Recycle Bookstore emerges from the pandemic stronger than ever

Editor’s note: This story is part of the annual report Mosaic Journalism Workshop for Bay Area high school students, a two-week crash course in journalism. Students in the program report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

On a recent Tuesday, Recycle Bookstore customer Melissa Kim made her way down the messy but organized science fiction aisle, looking for new editions of her favorite book, “The Lord of the Rings.” as the bookstore’s Persian cat, Emma, ​​wanders around.

“‘Lord of the Rings’ is my favorite movie and book of all time,” Kim said, flipping through different covers for pure enjoyment. “I read this once a year and watch the movie five times a year.”

Recycle Bookstore is home to a vibrant but growing community of readers. The San Jose store, on The Alameda, just east of downtown, is celebrating its 55th year. A second store, Recycle Campbell West, has been open since 2005. Despite struggling during the pandemic, the bookstore is now stronger than ever, its owner says.

Regular customer Melissa Kim browses the science fiction section of the Recycle bookstore in San Jose on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Alli Wang for Mosaic Journalism)

“After the pandemic, people realized how important public and private spaces are for meeting and gathering with other people,” said Eric Johnson, owner of Recycle Bookstore.

Post-pandemic, Johnson noticed an increase in younger clients and newer genres, as the young adult genre has “really exploded in the last three years.”

Recycle Bookstore staff pay close attention to the overall aesthetics of the bookstore to maximize the customer experience.

“People come here for the books, but they also come here for the experience,” Johnson said. “You can’t go to a lot of places and let your imagination and your interests wander.”

This experience is what keeps client Gwen Jones coming back.

“I love it – I love the smell, the texture, the bulk,” Jones said.

Recycle Bookstore is home to two cats, Emma and Ender, a touch that Johnson says is a tradition for used bookstores.

Recycle bookstore owner Eric Johnson pets one of two cats, Emma, ​​who contribute to the atmosphere at the San Jose bookstore on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Alli Wang for Mosaic Journalism)
Recycle bookstore owner Eric Johnson pets one of two cats, Emma, ​​who contribute to the atmosphere at the San Jose bookstore on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Alli Wang for Mosaic Journalism)

“Cat energy is always good for book energy because cats always think they have all the time in the world, so they create that calm environment that you need when you settle in to read,” says Johnson.

Unlike shopping on online platforms like Amazon, Johnson believes the in-person experience at a bookstore is unmatched because algorithms get in the way of the reader experience.

“A lot of the time online, because of the algorithms, you’re fed what they think you want to see, whereas here you don’t know what you’re going to encounter,” Johnson said.

While Jones enjoys the convenience of shopping online, she also enjoys the physical experience at a bookstore.

“For convenience, I prefer to buy books from Amazon,” Jones said. “But if I had all the time in the world, I’d be here for hours.”

Jones wants to see more people involved at his local bookstore.

“The best thing you can do to help the local bookstore is go here and buy things,” Jones said, “especially used books. I mean, where else are all those books going to go?”

Kim points to the environmental benefits of supporting used bookstores, calling on more people to donate books they no longer read.

“If you have books that are just gathering dust, at least get rid of them here, so people who need them can pick them up,” Kim said.

Johnson appreciates the community and staff that make Recycle Bookstore what it is today.

“I like to call it a workers’ library. Because it doesn’t work without dedicated employees. It also takes a lot of sweat and tears and personal sacrifice,” Johnson said.

Khadeejah Khan is a rising junior at Santa Clara High School.

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