hello,” he says. “Are you looking for anything in particular? Well, if you need help, just yell at me.”
It was May and a brightly-colored bunting banner advertised the store’s 10th anniversary while another promoted a store-wide sale.

For the past decade, Cohen has been the owner and manager of local and antiquarian bookstore B Street Books, buying and selling to and from the community, from squealing children and their eye-bagged parents to a teen just out of school to the quiet seniors.

The store is a source for collectors with its circa 1910, 30-volume works of Charles Dickens and complete set of Arthur Conan Doyle; a quiet haven for readers with its huge windows and numerous armchairs; and, as it were, one of the last local bookstores in downtown San Mateo.

For 35 years pre–B Street, Cohen was a private investigator dealing with civil litigation, before realizing that he wanted to do something different. “The job was always around the negative aspect of life,” Cohen explained. “It was the just seedy side, and I was tired of chasing after bad guys.”

He and an old college roommate from Sacramento State, seeing an opening after the last local bookstore in the area closed in 1994, decided to open an antiquarian bookstore and named it B Street Books. After a few months of renting space in a cavernous Thrifty, they moved to the current location, a red-awninged, tiled building dating back to 1912 which, Cohen revealed, features an old Bank of America vault that is “still under your feet.”

B Street has since occupied the corner store and its vault and has filled it floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-window with books. It attracts both new customers and B Street old-timers who return, sometimes several times a week, to peruse the worn wood shelves and curl into red leather armchairs.

Those armchairs are a favorite of Katie Lunardi, a high schooler from San Mateo High School who has visited B Street nearly every month since she was young. She says she likes B Street for their relatively cheap prices as well as their wide selection.

“If you go to like a regular bookstore, it’s kind of hard to just stumble upon cool things,” Lunardi said.

Lyz Bush-Peel (11) has also been a frequent patron of the store since she was 6. She said she was a “really bookish little kid” and would spend hours reading in B Street.

“There was this fuzzy armchair right by the window with all the sun, so it was always really warm and was a perfect size for a kid to sit and read,” she said. “That’s how I got through part of the Harry Potter series, which I hated when I started it—I read one entire Harry Potter book in an afternoon there.”

As she grew up, she found herself having less time to read—but whenever she wanted to buy books, she would go to independent bookstores like Books Inc., Kepler’s, and especially B Street, since it sold at lower prices. Additionally, as she began to transition into “hard literature,” B Street became one of her go-tos.

“I would go mostly to B Street Books because they had a bunch of obscure ones,” Bush-Peel said. “I found this book of poems by one of my favorite poets, who was very rarely sold in stores. I feel like there are unusual works there that I couldn’t find anywhere else.”

For both teens, B Street has had an impact on their lives.

To Bush-Peel, since books and stories have always been “really important” to her, B Street was a place for her to go when she couldn’t go the library or needed to buy a book, “or just really anytime I needed to be near literature.”

Lunardi also finds that B Street has been a welcome constant in her life.

“It has a comforting sort of feeling because it hasn’t changed,” Lunardi said.

Despite its steadfast position in the downtown San Mateo landscape for the past decade, B Street and other regional businesses still face a common challenge: the disappearance of local stores.

This problem is a pervasive and well-documented issue, and one that has been at the center of many a debate surrounding oft-discussed homelessness and gentrification. Due to the continued influx of chain stores in B Street’s area and surrounding cities, individually owned establishments with nearly exclusively local patrons find themselves competing with nationally run corporations with familiar brands and a seemingly bottomless following; and combined with rising property prices, many of the local stores find themselves struggling or unable to survive financially. Most of the stores that can afford to stay are those owned by national corporations, whose pockets are deep and network of stores robust. (Although, as the high turnover of all stores suggests, space has become costly even for the corporations.) Many of B Street’s local bookstore predecessors had also been forced out, like Central Park Books that lived just a few blocks down and San Francisco’s Stacey’s, which B Street had bought antique bookcases from, and which “suffered the same fate as all the litany of bookstores [that] have gone out of business,” as Cohen put it.

However, a few local businesses who have managed to keep afloat; B Street is evidently one, a feat Cohen says is a result of his constant, six-days-a-week presence, “making good choices, and being really careful about what we spend money on.”

“The way this store survives is…providing good customer service, so people come back, and being careful with payroll and keeping a lid on [all expenses],” Cohen said.

The appeal of chain stores like Barnes & Noble, he says, lies in their wide assortment of books and staying atop the fast trends in the books business. To be able to keep up with those is a costly luxury; one that B Street can’t always afford but Cohen doesn’t harbor resentment toward.

“It’s impossible to be up on everything. You want to have [some] stuff that’s current, [but] it can get stale pretty fast in today’s world,” he noted.

Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for the value of chain bookstores versus local ones is that they provide a wider breadth of books and more current appeals with high turnovers; they’re also connected to corporate warehouses which provide them with books in bulk, allowing the stores to offer them at lower prices. Further than that, they wield a kind of soft power, inasmuch as customers tend to trust them to provide consistency in safety, quality, selection, and comfort, since the customers know what to expect. 

All this, of course, is at the expense of what local stores tend to contribute: character, depth in selection, community connection, and, in a rather meta way, the feel-good of helping out a local business. It’s these characteristics that are often relied upon when local bookstores market themselves and activists make their arguments for keeping native businesses.

B Street is no exception. The store itself is eclectic in its wide range of books, like the leather-bound, leather-cased Sabbatica by John Barth shelved next to the shiny paperback The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard, or the ledge of stuffed Muppet toys, or the thumbtacked, cardstock photo of “Blessed Mother Theresa,” as the overlaid text reads. In addition to (and, maybe, because of) the decorative odds and ends that the store sports, the shop is a well-visited site for a number of locals looking either buy, sell, or simply browse.

“Having a place where books can be available for cheap and the people there are really nice and always willing to help you find what you need [is really important to me,]” said Bush-Peel, who also notes that supporting the locality of B Street is also a large factor in choosing B Street. “Independent bookstores also carry all these other books. Often independent bookstores have often those [that are available at other bookstores], but also ones that aren’t.”

Over the years, Cohen says, he’s gotten a lot of positive feedback on B Street.

“People say it’s really well organized, nicely arranged, with a really nice selection compared to other stores. They’ve been in to compare it and rate it very highly,” he said with a quiet pride. “I think the community really values the store and is appreciative that it’s here.”

To Cohen, the impact of B Street always goes back to the community it creates. 

“It’s really fun to see kids grow up, see their reading levels go up,” he said. “I’ve gotten to see little kids come in with their parents, and then go off to college.”

And while the store has five years left on its lease and although the business may not be as lucrative as others, it has more than satisfied Cohen’s need, over a decade ago, to do something different.

“I’m not getting rich—certainly rich in spirit—but I did put two kids through college. I have no debt,” Cohen said. “It’s hard work, but it’s it’s good work.”