Books Inc.: A Truly American Tale

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If you’ve made your way past 1501 Vermont Street you might’ve noticed Books Inc.’s unassuming office and warehouse, with its caricature of a friendly mustachioed sun hovering above the loading docks. Don’t judge this book by its cover, though. Books Inc. distributes to its own Bay Area stores, hosts book signings by local authors and workshops for those who aspire to become one and publishes many different genres of literature. While the main office and warehouse has been located in Potrero Hill for 16 years, the businesses’ lineage can be traced to 1851, during the California Gold Rush. 

The tale of Books Inc. is the story of the ‘American Dream.’ It starts with a Bavarian immigrant, Anton Roman, who arrived in the United States in 1849.  Just two years later Roman was flush with gold extracted from the hills of Shasta City, California, where he opened his first bookstore, Roman’s Books.

In 1857 Roman moved to San Francisco. He setup shop on Montgomery Street, just north of California Street, where he started a magazine, Overland Monthly. Roman hoped to “help the material development of the West Coast”. The first issue contained poetry and verses by Californian writers, titled Outcroppings. He published books by Western authors, including Brett Harte, who edited the first edition of Overland Monthly, and whose romanticized tales of the Gold Rush era drew nationwide attention. In 1872, Anton published Mark Twain’s Roughing It. Many books printed on the West Coast were marked with “A. Roman” on their spines.

Roman’s longtime partner and protégé, Alex Robertson, eventually bought the business. He rebuilt the store after it burned to the ground during The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Located on 336 Sutter Street, it had a new name, Robertson’s Bookstore. When Robertson died in 1924, his brother, Harry, sold the retailer. The buyers, Leon Gelber, former head of the Emporium’s book department, and Ted Lilienthal, son of longtime Anglo Bank president, P.N. Lilienthal, changed the name to Gelber, Lilienthal, Inc. and established Lantern Press, which continues to publish books to this day. 

Across town, in 1946 Barbara Beach Thompson and Lewis Foorman Lengfeld, opened a bookshop, Books Inc., at the Fairmont Hotel on Mason Street. After Gelber’s death in 1948, Lilienthal merged his store with Thompson and Lengfeld’s, consolidating under the name, Books Inc.       

Lengfeld expanded the business far beyond the Fairmont. From 1950 to 1993 he hosted a televised book review program. By 1974 Books Inc. had 26 stores throughout the West, with outlets in California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington State.

 Lengfeld died in 1995, leaving the business with his most trusted employees, including Michael Tucker and Michael Grant. The enterprise they inherited, though, was in danger of disappearing. The advent of chain bookstores and big box retailers had shifted market demand. Tucker and Grant filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, closing 13 of 15 California locations. With only two stores remaining, things looked bleak for “The West’s Oldest Independent Bookseller.” 

In 1997, with Tucker overseeing operations, Grant heading business administration, the enterprise emerged from bankruptcy, expanded to four stores, with a fifth opening in 1998. In the tradition of Roman and Lengfeld, each Books Inc. location employed literature specialists who focused on the specific needs of their respective neighborhoods, hosted children’s readings and book clubs, and sponsored book launches for local authors. 

Grant passed suddenly in 2000. Tucker continued to grow the business, opening a store in the middle of Downtown Disney in 2001, as well as operating Compass Books inside San Francisco International Airport.

With well more than the 30 years in business, meeting the criteria of being an invaluable cultural asset to the City, in 2016 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors added Books, Inc. to its registry of Legacy Businesses. Tucker retired in 2020, leaving stewardship of Books Inc. in the hands of his protégé, Andy Perham. 

Now with 10 stores, more than 200 employees, and 170-year-old history, the tale of Books Inc. is a worthy read.