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Meet John Evans of DIESEL, A Bookstore in West LA

Today we’d like to introduce you to John Evans.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I had a ‘conversion’ experience at about age 14 in a bookstore, realizing what a wonderful place to work it would be: all the discussions about everything! Became a bookseller after college, managed a few bookstores, then, to graduate school in Poetics, and then, decided to open a bookstore with my partner, Alison Reid.

We opened in 1989 in Emeryville, moved that store to Rockridge in Oakland in ’94. We opened a store in Malibu in 2004, Brentwood in 2008, and Larkspur, in Marin, in 2014. We’ve since closed our Malibu store (though that may come back!), sold our Oakland store to our manager, and still have our Larkspur and Brentwood locations.

It is all a fit of passionate commitment to the startlingly unique wonders of books, bookstores, and book readers. It’s a great life if a humble living. As Walter Isaacson (the Steve Jobs and Leonardo Da Vinci biographer) writes: if we grew up with computers and someone invented a book, we’d be astonished.

A bookstore is part school, part party, part counseling center, and part creative workshop. It’s street theater at its best. It is fun, moving, challenging, complex, and deeply rewarding work.

Authors, publishers, customers/readers, and booksellers collaborating every second to make life more fascinating, more engaging, richer, wilder, and fairer. It’s a pleasure and an odd kind of privilege. It gets in your blood.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Not a smooth road, but a beautiful road. There have been many challenges, mostly financial, as the industry tilts away from fair terms for booksellers, despite independent bookstores being THE place where people discover the rich range of books out there.

The other economic challenges have been real estate costs and the small-mindedness that lives in that world. We’ve also been lucky to have some great landlords who get it. Who see and know the value of bookstores to their properties and to the communities their properties serve.

Staffing can be a challenge, but we’ve been pretty lucky. These are the usual things facing retail businesses, but low-profit margin, large inventory, and high real estate prices make it hard to survive. Many haven’t. We have.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the DIESEL, A Bookstore story. Tell us more about the business.
The two of us own the stores but collaborate closely with our fellow booksellers. We are non-hierarchic and highly participatory. Most of us do most of the tasks, so not a lot of specialization. Our stores are high quality, independent bookstores, with an astonishing range of titles for the size of the stores. We are known for our selection of titles, what is now called ‘curation’.

We are advocates for the depth of human expression across all subjects and are non-exclusive, not snobbish, and friendly to all. We have been called ‘pathologically friendly’, whatever that might mean. It rises from our enthusiasm for what we do and for who and what we advocate for.

I’m proud of our booksellers, our customers, and the books we stock. I’m proud of all of the events we’ve provided over the years — from Allen Ginsberg to David Sedaris, Maya Angelou to Annie Leibovitz, Cheech Marin to Sharon Salzberg.

In many ways, independent booksellers are known for an excellence we have in common, rather than what sets us apart from others. We are set apart though from chain bookstores which have trouble sustaining a passionate approach to books, authors, and readers. And we are set apart from mass merchants who have no honest engagement with book culture, or culture at all, and so lack the bounty of less-touted virtues — fun, spontaneity, responsiveness, emotion, humanity, discernment — that independent authors, publishers, readers and booksellers share.

So, it’s our independence and our commitment and our joy in it all that sets us apart from the dominant and distorting, corporate players in the book world. We know our readers, face-to-face, and vice versa.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
Luck is an odd subject. It is lucky to be able to work in a bookstore at all — but that luck arises from all of this interconnected effort. I feel grateful more than I feel lucky. The host of people, from my partner, to my coworkers, to our readers, writers, and publishers — there is such a generosity of humor, support, concern, consideration, and delight. That makes me feel lucky to work in bookselling, but more accurately, grateful for the hearty and playful interdependence of all things culturally alive.

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