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March 24, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Hidden treasures: You can't tell this bookstore by its exterior Hidden treasures: You can't tell this bookstore by its exterior (March 24, 2004)

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

For many serious readers, the pleasure of getting lost in a book is almost equaled by the joy of getting lost in a bookstore.

Feldman's Books in Menlo Park is a perfect example. Leaving hectic El Camino Real behind, a bookworm can tunnel into a labyrinth of stacks and shelves stretching up toward the ceiling. The store has a deceptively modest facade but gets bigger and bigger on the inside, revealing hidden rooms, a courtyard with a swing and an avocado tree, and a whole other building filled with books in the back.

Here and there, buried treasure is revealed: a tale you haven't seen since childhood, a "Pogo" cartoon book from the 1950s signed by Walt Kelly, a leather-bound set of Pushkin in the original Russian. In this world of words, who needs an espresso machine?

Feldman's, located at 1170 El Camino Real, has been open since 1996 but feels like a decades-old Menlo Park institution. Maybe it's because its fiction and nonfiction books are used and many have the feel of history in their pages. Or perhaps it's because the building is among the oldest in the city, dating back to at least the turn of the century.

Despite the historic feel, Jack Feldman, who owns the store with his brother Steve, says he isn't concerned about competing with modern chains or flashy Internet booksellers. Quite simply, Feldman's fills a distinctive niche, he says.

"It's a different kind of book. Lots of ours are out of print and you can't find them at a new bookstore. And used books are a lot more affordable," he says on a recent warm afternoon at his shop, classical music whispering overhead.

"With a popular book, after a year no one is reading it anymore. We like to have unusual things," Mr. Feldman adds, his eye on a recently acquired set of Plutarch's Lives bound in red leather.

He ticks off a few topics represented among the 40,000 to 50,000 books filling the shop: clockmaking, Zen Buddhism, chess. Then, he smiles as he turns toward the front door and recalls that his building previously housed the East West Bookshop, which had a spiritual bent.

"People used to come in thinking we were still East West," he says. "So we put the metaphysics section up front."

Eclectic customers

A man sidles in seeking a book on hula dancing. Shortly afterward, a woman and a little girl ask for something on airplanes for a "sophisticated" 3-year-old boy. "Wow, look how big this place is!" the woman exclaims.

A fellow bookstore owner from San Francisco pops by on a shopping trip for his store. "Beard's growing longer," Mr. Feldman observes.

Mr. Feldman swiftly directs each customer to the right section without missing a beat, sometimes mentioning an author along the way. Even on the nonfiction shelves, the books are kept in careful alphabetical order.

Not just a hobby, the shop is the primary business for the brothers. Steve also owned the Burlingame Book Browse store for 10 years, but "it was too much," and now the two focus on Feldman's, Jack says.

Rather than being concerned about competition from the other independent bookstores downtown, Kepler's Books, Wessex Used Books and Records, and The Book Rack, Mr. Feldman says he's happy to refer customers to the other stores if need be.

"It's good that there are two used bookstores so close by," he says, referring to Wessex, which is just down the street and around the corner. "If people need a book, they'll come to the area."

Wessex also has a different focus than Feldman's, with strengths in literature and academic press, he says. While there is some overlap, Feldman's has other specialties, such as science ("We recently bought a big collection") and history -- a blue-paneled room is devoted to everything from medieval to Chinese to Civil War history.

The Feldman's math section is also robust, in homage to the high number of customers who are engineers, Mr. Feldman says. And the humor section is popular with teens, who still snap up Mad Magazine books.

Every now and then, interior designers wander in seeking attractive leather-bound volumes to make a room look nice.

"Sometimes people ask for just books in green," Mr. Feldman says with a wry smile. "We prefer selling books to people who want to read them."

In trying to attract customers, the brothers found that newspaper advertising wasn't successful. Instead, customers typically hear about Feldman's through the phone book or word-of-mouth, or spot its sign while driving by, Mr. Feldman says.

"It seems to be working," he says. Also helpful, he notes, is the store's "reasonable" rent, which typically goes up only about 2 to 4 percent each year.

Feldman's doesn't have a Web site, but the brothers use a site called to order rare and out-of-print selections for customers. The brothers also get their stock from a variety of other sources, including estate and library sales, and customers who bring in bagfuls.

With the economy crashing, many people in the last few years have been moving out of this pricey area and selling books as they go, Mr. Feldman says.

And the recession may have changed reading habits, he notes: "People have been selling a lot of books about the stock market."

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