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What We Wore | John Evans

John Evans is the co-owner of Diesel, A Book Store with his wife Allison. In an industry that seems to be working against them, they’ve created independent book selling legacy for over 30 years in California.

This episode offers a unique perspective into the world of independent bookstorese and how, as John says, "book selling may not always be a good living, but it’s a good life."

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Laura Vinroot Poole:

John, thank you so much for sitting down with me for our Brentwood Country Mart mini series. I want to hear more about you, and where you're from, and how DIESEL bookstore life started. Where are you from?

 

John Evans:

I was born in sort of mining country in Pennsylvania, but by the time I was three I moved to Kansas and lived there for the wonder years- around seven years. Then Massachusetts for a year, then Delaware, and then I moved out to California after college, in the early 80s.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Always wanted to be here, I mean, was that always a dream?

 

John Evans:

Actually, no, I didn't think about California at all. Then people started saying, "You should be in California," and I had no idea what that meant.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

They said it to me, too. I'm like, "What exactly does that mean?"

 

John Evans:

I think it may have something to do with being artistically oriented, I don't know. So, I came out here as a geography major. I traveled out here to California and I did love it.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Well, I'm glad you knew how to get here with your geography degree.

 

John Evans:

Yeah, it really helped.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Tell me about books, were they always a big part of your life?

 

John Evans:

They were a big part of our family's life. My mother especially had read through her town library when she was a child, so that was part of it. But actually, I had an epiphany in Boston- I think it was Brookline Booksmith- and I was there at maybe 13 or 14 years old. My brother was in school there. I was just sitting there looking through the books, and I heard the people at the cash register talking about how they also sold music. Here you have people just dressed regularly, and they were talking about every possible subject while listening to whatever music they wanted and surrounded by all these books. I thought, this is a great job.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

This is heaven.

 

John Evans:

Yeah, I thought I wanted to be an astronomer, or an archeologist, because I'm always polar opposites, but this was the first job I actually thought would be great.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

You studied geography in college, how did you get to that?

 

John Evans:

I started in biology, and then I realized it was humans I was interested in, so I went to psychology. But, it was very science oriented, and I realized I was more culturally oriented. I went over to geography for cultural geography, actually, so that's what I studied. I could take art history classes, philosophy classes, and English classes.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

What's the end game with a geography degree?

 

John Evans:

You end up being a bookseller, at least that's my experience.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Was this when you met your wife, Alison?

 

John Evans:

Alison, I met in Berkeley, in a bookstore that I was working at. She came in on the front of a bicycle, not the seat of the bicycle, the front of the bicycle.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Sitting on the handlebars?

 

John Evans:

Yes.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Okay.

 

John Evans:

Came literally into the store, and ran into the counter. She was roommates with one of the people that I was working with. She was going out for a date, and she wanted to know what he thought of her makeup. Did this seem good for a date? He said, "I don't know, let's ask John," and I said, "Well, we've seen it," so I was very charming, she said, "Who cares what you think?"

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I love it.

 

John Evans:

Feel free to edit any of that.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

No, absolutely not. Did she love books the way you did?

 

John Evans:

Yes, she was known as the young girl that reads all the time. She would read in public, at bus stops and stuff, in Glasgow. She grew up in Glasgow, Scotland.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Wow, and did you know early on that you all wanted to open a business together?

 

John Evans:

I think she knew before I knew that she wanted to open a bookstore. One of the reasons people open businesses is because they don't like the way other people are doing the businesses, that's a very common thing. It can be just a subtle thing, or it can be a total cuisine, or it can be a style. I worked in these bookstores and there were certain things I didn't like, and she didn't like, and she had worked in other bookstores, and so it kind of evolved that way. But I went away and got a master's in poetics, and you may wonder with a poetics degree, what's the end game? It's book selling.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I love it, and so where did you all open your first bookstore? Tell me about that?

 

John Evans:

Yeah, so we went to Portugal in 1985, this is really a long tale, it's more like an epic tale.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I can't wait.

 

John Evans:

1985, we went to Portugal, she took a six month sabbatical from work, which was very nice. I was in graduate school and took a couple months, I guess, three months. While we were there, we were trying to think, okay, what's next? What do we want to do? We thought maybe open a B&B in Portugal, which is not a bad idea.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

No, still a good idea.

 

John Evans:

It is, or to open a bookstore, and we decided on the bookstore. I guess that was '85- '89 is when we actually opened it, but that's when we decided that was the direction we were going in.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Were you always there on the floor, on the shop floor, from the beginning?

 

John Evans:

Usually, yeah.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Yeah, and you like working with clients?

 

John Evans:

Yeah, I mean, I realized that over the years, some bookstores are sort of publisher focused, or author focused, and some are reader focused. We're completely reader focused.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Yeah, you are.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

What was the hardest part about the early years of book selling? This is late 80s, I guess you said?

 

John Evans:

Yeah, 1989. The hardest part was three months after opening, there was an earthquake, and it wiped out one of the major freeways, and it was-

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Wow, I did not think you were going to say that.

 

John Evans:

That was a massive thing to deal with. Our landlord had gone bankrupt basically, which causes a certain amount problems. It was never on the customer's side, but it really did feel that after a year or so of those two things, that we probably wouldn't make it. I was picking up a sandwich at Bette's Oceanview Diner in Berkeley after about a year, and there's a woman who had her own business. It was a fashion business called Outback in Berkeley. I told her, "I think this is just going to totally fail, this whole project." She said, "That store is so beautiful, and you've created it, it's not a failure. Whether it succeeds or not is not a testament to whether it was a success or not." If it succeeds as a business, that's up to so many other factors, but did you succeed in creating the kind of bookstore you wanted to create? Yes. It did change my mind a lot. Then I was like, "We'll just do it again." It's like, "If it doesn't work here, we'll do it somewhere else."

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

It wasn't about the concept, or the way you did it, it was about maybe it needed to be one block over or...

 

John Evans:

Or not in an earthquake zone, or something.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Yeah, right, and so your next location was...

 

John Evans:

Safer.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

One of the things that has been surprising to me was how this started as a love for clothes, and for helping people. Then it became really a job, not a job, but a big part of my work is managing people, and managing the teams that I work with. I can imagine, I mean, all down the coast of California having these stores, I mean, what has that been like? You've had to learn a completely new skill set.

 

John Evans:

Then that has to do with what your philosophy is, and then whether people will find that philosophy attractive or not. Some stores are sort of carriage trade stores, where you tell customers what they should read. Then you can really totally control your inventory, we kind of aren't that way. We're more like keep the books available that people may be needing for X range of purposes. People come in every day- it's a very strange kind of retail, because people are coming in having just lost a baby, they're coming in grieving loss of a parent, they're coming in wanting to go back to school, but unsure what school to go to, they're coming in just to escape everything.

When people ask, "What kind of books do you have?" Alison says, "Good writing." If people respond to that, and a lot of people respond to it almost subliminally, they'd notice... Even if they're coming in just for a very escapist beach read, they pick up that, but there's so many other things here and that feels good. It's like you can trust these people when I come back for the more serious thing, and so it's all being absorbed at once. Also, that there's no snobbishness, because there's snobbishness in the book business historically, and we never liked that.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Well, I think it's similar to what we do. I mean, I've been doing it 25 years, and I always told my sales team like, "What you're selling to someone in the dressing room should not be about what you want to sell today, it should be about how do you talk to a person if you want them to be your client for 25 years. If you want to dress them for their high school graduation, and their wedding, and their child's baptism, and a funeral, and serve them all through their lives. What are the choices that you make in advising them, I guess?" I think it sounds really similar to what you do.

 

John Evans:

Very similar, yeah. I mean, to serve is the key, so no matter who they are. They are coming for so many different things, from so many different directions in the bookstore, but all you're really trying to do is figure out who they are as a particular person. For me, it's all about the particular person, not demographics, because it doesn't really tell you anything when it comes down to reading.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Are you a voracious reader, and do you have to be?

 

John Evans:

Do you have to be? I think you have to be an empathic person, who's intelligent, and in engaged in with the culture and human beings. One of the things, I even put it in our ads when we're hiring, no misanthropes. You have to love people, if you don't love people, you shouldn't really be in retail, as far I'm concerned.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

My God, no.

 

John Evans:

But definitely  not in a bookstore, because you have to know people too well. If you don't want to know people, you're in the wrong business.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

John, I love this. Thank you so, so much, really appreciate it.

 

John Evans:

Thanks for doing it, it's super fun.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Thank you, likewise.

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