Bill Senecal to finally close his career book at Beers

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:54 pm

"Every town has its little goodies store that really matters, and here's Beers, with every type of literature out there. I have found art books there I didn't even know existed. Beers is an outpost (that encourages) the lost art of browsing."

Gregory Kondos, nationally recognized artist and longtime customer


These are revolutionary times in the world of books. Not to equate the two, but one telling indicator was the industry-shaking closure of the national bookstore chain Borders in 2011. Another was a recent front-page story in USA Today – a holiday gift guide to e-readers.

As independent bookstores continue to struggle, one Sacramento local landmark keeps on keepin' on. Beers Books has been on the scene 76 years and is thriving in its sixth location.

Even that venerable merchandiser of used books is preparing for a change, however. Bill Senecal, its longtime manager – the store's "heart and soul," say his colleagues – will retire Dec. 29, one week after turning 65. Taking on the roles of "onsite leaders" will be his longtime assistants, Corey Okada, 48, and Teddy Briggs, 29.

"My legacy will be well looked after by the guys here," Senecal said.

Assuming general oversight of the store will be Andrew Naify, 27, son of Beers owners Jim and Carlin Naify. More about that in a minute.

Senecal has held a unique position in Sacramento as the overseer and organizer of a beloved destination where thousands of people with a common interest have gathered over the decades for the purpose of enlightenment in one way or another.

Friends, regular customers and his vast network of associates in the book trade have all saluted Senecal's steadfast presence, direct business dealings and calm reassurance to generations of book lovers. Clearly, his quiet leadership by example has been inspirational to his co-workers, who call themselves "a family."

Senecal was hired at Beers as a clerk, starting his new job on Jan. 2, 1970, when Beers was located near 14th and J streets.

"When I got to work that morning, the first thing (manager Walter Rice) told me to do was get a broom and sweep the floor," recalled Senecal, sitting in a chair in his office. "(That same day) my very first customer asked if we had a copy of Ernest Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms' and I knew right where it was."

Eventually, the day-to-day business of running Beers "fell upon me and the other (employees)," he said. "We didn't have titles, but the (managership) was something that accrued to me over time."

Senecal discovered his love of books in English classes at Mira Loma High School, a passion that intensified when he was an English major at California State University, Sacramento.

"I was always crazy about books and would haunt the bookstores in town. Tower Books was especially big back then," he recalled. "The first time I went into the (legendary) Holmes bookstore in San Francisco, I thought I was in heaven. That got me hooked on the book business."

It's one thing to be a bibliophile, but Senecal's relationship with books is a whole other chapter.

"My love for books is something inborn, a part of me," he said. "There's something about books that makes me feel they're my personal friends, and it's always interesting to discover new things about them."

Total books? Unknown

Beers' 4,800-square-foot space is jammed with row upon row of hardback and paperback volumes, divided into dozens of categories, many of them scholarly and esoteric. Though a thorough inventory has never been taken, it has been "guesstimated" there are 40,000 titles on the shelves.

"We really don't know how many books we have," Senecal said, "but I think it's more than that."

"Bill has almost a computer-like memory of all the books in the store," owner Jim Naify said. "If you go in and say, 'I want such-and-such a book,' he will say, 'We have one copy of that' or 'We sold the last two copies last week.' It never ceases to amaze me how he's able to keep track of all that."

"That's just the way my brain works," Senecal said. "One thing that helps is that the guys up front and I are the ones who buy and sell the books every day, so we're on the firing line of what comes in and goes out."

A look around Beers makes for a browsing good time. Paperback mysteries and sci-fi abound. History and art are well represented. Secondhand hardback best-sellers catch the eye, as do titles in dozens of niche categories – metaphysics, theology, erotica, alternative culture, art, collectibles, limited editions, signed editions.

"We're so eclectic," Senecal said. "Beers is kind of a Berkeley bookstore in the middle of Sacramento. We've always had kind of a counterculture crowd shopping here."

Having literally handled hundreds of thousands of books over the decades, surely Senecal has a few titles that are special to him.

"I read a lot, but not as much as people would think, because I'm working all the time," he said. "My favorites, though, are 'The Lord of the Rings' by J.R.R. Tolkien, 'Up and Down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer' and the works of Kenneth Rexroth, the San Francisco poet (known as the Father of the Beats)."

When Senecal began his job at Beers, 75 percent of the store's inventory was new books.

"The business has constantly shifted since then," he said. "The chains – B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, Borders – moved into the malls and began discounting best- sellers and siphoning a lot of the new-book trade away from independent stores all over the country. A lot of those went out of business."

The changing business model spurred Beers to begin stocking more and more used books as a "backup."

"We started carrying subject areas that the new-book chains weren't real strong in," he said. "World War II has been one of our most solid subjects."

Then came a second wave of "killer bees," as Senecal calls them. "The big-box retailers came on the scene – Costco, Sam's Club, Target – and more independent bookstores went down. That's when we really started shifting our business to mostly used books. (With used books) we have a lot more freedom over what we buy and sell. And we can control (pricing), rather than the publishers having control over it."

Beers Books' heir apparent Andrew Naify understands all this, having earned most of his book-business education during 3 1/2 years as head of the history section at Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore. It's the chain's headquarters and is regarded as the world's largest independent new and used bookstore.

Naify holds a history degree from Lewis and Clark College in Portland. In his new role, he will gradually bring changes to Beers, but is stepping up cautiously so as not to upset the bookstore's long-rooted culture.

"Bill has been the anchor," he said. "People come to see him and talk shop. The books are secondary."

As for changes, "We've tossed around some ideas," he said. "Selling books online is a natural step forward. It's no fun seeing great books sit around collecting dust, especially when they're at smokin' prices."

Of course, Senecal is acutely aware of how the digital age is affecting the hard-copy book business. What does he see for the future of books and independent bookstores?

"That's a slippery slope and nobody knows," he said. "We like to think that books will continue to be read, that there will always be a place for the hard copy, and that there will always be collectors of used books."

Jim Naify appreciates the irony in the symbiosis between Beers and mega-merchandisers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

"We survive on the printed material that is sold through the big retailers," Naify said. "If people don't buy and resell printed books, then we won't get used books, and then we'll have a problem. We need those guys; they're not our competitors, they're our lifeline. I think (the scenario) will be a lot like vinyl records – some people will insist on having printed material in their hands."

Opportunities ahead

Senecal's career at Beers has been a long, mostly sweet ride. What will he miss the most?

"The guys I work with," he said. "We're pretty tight. I feel lucky I've been able to work in a field I love and with people I like. I'm proud of keeping an even keel and training people over the years in the used-book business. And I've met a lot of interesting folks who have come through the store."

When he walks out of Beers for the last time as its manager, Senecal said, he will feel "a sense of relief from the responsibility. I'm looking forward to having some free time to spend with my father, who is 88, and my wife (Karen Roseland). And having more reading time, which may sound weird."

Outside of work, Senecal said he's "pretty playful." He carves in wood and stone, and likes to kayak and garden.

"We enjoy taking day trips, birding and hiking," he said. "I took up the cello 10 years ago. And I love to cook. I'm famous for my pesto. I use walnuts rather than pine nuts. Walnuts give it a nice, meaty texture and flavor."

One more thing: What about the World's Best Cat, as the staff calls the store's resident tabby? Appropriately, Raffles was named after the cat burglar in an 1899 mystery novel by E.W. Homung.

"She was the Cat of the Week at the animal shelter," Senecal said with a smile. "We got her nine years ago, when she was about 6 years old. I went over to check out the cats and she was the friendliest one, with the best purr ever. We brought her to the store and she made herself at home. She's like a little Buddha, so calm and relaxed."

Senecal paused as Raffles purred and rubbed against his leg.

"People come in just to see the cat," he said.

Or maybe to see Senecal, but he's too modest to say so.



Nellie Beers opened her bookstore at Eighth and I streets in downtown Sacramento in 1936. Since then, it has been owned by Frank Azevedo, Harvey Shank and, for the past 27 years, by Jim and Carlin Naify.

The store has hopped around town from its original location – to Eighth and L streets, to two sites near the intersection of 14th and J streets, to 15th and L streets, and to its present address, 915 S St.

Its website, www.beersbooks.com, explains its book-buying policies and other facets of its operation, including regularly scheduled sales.

Beers' hours are 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays.

For more information: (916) 442-9475.



A few words about Bill Senecal

Beers Books is a Sacramento landmark, serving generations of book-lovers for 76 years. Bill Senecal has been with Beers since 1970, most of that time as its manager.

He'll step down Dec. 29, but first we wanted to ask a few people close to him to share their thoughts.

– Allen Pierleoni


"We first met at the bookstore, around Christmastime. The thing (a bookseller) dreads the most is when (a customer) comes in and says, 'I'm looking for a book for somebody, as a gift. I don't know the title or the author, barely know what it's about, and have no idea what it looks like. Can you help me?' That's what I did. Bill was very helpful and nice.

"I went back (months later for another book), and we chatted. A few days later I got a note in the mail from Bill, about a book club meeting coming up at a restaurant. He thought I might be interested in attending. I was. (Soon afterward) we started going out together."

Karen Roseland, wife of 18 years


"Our mother was an avid reader, so we always had books around the house. As children, we were allowed to look at books in our bedrooms (at nap time), as long as we were quiet – Bill's reading tastes being vast and intelligent.

"Beers is a direct reflection of Bill. There is a slow, calm, peaceful vibe. There is no sense of ego at the store; decisions are made collectively. We should all be so lucky."

Janet Senecal, younger sister


"Bill's singular achievement was making the store work in a challenging environment. His leaving is sad because he represented a whole era."

Jim Naify, Beers Books co-owner


"We're like a family here and Bill is the guy behind all that. The way we deal with everything here, we take our cues from Bill. He doesn't ask you do to anything he wouldn't do, and does stuff he wouldn't expect anyone else to do."

Corey Okada, Beers employee for over 15 years


"It's good to hang out with him. He's cool and a good role model. I've seen him up on the roof in the early morning, dressed head to toe in waterproof gear and rain boots, cleaning out the gutters, or in the street cleaning up (the leaves). He is so ridiculously reliable, always on top of things like that."

Teddy Briggs, Beers employee for six years


A really special world exists at Beers, one that records and amplifies our whole experience. Bill has always been good about recommending specific books, and I've always enjoyed his gentle and informative ways."

Wayne Thiebaud, nationally recognized artist and longtime customer


"Bookstores are dying everywhere, but Beers has continued because of Bill's management and his staff. Most of what an independent bookstore is, is the person who runs it. Without that personality, nothing matters. Bill is the consummate professional who takes no nonsense and gives no nonsense."

Richard Press, 30-year customer and owner of Richard L. Press Fine & Scholarly Books on the Arts


"Bill's leaving will mean the loss of a good friend, someone who has been like a brother to me, affable and easy to talk with."

Joey Paman, customer since 1977

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Allen Pierleoni



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