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Retailer Spotlight: Russian Hill Bookstore

by April May

Today we're getting to know Russian Hill Bookstore in San Francisco!  You could spend days inside this place finding one treasure after another. They've got so many beautiful books! And an a truly excellent selection of stationery and journals. If you're in the area you must go visit!! 

A huge thanks to Jessica for taking the time to answer a few questions about this amazing bookstore. Now, without further ado, here's the inside scoop: 

Russian Hill Bookstore LogoWhen did Russian Hill Bookstore open? What was the inspiration or motivation behind the opening of a brick and mortar store? Is there a story behind the name?

Russian Hill Bookstore actually began as Sunset Bookstore 43 years ago. On September 13th, 1974, Sunset Bookstore was opened on Irving Street and 23rd Avenue as a general used bookstore serving the Sunset District in San Francisco west of 19th Avenue. In 1993, as part of a plan to expand the Neighborhood Used Bookstore model, Russian Hill Bookstore was opened at 2234 Polk Street in partnership with Sunset Bookstore. The two stores were consolidated as one business under the sole proprietorship of Carol Spencer upon Russian Hill Bookstore's opening in 1993. The bookshops operated in their two neighborhoods concurrently until mid-2000, when Sunset Bookstore was closed and its inventory of used books and merchandise, as well as fixtures and staff, were merged with that of Russian Hill Bookstore, which continues to serve the Russian Hill / Polk Street neighborhood as the last remaining bookstore, new or used, in the area.​ ​

Benjamin Bellouin and Jessica Tsang, owners of Russian Hill Bookstore
Benjamin Bellouin and Jessica Tsang, owners of Russian Hill Bookstore

Russian Hill Bookstore has very recently been through a state of change. Carol Spencer, the founder and sole proprietor since the bookstore's inception in 1974, retired on June 30th, 2017. Ms. Spencer has sold the business to two dedicated and long-tenured employees with nearly 20 years of experience working at Russian Hill Bookstore between them, Benjamin Bellouin and Jessica Tsang. As staff we had always felt at home in the bookstore, so the decision to continue the shop in order to preserve its history and legacy was easy.

Russian Hill Bookstore Moving
Russian Hill Bookstore mid-move in July of 2017

Concurrently, Russian Hill Bookstore has relocated to a new and larger space, located one block south on Polk Street from its former location. In addition, in July of 2017 Russian Hill Bookstore was recognized as a San Francisco Legacy Business.​ ​

What do you love about your shop’s neighborhood?

The thing we love most about the Russian Hill neighborhood is the overwhelming support and love for our shop that has always been there, but that was brought to the surface in a palpable demonstration of support during our relocation this past June. Over 50 volunteers reserved time to help us move the entire shop one block in seven days, using two hand-trucks and a broken pot dolly.​ ​

What’s your favorite Smudge Ink product?

We adore your cards! Over the years Smudge's designs have always been strong sellers for our shop. The current customer favorite is the What's Up? gopher card, though I am head-over-heels for the Caroling Penguins holiday card.

What song or album is playing in your shop right now?

Blossom Dearie's infamous “I'm Hip.” ​

Is there a fun new stationery or gift trend that you particularly enjoy or that customers are responding well to?

My current favorite would have to be the increased availability of images championing strength, love, and equality! We are seeing diversity in skin tone and body shape appearing naturally in a number of our card artist's lines. This trend is making a strong presence in children's books as well, and we are proud to carry a variety of titles that embody these messages of acceptance and bravery.

For my fellow printmakers out there, I cannot recommend the children's book If You Want to See a Whale, written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Caldecott Medal winner Erin E. Stead, highly enough. The gentle cadence of the story paired with the rich textures of the illustrations prove a delight for readers of any age.

Do you have a fun fact about Russian Hill Bookstore that most people wouldn’t know? 

Believe it or not, we stock over 560 different companies and independent artists in our shop - most of which are card makers!

Russian Hill Bookstore
Look at all of those gorgeous books and cards and gifts!

What’s the most memorable thing that has happened in your store?

Years ago the shop hosted a wedding for a beautiful couple who met between the bookshelves of our store. This incredible couple still visits – with their children!

Russian Hill Bookstore
Another look at their amazing space

Find Russian Hill Bookstore on Facebook and Instagram.

(all images courtesy of Russian Hill Bookstore) 

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