Bill Burruss is a vegan, used to sell punk jewelry, wears Converse, has pierced ears and swears like a sailor. He’s also the owner of Know Knew Books, a used bookstore on State Street in downtown Los Altos. A Virginia native, Burruss moved to California and held various jobs before opening Know Knew Books on California Avenue in Palo Alto in 1988. In October of 2013, Burrusss moved Know Knew Books to Los Altos, bringing with him his witty sense of humor, his knack for storytelling and his love of community.
Burruss grew up in rural Virginia, attending a grade school that had a wood stove and an outhouse. After attending Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studied business and theater, Burruss moved to California and started selling punk jewelry in Santa Cruz and San Francisco.
“[The jewelry] was a killer gig,” Burruss said, “Just awesome, awesome jewelry. I could go out any day of the week and sell a thousand dollars worth of jewelry.”
Burruss also managed a string of jeans stores in the Bay Area during this period of time, but left one Christmas when sales dropped 80%. However, it was his punk jewelry “gig” that ultimately turned him onto used books 30 years ago.
“I was selling punk jewelry and everyday I went to this one thrift shop in Mountain View,” Burruss said. “One day I walked out and saw this big-a** dumpster with tons of books in there. I jumped in the dumpster and started pulling all these books out. The manager came out and said ‘You can’t get in my dumpster.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can’t throw away all these books.’”
Eventually, Burruss began collecting books that were overloading thrift shop bookcases and being thrown out. He began to distribute them around the Bay Area, buying 10 to 15 boxes of books a week at thrift shops and selling them on weekends. He was making an average of $500 per week under the table—in addition to his punk jewelry.
“I got into a routine when going into [a thrift shop],” Burruss said. “I would buy a ton of books, I would ask for the manager, and tell them that I was in need of books. I’d say ‘Look, I just spent two hundred dollars,’ and this was two hundred dollars at a quarter a book. I told them I would sort their books if they would let me have first dibs on everything. I would pay full price. They would always do it.”
One day a young man in a Palo Alto bookstore asked Burruss what he did with the leftover books. Burruss told him he took them back to the thrift shop. The young man told Burruss he would buy them off him.
“When I asked why, he said ‘Well, I’ve collected since I was a kid and I’ve always wanted my own bookstore,’” Burruss said. “I said ‘Really?’ I drove away that day and said ‘f*** it, I’ll open a bookstore.’ I went back to him and I said, ‘I’ll give you half of the bookstore and we split everything fifty-fifty.’ Of course he was elated, someone was giving him half of a business, no investment.”
Burruss opened Know Knew Books with his business partner on California Avenue in 1988. He enjoyed his time in Palo Alto and was able to keep the small business open while many others closed. Due to a special lease he signed early in the business’s history, Burruss’ rent did not increase to the extent that others on California Avenue did. During this period, Burruss and his wife bought a house and raised their son in Palo Alto.
When the Know Knew Books’ lease expired in September 2013 and his landlord threatened to skyrocket the price of his rent, Burruss feared the worst. The shop was not doing well; he had already needed to sell his Palo Alto house and had gone into bankruptcy. Thankfully, Burruss said, his business partner at the time put forward the necessary funds to move Know Knew Books to Los Altos.
“I hadn’t been to Los Altos for years, I just had no reason to come here,” Burruss said. “I’d always remembered Los Altos as an old folks’ place. But I rolled into town and it’s just radical…When we opened here, people were coming in and being awesome. They were so glad we were here.”
A true community member, Burruss commonly chats with customers, students and anyone who happens to be passing through. Burruss wants to continue to use Know Knew Books for functions other than a bookstore, and encourages students to use the space as a library, individuals to share poetry at the monthly poetry nights and speakers to meet with locals and customers.
“What I love about the store is the atmosphere,” Burruss said. “I was over in Half Moon Bay and this old black Blues dude had his guitar case out and he was playing for dimes. I just walked up to him and said, ‘Here’s my address, here’s my store, any time you want to come play at the store you’re free to.’ I hope he comes over. At one point, we used to have musicians come in all the time.”
Unlike the early days of Know Knew Books, the store now stocks its shelves with books from warehouses of used books Burruss has collected. Over 30 years, he has collected about two thousand boxes of books in storage—amounting to over seventy thousand books.
“[The warehouses] are insane,” Burruss said. “They’re three hundred square feet. Ten boxes high from front to back.”
Burruss hopes that as time goes on, Know Knew Books becomes a part of the Los Altos community, appealing to all age groups and demographics. He constantly emphasizes the sense of openness the shop provides and wants to ensure that everyone feels comfortable within the space. A true labor of love and dedication, Know Knew Books and Burruss go hand in hand.
“If I had to tell you one thing, it is that [Know Knew Books] is really cool,” Burruss said. “I love the store. Just the idea that I can go in and I can walk away with a book that’s worth thousands of dollars, and pay so little, it’s just like Christmas time. I go into the store everyday and I get to play around. I love it.”