Successful downtowns are still a challenge in once suburban bedroom communities where change and competition from malls continue to dominate. Downtown San Mateo has many of the essential ingredients for success — a diversity and plenitude of restaurants (some gourmet), lots of small coffee shops with a dedicated clientele in addition to Starbucks and Peet’s, a destination European style market in Draeger’s, a popular movie theater, Central Park and a bookstore.
It’s been a struggle to keep a bookstore in downtown San Mateo. Once there were several. Recently, it was M for Mystery but it closed. In the past several years, the most durable has been the used book store run by Lew Cohen. It moved from its small site in the old Thrifty building on B Street (which he opened with his college roommate in 2009) to a prime corner location on Third Avenue and B Street, next to the ballet shop. Cohen has just expanded his store to include space formerly occupied by the Greek restaurant around the corner. He’s got room now for his amazing and diverse inventory of 40,000 volumes. In addition to an original hard cover of “The Lone Ranger” he has some rare books stashed away in the building’s basement including a first edition of Dicken’s “Drood” published in separate chapters; a complete set of the Harvard classics and multi volumes of the history of English peerage. He sells some of these collectibles online.
B Street Books is located in a historic 1910 building which originally housed the Bank of America. It became a drug store and a copy shop until Cohen moved in. One reason he has been able to stay is became he has a great landlord, someone who loves books. Nueling Investments, a family business — is located upstairs. Other landlords in downtown (some absentee and foreign) have been raising rents forcing Bean Street Coffee and Tres Amigos restaurant to close. The other used bookstore in town, Otter books, located in the former M for Mystery site, has also closed. The owner is the same college friend who originally partnered with Cohen on B Street Books.
It’s a tough job to run any small business and independent bookstores are especially vulnerable. Owners work hard to make a buck. B Street Books is open every day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday it stays open until 8 p.m. Cohen buys books Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. The most he ever paid for a used book was $800. With the expansion and the opportunity to make the store a comfortable place to browse and buy, Cohen is optimistic despite competition from e-books. San Mateo needs to keep a bookstore downtown to be a great downtown. As a someone once said, a bookstore is its heart and soul.
While the city and downtown merchants would like to see more retail, downtown San Mateo is still lively during the day and evening, every day of the week. A driving force of the activity — restaurants and the movie theater — are now supplemented by Draper University and the increasing number of high-tech startups. Draper University has spruced up the long vacant Benjamin Franklin, now student living quarters. The summer sessions started in June and ran for six weeks attended by 40 students from 14 countries. There will be shared workspace and pop-up retail at the former Collective building. Meanwhile, the multitude of high-tech companies continue to move in and expand their operations. Jessica Evans, executive director of the downtown association, says the workforce enjoys the diversity and walkability of downtown.
The startups have creative names: Freewheel, Neo Technology, MEDgle, Oodle, Rolling Orange, Soliant Consulting, Coupa, Funny or Die, AdMobius, SnapLogic, AVOS Systems ( founders of YouTube), Signal Fuse, Nudgit, Ipsy, EdgeSpring to name a few. Their employees are attracted to the ethnic food offerings downtown. That’s probably why the popular Burlingame restaurant, Roti’s, has moved to San Mateo.
Other happenings downtown include more public art and floral arrangements; a Meter Garden opening 5:30 p.m. Sept. 26 in front of 60 E. Third Ave.; the chamber’s first Bacon and Brew festival Sept. 28 at Central Park; and the 17th annual Wine Walk Oct. 5. There still remain a few complaints — some of the streets are dirty, there are still vacant storefronts, and everyone wants more retail. Some feel with additional housing downtown, retail will follow.
All in all, San Mateo has what it takes to be a great downtown, if you include a bookstore.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.