With bookstores closed, a 50-year-old independent book distributor perseveres

With bookstores closed, a 50-year-old independent book distributor perseveres

California — Liam Curley, warehouse manager at Small Press Distribution (SPD), the nation’s only nonprofit literary distributor, has for the past seven weeks worked by himself. Shipments to and from the 6,400-square-foot warehouse in Berkeley, CA, have slowed to a steady trickle. One morning recently, he parked his sedan on 7th Street. The bumper sticker says, “Driver carries no cash, they’re a poet.” He wore purple latex gloves and an N95 respirator, and walked through the dark office and kitchen towards the rows of some 350,000 books from independent publishers. The mask, Curley said, was actually a leftover from the last wildfire season. “The warehouse is very porous.”

Curley, 30, nodded to a cluttered desk with a computer monitor still alight, as if it had been abandoned in a hurry. “Everyone else is remote,” he said. “But you can see the ghost in the machine.” He could’ve been talking about himself: Curley plays a critical but little-seen role in the literary supply chain, especially for shut-in readers reluctant to buy on Amazon. (Curley alternates days with an assistant, Shawn El.) With bookstores closed, SPD’s revenue is down 60%, but he still packs more than a hundred orders daily, mainly for Amazon and direct sales. In the kitchen, a copy of the latest Publishers Weekly declared, “Books are essential.” Curley has doubts. “Books aren’t saving lives,” he said. “But it’s really about standing together as an industry.”

SPD, founded in Berkeley in 1969, has weathered decades of industry consolidation to persevere as one of few distributors still committed to small publishers. It markets and distributes titles from some 400 presses, selling to independent and college bookshops, wholesalers such as Ingram, online retailers including Amazon and individuals through its own site. As a nonprofit, it also receives key grant funding. In the past 20 years, SPD has actually grown. Last year, it moved four times as many books as it did in 1999. Now, the distributor is crowdfunding to cover payroll and health insurance for 10 employees. And readers, eager to support independent literature from home, are rallying like never before to support a business with little profile outside of its industry.

Small Press Distribution, founded in 1969, has operated out of this Berkeley warehouse since 1995. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
Small Press Distribution, founded in 1969, has operated out of this Berkeley warehouse since 1995. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
“We’re a part of the literary infrastructure,” Brent Cunningham, SPD’s executive director and an author — most recently of poetry chapbook “The Sad Songs of Hell” (Ugly Duckling) — said in a video interview. “You’ve got to know the art form and its economy pretty well to realize we even exist.”

SPD does not carry anything from the “Big Five” publishers or their imprints. It is an institution outside of the literary mainstream, with close community ties. “You can imagine most of the books we stocked early on were like this,” Curley said, retrieving a copy of Barbara Baracks’ “No Sleep,” a 1977 stapled chapbook published by Bay Area language poet Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press. He started volunteering eight years ago when he moved to the East Bay on the recommendation of a former writing professor, Catherine Taylor of Essay Press. In the warehouse, he was listening to KALX; the DJ played a soul record at the wrong speed. “I can never tell if that’s on purpose,” he said. Curley noted local writers often deliver copies. Most recently, the writer and visual artist Linda Norton came to restock her experimental memoir, “Wite Out” (Hanging Loose Press).

On the walls were shelving tips (“Unlike titles should not be stacked”) and to-do lists (“Implement Buckminster Fuller plan for the four hour workday”). Before the pandemic, SPD was open to the public for browsing. There’s a reading room with ephemera related to the organization’s history: Prints of product photos and old catalogs, snapshots from the 1995 move to the current warehouse, the last time its metal shelves were empty. Board minutes shared a cupboard with bottles of booze. Curley recalled finding Claudia Rankine’s out-of-print poetry debut recently in a neglected stack. “Maggie Nelson, Ocean Vuong — we carried their first books,” he said. “If we had one copy of everything we’ve sold, it’d be a really amazing library.”

Poetry covers the walls of the breakroom at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
Poetry covers the walls of the breakroom at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Boxes of current popular titles rested by the rollup door: “The Complete Stories” by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington and “Me and Other Writing” by French essayist and novelist Marguerite Duras, both collections from Dorothy, a Publishing Project, one of SPD’s largest clients. Trisha Low, SPD’s publicity manager and author of the recent book “Socialist Realism” (Coffee House Press), said in a video interview that Dorothy has grown with SPD, each company buoying the other. There’s also a mission-driven affinity: “Like with Aunt Lute, another one of our largest publishers, we all want to support more independent networks.” SPD has the credibility to make valued recommendations to booksellers, building camaraderie with publishers and vendors.

Lately, even closed stores have lent support: East Bay Booksellers committed a percentage of web sales to the distributor, and SPD has in turn offered credit to needy vendors. “Our heart and history is with the indie stores,” Cunningham said. As a largely industry-facing organization, SPD might not have the celebrity of City Lights, or even local fixtures such as Marcus Books. Yet it’s crowdfunded nearly $100,000. According to Cunningham, that’s more than double individual donations received in any recent year. Direct orders have also increased, along with their size; people who might’ve ordered a couple books are buying five instead. With readers increasingly leery of not only Amazon’s industry bully tactics but also its labor practices, SPD is gaining visibility as an alternative.

Small Press Distribution currently warehouses some 350,000 books. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
Small Press Distribution currently warehouses some 350,000 books. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

At the same time, Cunningham conceded that much of SPD’s growth has been due to Amazon, a reality that challenges the distributor’s identity. “Is the small press community a proving ground where you try your first book, then get picked up by a major?” Cunningham asked, “Does it have its own set of values and what are they? Is it supposed to be antagonistic to the larger publishing world?” For that matter, is it Amazon-like for SPD to continue operating during the pandemic? Low said the company concluded that it has an obligation to publishers continue shipping and processing payments. “But at the end of the day it’s not perfect,” she said. “It’s not perfect to have one person alone in the warehouse working their tail off.”

Curley, packing slips in hand, said he feels recognized for his labor. He’s also optimistic that readers can cut ties to Amazon and invest in parallel, independent networks. In an era of one-day delivery, SPD customers are including notes with orders saying, “Take your time.” He also helped develop new safety protocols. When a new shipment arrives, he lets it sit for a day; the new coronavirus is thought to live for no more than 24 hours on cardboard. A postal carrier bounded through the rollup door, dropping off a box. “You got anything for me, bro? I know I’m early.” Curley shook his head. “It’s the same drivers every day,” he said. “Normally I’d help them load into the truck, but we’re doing social distancing. Luckily, there’s fewer boxes than usual.”

Sign up for our newsletter

Top Image: Liam Curley is warehouse manager at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, the nation's only nonprofit literary book distributor. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)