Brad Johnson Turns Iconic Diesel Into East Bay Booksellers
A self-described bookstore evangelistic zealot, an Alamedan convinces booklovers to come together to re-launch an indie bookstore.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Alamedan Brad Johnson had a vocation he didn’t know he had until a few years ago. Formerly leaning toward a religious calling, Johnson discovered a spiritual connection to working in a bookstore. Recently, he became the new owner of East Bay Booksellers, formerly Diesel, A Bookstore, in Oakland. With the help of local lenders and donors, the beloved indie bookstore has changed hands with little change to the establishment. Johnson, a self-described evangelistic zealot for bookstores, finds himself in seventh heaven.
What drove you to want to buy Diesel Bookstore?
After getting a Ph.D. in philosophy and then deciding not to go into academia or become a minister, I worked various temp jobs searching for my calling and ultimately landed at a bookstore [Diesel]. This job saved me on so many levels. I discovered a work environment that fulfilled me like nothing ever had. I found that I could contribute to thoughts, share ideas, and bring something to the table. The experience encompassed everything that speaks to me. I like to say that I became an evangelistic zealot for a bookstore. After working at Diesel for four years and becoming manager, the former owners, who owned three Diesel bookstores, approached me about buying their Oakland location. They had been in the business for almost three decades and, for no bad reason, were ready to downsize their number of stores. I had never considered opening my own store, but the owners saw themselves in me 25 years ago and knew I had a passion and love of the industry and wanted me to seriously consider their offer. So I did. The only minor obstacle was that I needed to raise somewhere around $200,000 to make it happen.
And how did you do that?
With a hope and a prayer, I made an appeal to customers for personal loans. I asked for a minimum donation of $1,000 and asked that each lender name their own interest rate, which ended up averaging below 3 percent. In just a few months, 50 lenders came forward through that appeal, and we raised more than $150,000. Then, through other various sources, including Indiegogo and personal donations, I pretty much met my goal and could cover the inventory of the store, capitalization to run the store, and credit lines. Surprisingly, raising the money was the easiest part of the transition. This spoke volumes to me. Through this fundraising effort, I came to really appreciate how customers value a communal spot where they can trade ideas, snatch snippets of conversation, and simply connect with other human beings. Everything about this venture, including and especially the spirit of the community, has been a very positive and joyful experience.
What changes have you made to the bookstore?
I am intentionally not making any grand changes as none are really needed. The employees and bookkeepers are the same, and the former owners are acting consultants for us. The biggest change is in the name change of the business. This isn’t terrifying, but a little bit of a challenge, as any rebranding can be. What’s different is that we are no longer a part of the Diesel family, which means that now our decision-making is more streamlined. Now, we have a responsibility of every aspect of the store, speakers, special events … it’s all on us. But otherwise, I want any changes that happen at the store to be organic to bookstores. Things were always changing at Diesel in a natural, fluid way, and I suspect that will still happen. The bottom line is that I’m not reinventing the wheel, but rather leaning on a tradition.
What’s your favorite part of owning East Bay Booksellers?
My favorite part is how excited people are about the bookstore, every single day. Whether it is lenders or donors or newcomers, they feel like they are a part of something big—and they are. Being in such a supportive energy makes for a happy work environment. Everyone shares in my zeal, and it feels like we are all allies. And I think customers are shopping with us out not out of fear of losing indie bookstores, but to share in the general enthusiasm about what bookstores offer. Really, the community camaraderie has been so cool.
How worried are you about the future of independent bookstores?
Not very. I attend bookseller conferences, and the feeling is most certainly hopeful. What’s hard about being an independent bookstore is what’s hard for any small business in general. Employees, rent, overhead … But I would say that the state of bookstores is stronger than commonly thought. By and large, they are not only getting by, but instead actually opening regularly across the country rather than closing. No one is getting rich owning a bookstore, but they’re finding their way and what makes them happy. I’m optimistic about small businesses continuing to thrive as there is an increased awareness of the high price of discounted goods. There’s a recognition that you need to patronize those places that you think are special in order for them to survive. And in our case, customers are being true to this philosophy. From my perspective, I think it’s a good time to give this kind of business a go. And what’s wonderful is that local bookstores, especially here in the Bay Area, support each other. We send each other customers and consult with each other as we each have things unique to us. We’re all in it together.