Danville Express

Cover Story - October 19, 2007

Lord of the Books

Rakestraw owner oversees the lively literary scene in Danville

by Jordan M. Doronila

Chapter One: The quintessential bookseller

Readers find wisdom from sundry stories, a notion that Michael Barnard - owner of Rakestraw Books - holds in his book of beliefs.

"You get a more complete understanding of the ultimate answer by reading many books," Barnard says.

"So much learning is the search," he adds. "The search is the journey. You know what you need to learn on the way."

Barnard, 37, feels patrons strolling into independent bookstores, such as his shop in Danville, get a taste of diverse choices, as they sample the shelves, reading vivid words or viewing illustrious pictures. He knows the particular flavors that his customers enjoy because of his deep relationship with the San Ramon Valley.

He won the 2007 Debi Echlin Memorial Award for Outstanding Community Bookselling from the Northern Californian Independent Booksellers.

Barnard, owner of Rakestraw since 1995, is also active in charities. His fashion show in May, where wardrobe television personality Tim Gunn appeared before a crowd of 250, raised money to buy prom dresses for high school girls who cannot afford them.

But Barnard's undying love for books is what makes him stand out. His passion electrifies his store and inspires him to share the most recent story that captivated his imagination with his clientele. Independent book dealers call this hand-selling, and they say Barnard is among the elite. He earned a degree in English history (specializing in 1450 to 1750) and a minor in English literature, as well as a masters degree in European history.

"He's the quintessential bookseller," says Orinda Books owner Janet Boreta. "He likes books. He reads them. He's opinionated. He doesn't hesitate to give you an opinion."

"If you go into his store, you'll find Michael at your side asking what you like to read," says Rich Van Tassell, owner of Bay Books in San Ramon and Concord.

However, intellectual vanity can invoke a man or woman - whether young, old or in between - to belittle the less-informed. While many consumers revel in Barnard's knowledge and enthusiasm, others say they have found him off-putting and snobbish at times.

"He's a dear but slightly prickly person who loves what he's doing and loves people," Boreta says. "He gets opinionated and you're mowed down by the sure righteousness of what he says. Sometimes, there's a little room for disagreement."

"Some customers reported the interaction with Michael a bit intimidating," says Van Tassell. "Then others found Michael's expertise (valuable)."

Barnard says he has strived to appease all his customers.

"I'm not as snobbish as I used to be," he says. "I try very hard to be open to people's tastes."

"I can be impatient with people who I think can do better," he adds. "As a culture we seem to be satisfied with what isn't admirable. We spend so much time watching Britney Spears."

Chapter 2: His lifestyle is his store

French vanilla hues glaze Rakestraw's interior, and a dark timber sign with an engraving of rakes and open books hangs inside the shop on Railroad Avenue. Wood tables with colorful cloths hold book covers of flying gray fairies, samurai with swords, and a black spotted giraffe. Posters on the walls show green orchards under the bright sun, a woman languishing in a white dress, and a man with a sinister black hat.

"He runs a very attractive store," says Boreta. "He makes it beautiful. If anyone can run an independent bookstore these days, he's the man."

"It's not just a sideline for him, it's a lifestyle for him," she adds. "He puts in extra effort. He puts in imagination and creativity."

Although, Barnard says his peach Saltillo tile floor could have been better. He says if it were saturated in linseed oil and dried and waxed, his floor would have had a lasting appearance. Instead, the company decided doing so was out of fashion. As a result, one can see small cracks, tiny lumps and tattered strokes.

"It's distressed," he says. "As you can see, it doesn't work well."

His customers arrive during the day and ask him an assortment of questions. They inquire about fiction, children's books, traveling guides, history, fantasy and even cooking. Barnard answers them swiftly, in passionate detail. Danville readers tend to like thoughtful, well-written prose - not avant-garde. They delight in reading strong stories and feeling like part of the narrative, he says.

One customer keeps talking about how much he appreciated a book recommended by Rakestraw. When he mentions an upcoming trip to France, Barnard suggests another book. He tells him to read "A Corner in the Marais: A Memoir of a Paris Neighborhood" by Alex Karmel as he saunters through Parisian streets.

Another patron inquires about Jeannette Walls' popular memoir.

"How is 'The Glass Castle'?" she asks.

"It's the ultimate dysfunctional memoir," Barnard says. "She didn't have a happy childhood."

Some consumers are immersed in the chapters of Barnard's life. A woman in her twilight years tells him she gave a birthday card to his mother Julie, who helps him run his store.

Barnard remembers his mother reading to him at age 5 when he lived in Boston and recalls falling in love at first word.

"It's safe. It's cozy," he says.

As he matured, his love blossomed.

"I loved reading on my own even more," Barnard says. He cried after reading several books, including E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web."

He grew up with two younger brothers outside of Boston, and they roamed in their parents' three-acre back yard filled with creeks, gullies, blackberries and pine trees.

"We wandered at will," Barnard says. "It was just fun. It was a great place to explore. There was so much more freedom for us than children today."

He moved to Pleasant Hill when his father got a job in California in 1979. After attending UC Davis and Northwestern, and traveling in Florence, he returned to the Bay Area. He bought Rakestraw Books in 1995 from Mary and Brian Harvey, who named the store after his father's middle name.

Barnard chose a career in bookselling because he enjoyed hanging around bookstores, and it united all his interests - fiction, history and human interaction.

"Much of my variety of tasks involves my interests and enthusiasm coming into play," he says. "No one goes into this business to make money."

He spends between 60 and 70 hours per week running his business. He organizes author appearances, writes a newsletter, holds children's events and involves himself with schools in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District while knowing all his customers.

"I genuinely love being at work," he says.

He notes one of his greatest achievements was running the 18-mile Trans Sierra Crossing when he was 26. He admires former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes.

"Despite being in the upper class, they had such a powerful faith in everyday Americans," he says.

Barnard reads fiction, children's literature, food writing and nonfiction. His favorite dead novelists are Robertson Davies, E.M. Forester and M.F.K. Fisher. His preferred living writers are Rick Bass and William Boyd. Though he likes to read, he doesn't write.

He does not read comic books, drama or poetry.

"I love poetry," he says. "I just don't read it. It's never a priority."

He says one of his regrets is waiting to get into shape at 35. He weighed 210 pounds, but now weighs 175.

"I did it for extra energy and for the fun of it," he says.

He lives in a flat in Berkeley. He notes that eating dinner with friends is one of his precious past times. Singing on the right key is a talent he would like to have, but he has never tried it.

"I have no idea," he says.

He is irritated by shorthand writing, such as text messaging and e-mail.

"They typically don't sound very good," Barnard says.

And of course he hopes to die with a book in his hands.

"I want to die falling asleep on my bed reading the last page of a new book," he says.

Chapter Three: Survival of the independent bookstore

The dominance of Amazon.com and colossal book chains such as Barnes and Noble, as well as Borders Books and Music, has been swallowing the market share of the book industry for years, making it difficult for independent bookstores to survive - let alone thrive.

Cody's Books, one of the high profile independent bookshops in the Bay Area, closed its Berkeley store on Telegraph Avenue several months ago. Booksellers believe a multitude of voices will be lost if independent bookstores fade into the dust, not to mention the loss of money to local economies, community networking and personal connection.

"They are dwindling," says Jack Rems, owner of Dark Carnival Bookstore in Berkeley. "The Internet is like a tide."

"If customers are looking for the cheapest purchase, the Internet is a large threat," says Jon Stich, manager of Diesel Bookstore in Rockridge, who notes that customers realize money spent in his store stays in the community. "That's how strong economies are built."

Bookstore retail sales had been slumping for 11 months in the past year, according to reports by the American Booksellers Association. But the slide ended in July due in large part to the success of the seventh and final title in the Harry Potter series.

Barnard says the industry as a whole is going through challenges, including staffing, spaces, taxation and fiscal responsibility. He believes Rakestraw will continue selling quality books and cultivating personal relationships.

"In the future, Rakestraw will still be a vital presence in Danville," he says.

"I like shopping locally," says Rakestraw customer Gwen Aberer.

Customers are determined to shop at local bookshops because they see their value, Boreta says.

"The tax dollars goes back into the community," she says. "The bookstores are involved in community life. That's the way to go, that's what Michael's is, that's what ours is."

Barnard notes, even with evolution of technology, he doesn't think books will ever be phased out.

"I don't think so, at least for the moment. We talk a lot about this," he says. "Much remains to be seen."

He recalls how his colleagues were saying in the 1990s that CD ROMS were going to replace books. That has not happened.

Meanwhile, as the world evolves, Barnard keeps reading - and recommending.

"Read 'Bridge of Sighs,'" he says. "It's just that good."


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