Going Digital: Historic San Francisco Esoteric Bookstore Shutters Physical Location, Moves Operations Entirely Online

Rynn —  December 15, 2012 — 1 Comment

Rynn Fox, Staff Writer, Wild Hunt

After 80 years of serving San Francisco’s occult and spiritual communities, Fields Book Store is moving to entirely online operations starting January 2013 and is shutting its physical location on Polk Street. The store has played a key part in local history as a nexus for esoteric and magical discussion and has hosted authors and teachers ranging from philosopher Jacob Needleman to Thalassa, founder of the Daughters of Divination and producer of Bay Area Tarot Symposium. The Wild Hunt chatted with owner David Wiegleb about the store transitioning to an entirely online business and what that means for the community.

Fields Book Store has served the esoteric and Pagan community here in San Francisco for 80 years. What has led you to move operations to be entirely online and shut the physical location starting in January 2013?

To give you a bit of history, I’d taken over the store 12 years ago in February of 2001. [I was] putting together the transition at that point from the previous owner who was going to sell the store, or if he couldn’t sell it, close it. That was around March of 2000.

Even back then, before the economic collapse, before e-books were out there, there was this question of is this [business] going to continue to be viable? At the time I’d decided to take it on knowing that the risk was that it wouldn’t be self-sustaining operation. During the course of the 12 years, some years were better than others. There were years that were worse and put us a fair chunk in debt. So for years I’ve been watching that process and just watching the horizon in front and realizing that the economy may improve, but the landscape regarding things like Amazon aren’t going to get any better, e-books are going to continue propagating. Overall we’ve been doing reasonably well in terms of dealing with these things; certainly better than a number of stores. We’ve had a fairly steady customer stream but overall costs still outrun revenues. It’s just been one of these things that I could probably keep things going but overall the basic situation was looking like it wasn’t going to get any better and perhaps get worse. I’m looking to steer things to a soft landing where I can continue the operation of Fields Books with a new manner with online operations.

What repercussion, if any, do you think closing the store’s physical space will have on the local esoteric and Pagan communities?

As inevitable in some ways as the decision was to close the physical store, it was a very difficult decision because of the long history of the store and its place in San Francisco and the San Francisco spiritual community. Also on a day-to-day level, interacting with our customers who bring a lot of different perspectives on things; I learn a whole lot from our customers and not having that face-to-face direct interaction is something that I’ll certainly miss.

Fields Book Store Staff

(From left to right.) Fields Book Store owner David Wiegleb with employees Heidi Geyer and Esther Fishman.

Fields Book Store was always where locals could go to see esoteric and magickal authors speak. How do you think the loss of physical will affect authors since more physical booksellers are closing around the country?

It’s certainly a cultural loss and a loss for the authors in the space. But hosting these talks had become a little more problematic in recent years as the nature of the street changed. Polk has become more of party central, so having a relatively quiet talk in a modest, intimate space on top of the ambient noises from outside became too disruptive. So we have had to look at a smaller window of when we could offer talks.

One of the things we hope to do in our new incarnation as a web-only business is to continue to partner with other organizations and continue to have author talks. I think not trying to keep the physical structure of the store afloat will actually provide a bit more freedom and new ways to present authors, work with authors and do events locally. There is certainly a lot of esoteric organizations that would happily partner on such things. I hope to do a lot more of that.

What do you envision the future to hold for Fields Book Store as it moves to be entirely online?

What I’m really looking to do is to continue doing what we’ve been doing in years past in really providing a breadth of information for the spiritual quest. Not narrowing the focus so much to focus on a particular aspect but really represent a lot of those paths again. I’ll be trying to be more focused and concentrated in what books represent these paths and do a bit more curation of those books as well. a lot of things that have been side projects would have more to do with things like “these are the top ten books to read if you’re interested in Jainism, or this particular path or another path.” And to be able to provide a lot more guidance in those areas which is something that the Big Box stores and websites like Amazon aren’t necessarily interested in or capable of doing.

Also doing more with e-mail catalogues which is something I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the bandwidth to do. So a lot of the books that may have been missed on the shelves that our customers would love to find, but they were glossed over or not seen. Being able to provide a better cross section to all of our customers through e-mail catalogues will help our customers broaden their perspective and take a look at some valuable books they may have missed. And doing a lot more with customer reviews of books. Do something like solicit books from our customer base, featuring books that have meant a lot to them, and featuring those on the website. A lot of little projects like that that I hadn’t had the bandwidth to do.

With more people moving to e-books, is this something you’ll be offering in the future?

That’s one of the things we’ve wanted to feature on the website. Personally, I like what companies like Scarlet Imprint has been doing along the line of offering a range of presentations of the material. They do the really creative, fine edition of the book; they do a solid library edition, a paperback version and an e-book as well and are able to make the materials available in a wide variety of formats.

E-books are something we want to do more of but because of the nature of the instant download and payment, we’re working with the people who host our site to develop that and get set up to handle that [for the transition to online only]. E-books are a great way to get out information. It’s a very convenience format for people and no trees need die for the production of a book. I think there is certainly a place for both book forms.

As e-books become more popular, fewer people are purchasing physical books. Do you think paper books will ever go away?

I certainly hope physical books never go away. Publishing has been bifurcating in a lot of ways. There’s the very commoditized publishing. You look at the quality of the books being produced and it’s kind of sad. Yes, design goes into the cover and such, but when you take the dust jacket off it’s just a piece of cardboard boards not cloth, it’s not sewn, it’s on pulpy paper. That seems to be the direction things are going and it doesn’t necessarily take the price of the book down, which is unfortunate.

And the other side of it is publishers like Three Hands Press and Ouroboros Press who are focused on making fine editions of books. There’s a lot of work going into the craft of the book itself. Focusing on really featuring our partnerships with these kinds of publishers is definitely something we will be continuing doing.

 

Send to Kindle

Rynn

Posts

  • Kenneth

    These sorts of losses are probably inevitable these days, but I wish they would stop trying to put a happy spin on it. It’s not an evolution to bigger and better things. It’s a retreat and probably a defeat where publishing and the local pagan scene is concerned. Physical space matters. Bookstores of this sort have an importance to pagans far beyond their surface role as book retailers. They serve as nexus points of a sort. I think any of us who have been on a pagan path for any amount of time have stories to share about a “chance” meeting that happened in such a bookstore and changed the trajectory of our journey.

    They also served a special role when it came to books ,and one that we don’t always appreciate and which cannot be replicated online. If you know you want a particular book, you can buy it anywhere, and almost always cheaper online. However, the most powerful books often turn out to be the ones we didn’t know we wanted. Even beyond the mundane level of browsing hundreds of titles sideways on a shelf, we’ve all had those moments when we were drawn toward some stack to some odd, ugly, perhaps out of print book that we bought out of a strange sense of obligation. That weird little tome went on to become pivotal in some aspect of your journey, maybe just imparting one concept that only you needed in a particular point in time.

    That sort of energy work will never happen with disembodied pixel images of a book the same way it will with physical objects and people in real space. Occult bookstores are places where people begin to use magick in life-altering ways even before they know there is a name for such abilities. The social networking and author-hosting functions are also irreplaceable.

    Finally, specialty book sellers who take it all online are playing to Amazon’s strength. They’re challenging a giant to single combat on his home turf. Those toothpicks he’s using are the rib bones of the 10,000 prior book dealers who came in to call him out. Wiegleb’s one strength is knowledge and personal service, but people don’t pay for expertise online. They don’t even pay for content if they can help it. They’re commodity shopping with a Ferengi-like focus on price. Nobody feels loyalty to a URL .They’ll open three or four windows and price shop. If Wiegleb needs $20 and shipping for a particular book, Amazon will sell it for $17 and free shipping. If he cuts his margin and hangs onto a market share Amazon really wants, it will offer that same book for $12.50, or $9.95. Whose grain silos empty first in a siege like that?