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Growing up at Browser Books

Browser Books owner Stephen Damon with young Catie Damon.


Browser Books, the literary landmark on Fillmore near the corner of Sacramento, was originally located one block north, beside the Clay Theatre, in a building that had also been a head shop and a recording studio for Carlos Santana’s first album, called simply Santana and released in 1969.

How my dad, Stephen Damon, came to own Browser in 1978 is, as he acknowledges, a curious and incredible story.

The bookstore’s first iteration was called Edge of the City Books, opened in 1972 by a young couple who then sold it to an elderly man, who in turn sold it to a middle-aged woman in 1976, who renamed it Browser Books.

Two years later, my dad was hired as assistant manager. When the owner started to talk about selling the place, he left to work at another bookshop. One day a man came in who was marvelously wealthy from oil money and asked if my dad knew anyone who could sell him a bookstore, which he envisioned as a place to spend his retirement. My dad suggested his previous employer, and together they marched over and persuaded Browser’s owner to sell.

Within a year, the man decided the life of a bookstore owner was not for him and agreed to sell it to my dad for $20,000, to be paid over a year. The bill of sale was drawn up on a thin slip of paper from the Brown Bag, the local stationers. Two months later, my dad owned the store.

The bookstore moved a block south to 2195 Fillmore in 1989, six months before I was born. Growing up in Browser Books, I was largely unaware of the adults who frequented the shop, but I do remember excitedly stretching my arm across the counter to shake comedian Robin Williams’ hand.

The bookstore was my place of solitude. Sitting on the floor reading The Boxcar Children or Little House on the Prairie, I’d watch the ankles of the adults as they shuffled by. Underneath the bookcases were paperbacks and cassette tapes wreathed with dust.

The shop always felt like my private place, but I could tell it served the same purpose for others. On early mornings or rainy afternoons, I would stumble upon customers who had tucked themselves into the corners of the store. I’d help my dad haul boxes of decorations up from the basement before the holidays. I was behind the register wrapping books and ringing up sales well before I reached the legal working age.

Catie Damon at Browser Books with Wayne Saroyan and Fred Martin.

There once was a hamburger joint called Sugar’s Broiler on the corner where Peet’s Coffee is located now, and I remember the empty look of that diner, which was almost always closed, as my dad unlocked the front door to Browser. I would follow him into the dark cloud of books and rugs to his office, tucked under the stairs, where he would flip the breaker that illuminated the store. Fred Martin, who started at Browser in 1980, would arrive to vacuum and feed the canary. The radio would be set to the classical station. The rickety red table would be pushed out front and I’d help stack the books on it as best I could. Then I’d find a corner in the kids’ section and read.

We’d take our lunch in the office, my dad sitting at his desk with a sandwich from the deli at Grand Central Market and me on the turned-over blue bucket we used for umbrellas during the rainy season.

My dad permeates every memory from those days. Everything revolved around his smile as he bounced down the aisles. He was always having fun. He loved racing Fred to see who could shelve books the fastest. He’d regularly engage a customer in conversation about Buddhist philosophy, or theologian Thomas Merton, while I waited at his hip.

My dad chose Browser Books instead of graduate school. He orchestrated an ongoing neighborhood symposium, a meeting point for kindred minds. People stopped in from the Zen Center and his old philosophy classes at San Francisco State. Beyond being a neighborhood bookstore, Browser was a place for people in search of the spiritual.

All of the neighborhood shopkeepers knew my dad and welcomed us as we made our rounds to Spectrum Exotic Birds, Mrs. Dewson’s Hats and my favorite, the Has Beans coffee shop on California Street, where I would pick from the bins of gummy candies, tart and shaped like lemon wedges.

As I got older, I understood my dad was teaching me the importance of independent businesses. He was teaching me how to get to know people and how to help them. More than once, he let a homeless person sleep in the basement of the bookstore overnight. For me, Browser represented a sophisticated and harmonious world.

During summers when I was home from college, and later from traveling abroad, I noticed how the neighborhood had begun to feel different. But Browser remained stubbornly the same. The light fixtures and Turkish rugs never changed, and I could always rely on a few familiar books in the kids’ section to be there.

The community Browser has built would not have been possible without the people who have worked with my dad through the decades and the many supporters from the neighborhood who visit and buy books. Over the years, Browser has served as a meeting point for friends, lovers and families. It even hosted a wedding — and the couple recently came in, still married.

My memories are of the physicality of the store through a child’s eyes: the bulbous glass around the bullet hole in the window from when it was a butcher shop; Fred changing out the newspaper that lined the bottom of the canary’s birdcage; the drips and knocks around the still-dark store; my dad, always smiling, with a book in his hand.

Two years ago, my dad was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease that has short-circuited his vision of owning the bookstore for the rest of his life. For a long time, we could not stop him from continuing to change light bulbs and move bookcases. He loves the store and has taken care of it for nearly 40 years. He doesn’t come in so often anymore. And he now realizes he can no longer sustain the business himself.

We are grateful to the Fillmore community for so many years of support. On an ever-changing street, Browser Books is an institution, and it is an honor to serve you.

The Browser family — my dad and myself included — want Browser Books to continue to be a vital part of the neighborhood. With your support, it can. Please help us continue my dad’s legacy of a truly independent bookstore for a truly great neighborhood.