5 Questions for Book Passage

In its nearly half-century in business, Book Passage has held tens of thousands of author events, hosting presidents and Nobel Prize winners and many little-known authors who have gone on to great acclaim. Tucked into an unassuming shopping center in suburban Corte Madera, Book Passage has become the heart of literary life in southern Marin County. Drive five minutes down the road from there, and you can take a ferry to San Francisco, docking just outside Book Passage’s Ferry Building store. We talked to Elaine Petrocelli, Book Passage’s founder and president, about the Corte Madera bookstore.

ZYZZYVA: What’s the coziest spot in your store for reading?

ELAINE PETROCELLI: We have chairs tucked into nooks and crannies all over the Corte Madera store. My favorite is the comfy yellow chair in the Young Adult section. It makes me so happy when I find a teenager snuggled in that chair, engrossed in a book.

Z: What’s a little-known fact about your store?

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EP: We opened in 1976. We hadn’t been in business a week when a friend asked if I’d host a reception and signing in the store for a first-time author. I was uncomfortable because the author was standing next to my friend. I asked the author if she knew people who might come to an event. She said that she and her husband had just moved to the Bay Area, but her husband might know some people at work. I decided to go ahead, but I was certain it was going to be sparsely attended. Well, almost a hundred people came, and they all bought books. That’s when I found out the author’s husband was the CEO of Lucasfilm. The author and her husband became friends and big supporters of the store. And I learned that hosting authors could help make my store a literary center.

Z: How would you describe the smell of your shop?

EP: A loyal customer once told me, “When I walk into Book Passage I smell joy, not that overbearing Joy perfume, but just pure happiness.” In fact, our store smells of many things. There’s the smell of fresh flowers that our talented café manager places on each café table and throughout the store. That gentle fragrance changes weekly as different flowers come into bloom. Each book makes its own contribution to the olfactory experience. The delicious smell of all these books says, “We are so glad you are here. Please stay awhile.”

Z: Which new book would you recommend most to readers?

EP: Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton, is one of my current favorites. I wasn’t sure if I’d like Birnam Wood. The reviews, though enthusiastic, made it sound hard. Then I opened the book and I found a fast-moving thriller with such depth that, even weeks later, I’m seeing current real-world events through the eyes of the characters. Every character is fully drawn. Here are just three of these fascinating people: There’s Mira, the head of a guerrilla gardening collective who steals plants, then surreptitiously propagates them elsewhere. There’s Tony, a self-important, secretly wealthy do-gooder. Does he do more harm than good? And there’s Robert, a billionaire drug manufacturer who is preparing for the doomsday that he is sure is coming. The irony that he has caused plenty of big problems for the world seems lost on him.

Z: Aside from your own, what’s your favorite bookstore?

EP: Almost no one who visits Milan misses Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Magnificent light comes through the glass ceiling of this very old shopping galleria. There are lots of fancy shops and chic restaurants in the Galleria, but it’s easy to miss Milan’s oldest bookstore, the tiny Libreria Bocca. Although the gorgeous fixtures and displays make it clear that this is a bookstore with a history, the kind staff members make you feel at home. I could spend days browsing through the gorgeous art books. The curated collection includes great artists of the past and artists working today—some famous, some not. You don’t have to be able to read Italian to appreciate Libreria Bocca.

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