The End of an Era May Not Be the End of {open}

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Photo by Kenn Wilson, Flickr.

I knew one, and only one, person when I moved to Long Beach, and he was a bit of a homebody. That meant a lot of going out stag if I wanted to be amongst people. Coffeehouses are great for that. But man cannot live by coffeehouse alone.

I lived at the corner of Alamitos and Ocean, so the East Village Arts District was merely steps away. That's how I stumbled into {open}, at the time an 18-month-old indie bookstore/performance space next to Village Treasures operated by a yin-yang pair of 20-somethings, talky fireball Sé Reed and reserved, mustachioed shea M gauer. By creating not just a bookstore but a burgeoning cultural hub, they had already realized a dream. And by attending the variety of unique events they were putting on—everything from art receptions to concerts by underappreciated but top-level musical talent to screenings of quirky middle-school instructive videos from the 1970s—I found myself beginning to be plugged into a community.

Now we're well into in the second decade of the 21st century, and it's the end of an era, as later this month, on its 9th birthday, {open}—voted Best Bookstore by Long Beach Post readers—will close up shop at its Retro Row location, leaving Long Beach bereft of one of its crown jewels.

But if Reed has her way, that jewel is just going in for polishing and will be on display in the foreseeable future, shinier than ever.

"I'm not throwing in the towel. I kind of…need a bigger towel," she laughs. "[…] I'm closing this location, but I'm doing it to find a space that will enable me to bring the bookstore into the 21st century."

Though nine years may be just a blip in time, it's long enough for {open} to have borne intimate witness to a paradigm shift in the world of the printed word. As Reed puts it, "When we opened, Amazon was just a rainforest in South America."

But more central to Reed's decision to seek a change of venue is her sense that {open} can be even more than it has been already. And those possibilities are partly tied to physical space.

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"For example, we've never really been able to have book-club meetings here without closing the entire store," she relates. "You can't really have [the current space] open and have events at the same time. Part of the idea of a bookstore is to be able to have events like that. […] You have to be able to grow and evolve. Or at least, that's my vision. […] It came down to: no matter what my next step was, this space was not really conducive to that."

Reed says economics played a role, albeit a definitive one only in the sense that it was not feasible for her to keep {open}'s Retro Row space and acquire a second, larger location.

"We've definitely been impacted here [by the downturn in the economy]," she says. "We opened this location in 2007, and literally in 2008 it went down. I always kind of thought small businesses were in a bubble, […] but I saw an immediate impact in [the number of] customers who were walking through the door, people who were buying things."

But Reed and gauer were never in it for the almighty dollar.

"{open}'s never been about making money. Bookstores aren't about making money," Reed says. " It's for the love of the books. […] I think that we need bookstores [as] places to be exposed to all these new ideas, not just whatever filtered 'What You Might Like Next' thing that Amazon gives, you know? Being able to browse in a section—that physical experience is very important."

{open} held steady through the toughest times and has seen better days since then. But as {open}'s 8th birthday was approaching, with the knowledge that their lease would be up when {open} turned 9, Reed and gauer did some soul-searching. And Reed, for one, thought she was done. But then came the day that the Occupy Wall Street People's Library was destroyed.

"[The NYPD] trashed all those books, and all the talk was about books and book-burning and 1984 and all this stuff," Reed remembers. "And I was like, 'Uhhh, I can't do it [i.e., close {open}]; I need to champion this cause.'" The death of Ray Bradbury a few months later and the book talk that followed (Bradbury was not only a renowned author but a true champion of the cause of the printed word) was more fuel for Reed's fire.

But gauer's focus had begun to shift.

"{open} was my life for over 9 years," he says. "I put my heart and my soul into the business and into the development of what I hoped to be something really special for Long Beach. […] In August of this year I had to make an extremely difficult but necessary decision to no longer be a part of {open} as an owner. My life was pulling me in other directions—my full-time job was becoming a career, and I was feeling a strong desire to fulfill my personal development as an artist—and it was time for me to get back to basics."

gauer reflects on his journey with {open} warmly, and hopes the store continues to be the special place it has always been for so many.

"It was such a treat being able to do what I loved and for it bring so much joy to so many people and to be able to add to the cultural climate of the city," he says. "{open} was a hub, a meeting place, a place for first dates (some who are married now), a place to be exposed to new bands and experimental musicians, a place to see local and non-local visual artists, a place to be entertained and awestruck by poets. And, of course, a place to shop a solid collection of handpicked literature. […] I will always have the fondest of memories of all of the great relationships that were made through the store. I truly hope that {open} will continue on and continue to be all of these things for so many more people for years to come. Long Beach needs a thriving literary scene, and {open} contributes to that, and so much more."

It falls to Reed alone to realize that hope. She says there is an 80- to 90-percent probability that we will see a third incarnation of {open} within a year, and she has been actively scouting new locations. And while she hopes that incarnation will be in Long Beach—a city she calls her adopted hometown—she says her experience over the last nine years has led her to regard Long Beach as not the most conducive environment in which to run a successful small business.

"I have concerns about Long Beach because of what I call the hype factor," she says. "The hype kind of gets ahead of the reality, and then the lease rates get ahead of the reality, and that creates a really difficult condition for small-business owners. I think if landlords could scale back their expectations a little bit and keep the lease rates a year or two behind the hype, I think it would really help a lot of businesses. […] It shouldn't have to be a choice between, 'Do I want to have a life where I have no money ever, or do I want to go work for somebody else?' It shouldn't be that stark of a choice. But I think the reason [that such choices are often a reality for Long Beach small-business owners] is that when everyone's trying to market and develop Long Beach and they're like, 'We're awesome over here, and we're awesome over here,' the landlords hear that and they are like, 'Oh, cool. I can charge more.' And the businesses are like, 'Oh, I can't make that [payment] of 2 percent extra' that they were going to reinvest back into the business. […] I envision a place where that's not the case, where you can have a couple of down months or can reinvest in your store without just scraping by."

Reed is quick to point out that this is not an issue with her current landlord, for whom she has nothing but praise. But she regards the landlord of {open}'s original, East Village space as a case in point, noting that part of the reason {open} relocated to Retro Row is because that landlord tried to double {open}'s lease rate after only three years.

Reed is equally quick to point out that some of the problems for small business in Long Beach is the City and its onerous regulations.

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{open} owner Sé Reed during a recent KCET-TV interview. Photos by Greggory Moore.

"I'm not looking to leave this city, but I'm trying to find the right space," she says. "And that's a balance of literal geographic space and the ability to do things where you're not offending residents with noise (that's always been a problem), [as well as] being able to do the kinds of things you need to do without infringing upon zoning regulations. And that could be a problem, because Long Beach is really strict about a lot of those things. […] I continue to be—as I have been for the past 10 years—disappointed in the City's regulation of business. People always say that Long Beach isn't that business-friendly. Unfortunately, I've found that to be true."

But Reed is an optimist ("I've tried to be less optimistic and more realistic," she says, "but [optimism] is just a perspective that I have, so I just try to embrace it"), and so when she reflects on the journey to this point, she is left with a positive feeling, and a conviction that there's more to come.

"Some people do a lot of random stuff in their 20s, and I was literally working the whole time and had my own business," says Reed, a 32-year-old with nearly a decade of business ownership on her resume. "I spent this whole time doing this and creating this space and being about books, and I'm really proud of it, I guess. It's been really fun, and I've met some amazing people, and I've been able to host and create some amazing events that have changed people's lives. People have told me they've moved to Long Beach because of {open}. […] I feel like I've helped shape some of the cultural experience of Long Beach. […] If I had to do something with my 20s, I think that was a pretty worthwhile thing to do. It's like you climb a mountain, then you look down and say, 'Wow, I didn't realize how steep that mountain was that I climbed.' […] I kind of feel like we opened new ground and a lot of possibilities for some of the things that are going on now in Long Beach, and I'm really proud of that. I'm glad that Long Beach has kind of culturally developed in such awesome ways, and I really hope that continues."

If {open} is around to be a part of that continuation, our cultural development is sure to be that much better.

{open} will host an all-day party on November 15, its last day on Retro Row. For more information, visit thestoryofopen.com.



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