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Culture Report: An Independent San Diego Bookstore Is Growing


Verbatim Books
Verbatim Books’ Justine Epstein stands in front of the bookstore’s new expansion space in North Park. / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

With the ink barely dry on a new lease, Verbatim Books owner Justine Epstein unlocked the former dentist office next door to the existing used and rare book shop to show me around the new space.

“I made this bookstore for people like me,” Epstein said, of her fundamental business plan. “To have a space for all the good books.”

Three years ago, when Verbatim Books opened its doors [1], Epstein didn’t anticipate what the space would mean for the literary community, for the readers who find and provide books for the space and for the people who write the books and foster literary community in San Diego.

Justine Epstein
Verbatim Books’ Justine Epstein / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

With a new space, she is turning her attention to that community. The addition could nearly triple the store’s square footage, meaning there’ll be plenty of room for more books, but also more space to linger, and more room for bigger – and more frequent – events.

Epstein said that the readings held in the current space are popular and well-attended, and that she often hesitates to promote them, lest they have to turn people away.

“We want these events to be free and open to everyone, but how can we do that if there’s no room?”

Event space in San Diego is a struggle in literature. Bookstores are the natural choice, but are often small, or have limited availability. Bars are too loud for a non-exclusive event (and the likelihood of an exclusive event is low) and theaters have too high an overhead for a non-ticketed event.

“I just see it as part of the store,” Epstein said, when asked whether events at Verbatim are profitable in terms of book sales or new customers. “I don’t think of it that way. I see it as a benefit to our customers.”

San Diego’s independent bookstore scene garnered a lot of recent attention — locally [2] and nationwide [3] —for good reason. The community of booksellers banded together to aid The Book Catapult’s Seth Marko and his family while Marko recovered from major surgery, but it wasn’t the first time local booksellers have supported one another in tangible ways. A small group of independent bookstores owners and employees started the San Diego Independent Bookstore Day Crawl (SD Book Crawl) three years ago as a way to celebrate each other and the book community in San Diego. The third annual Book Crawl will happen April 27-29, and again involves nine independent bookstores. Since the second year, they lost Coronado’s Bay Books (a tragedy of real estate [4], according to the Union-Tribune) but gained the brand new Run for Cover Books in Ocean Beach.

Verbatim Books
Verbatim Books in North Park / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

Each store in San Diego’s indie bookstore community serves a slightly different purpose or neighborhood, Epstein said. She focuses her business prowess on a more streamlined inventory system for the used bookstore model, her well-honed penchant for rare book purchasing and ultimately, San Diego readership.

“Almost all of our books come from San Diego,” she said. Meandering through Verbatim’s signature stacks means a customer is perusing the actual books that other San Diegans recently read. “The variety of the books is extreme. I see a new book every single day.”

Verbatim Books expansion
Renovation has just begun on Verbatim’s new space, once a dental office. / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

While the former dental tenant took all of the cool chairs (known officially as “dental engines”), Epstein hopes to keep a few of the treatment room cubbies for special corners and cozy nooks inside the expanded store. The landlord has owned the building since the 1960s, and before that, Verbatim’s current space and the dentist office to the north technically used to be one large space (an orthodontist).

Epstein isn’t exactly sure why Verbatim Books — and bookstore culture as a whole in San Diego — has survived, but she always knew that it would. “I never really doubted that there would be room for what we wanted to do here.”

Demolition on the new space is underway.

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