For many local bookworms, Menlo Park is synonymous with a certain institution in town that starts with F and has "book" in its name.
No, it's not Facebook. It's Feldman's Books, a used bookstore threatened with demolition.
The shop is an unassuming 23-year-old bookstore in a century-old building at 1170 El Camino Real where people can spend hours perusing its maze of shelves, inhaling the dusty aroma of first-edition tomes from a bygone era.
Today the store and its neighbor at 1162 El Camino Real — the current home of SafeSpace, a mental health service organization for teens — face likely destruction as plans move forward to redevelop the site, replacing them with nine apartments.
The development proposal comes from Prince Street Partners, led by Chase Rapp and Brady Fuerst, who are also redeveloping 506 and 556 Santa Cruz Ave. and 1125 Merrill St. in Menlo Park as new mixed-use buildings.
As part of the approval process for those buildings, the developer agreed to dedicate two apartments at the El Camino Real project to be below market rate. One of the conditions of that agreement was that the new below-market-rate units should be built within two years of the occupancy of the other buildings, creating a sense of urgency to get the apartments built.
During a Menlo Park Planning Commission discussion of the proposal on Oct. 21, commissioners heard from a number of concerned locals who urged them to find a "third way" to preserve the bookstore while still complying with the California Housing Accountability Act, which states that if a housing development proposal complies with local zoning rules and the city's general plan, the relevant city council or planning commission has to approve it. That law has been in effect since 1982 and was strengthened in 2017.
Aiden Stone, a resident of unincorporated Menlo Park, carried a bag of well-loved books, many first editions, to the podium during the public comment portion of the meeting. He pulled out examples of some of the great finds he's made at Feldman's: "Don Quixote," Dr. Seuss, Julia Morgan, Ernest Hemingway. "You can get real treasures here," he said. "Look at the books you'd be missing out on. … These bookstores are necessary." He urged the commission to find a better alternative to demolishing the shop.
While acknowledging that it has limited veto power when a proposal complies with city zoning, the commission explored the possibility of at least getting more housing built on the site. Commission Chair Andrew Barnes said he wants to see more residential units there, and added that he believes the city would be willing to negotiate on the two-year deadline for the below-market-rate units if Rapp and Fuerst were to consider increasing the number of apartments in the project.
The developers told the commission that they were open to the idea and agreed to a meeting with city staff to discuss it, but emphasized that they want the process to move quickly.
As for Feldman's, when Barnes asked if Rapp would be willing to consider leasing ground-floor retail space to the bookstore at one of his company's new buildings, Rapp responded by asking if the city would be willing to subsidize the bookstore's rent.
Philz Coffee has signed a lease for ground-floor retail space in one of the new buildings, Rapp confirmed. But the gap between what Feldman's is paying now per square foot and the revenue the new buildings are expected to generate per square foot is significant, he pointed out.
Feldman's pays about $1.90 per square foot, while the Philz lease is for $5.45 per square foot, he said.
Rapp added that there are a number of vacant retail locations on Santa Cruz Avenue where Feldman's could relocate, though many would be smaller, and said he wants to see the owner exploring other locations.
The future of Feldman's Books
When The Almanac talked to bookstore owner Jack Feldman two days later, he said he was open to relocating the shop, but would prefer to stay in place – moving the shop's inventory of 50,000 books somewhere new would be no small feat.
He said he's not yet ready to retire – at 63 he's got energy to take on another decade of running the bookstore if there's a way to make it work. But, he noted, the rents in the area are "ridiculous."
Even if the developer didn't build the project and displace the bookstore, he added, the owner could still raise the rent and price Feldman's out that way.
Since he and his brother, Steve, began the bookshop 23 years ago, he added, retail rent has about tripled. They've adapted by selling some books online and taking a selective eye toward what inventory goes on the shelves, but he acknowledged that used bookstores are in trouble.
"Every town in the Peninsula used to have a bookstore," he said. "Now they're a pretty endangered species."
With the bookstore's future up in the air, he said, he's been managing with an existentialist's take-it-as-it-comes attitude. Still, he added, "I appreciate everyone coming out and standing up for us and appreciating us. It feels good."
"We're just going to keep on going and hope for the best," he said.