OAKLAND -- Paul Curatolo was just 7 when his father opened Walden Pond Books on Grand Avenue in 1973, sharing a small space with a plant store to play on themes in Henry David Thoreau's beloved work of literature.
"I grew up on this block," Curatolo said of the 3300 block of Grand Avenue, where at 17, he began working part-time in the store he now co-manages.
Forty years and two locations later, the landmark business, which has survived threats posed by chain stores, the Internet and the Great Recession, is still going strong.
"We feel we have served the people of Oakland," said the founder, Marshall Curatolo, who at 85 can still be found behind the counter or roaming the store chatting with customers.
Walden Pond Books will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a 20 percent-off sale Oct. 31 called "No Tricks, Just Treats."
The store's driving mission has long been to put customers first. As co-manager Bob Fisher puts it, Walden Books is about "real people selling real books in a real store. We are not a computer guessing what you want."
Teresa Burns Gunther of the Lakeshore Writers Workshop, a customer of nearly 24 years, said the store has been her "go-to book spot" for new and used books of many genres.
"They know their customers, are friendly and, unlike big-box bookstores, the staff is very helpful and knowledgeable about books and literature," Gunther said. "If they don't have it, they will get it, new or used and faster than the tax-avoiding Amazon."
About 60 percent of Walden's more than 100,000 volumes are used books, which the store also buys back from customers. In addition to stacks of fiction, nonfiction, specialty books and magazines, the store carries items from the reading lists of local high schools and maintains a rare book collection in an upstairs storage room that once hosted readings by Isabel Allende and other luminaries.
"It isn't like any retail store," Fisher said, explaining the key to longevity. "If you are going to sell books, you have to love books. You just have to have quality literature."
Marshall Curatolo came to Oakland in 1972 from Los Angeles, where he had worked at a bookstore. Four years after opening Walden Pond, Curatolo rented another location on Grand Avenue from 1977 to 1986 before moving into the 4,000-square-foot former Ace Hardware store at 3316 Grand Ave., where the shop has remained since.
The neighborhood rallied behind the store in 1991 after Waldenbooks, the large retailer owned then by Kmart, opened on nearby Lake Shore Avenue and demanded the independent store change its name to avoid confusion.
Marshall Curatolo refused, saying the two stores could coexist because they offered different items and appealed to different kinds of customers. After a flurry of letters to Kmart's attorney and extensive media coverage of the David-and-Goliath showdown, Waldenbooks backed off and eventually closed.
Paul Curatolo said in addition to knowing customers well and attracting visitors from the Grand Lake Theater and local restaurants, the high-density design of Grand and Lake Shore avenues blocked corporate competition.
"The geographic layout of the neighborhood never allowed for large chains," he said. "They never got to come in and knock us out."
His father offered a more simple explanation for the store's success: "Luck."
The long-serving staff also keeps the store's reputation alive and well, as do Fisher's Samoyed dogs, who have become icons on Grand Avenue.
The fluffy white pair often can be found lounging on the sidewalk as shoppers thumb through stacks of $1 paperbacks. Dozens of families come on the weekends just to see the hefty duo, Fisher said, adding, "They are better known than some of the people here."
Walden Pond Books is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The website is waldenpondbooks.com.