Literary landmarks: Independent bookstores reveal cities' character

Locally owned and operated bookstores – like Shakespeare and Company in Paris – offer insight into a city’s vibe.

Travel writer Arthur Frommer, who founded the “Europe on $5 a Day” guidebooks more than a half-century ago, suggests that bookstores are a great place to meet local residents when traveling. You can find out a lot about a place and maybe even dine with natives if you attend an author lecture.

The Bay Area offers some stellar independent bookstores – those Amazon-free zones where the owner is usually onsite to answer questions. Some buy and sell used books, others offer a mixture of both new and used. Downtown Los Altos boasts Know Knew Books on State Street, Mountain View and Palo Alto have Books Inc. and Menlo Park is home to Kepler’s Books.

Random travels around the state, country and world offer a veritable treasure trove of off-beat bookstores, often more fun and interesting than establishments that sell shiny new tomes stacked on orderly shelves.

California readin’

In Grass Valley, used-book store Booktown Books, 107 Bank St., comprises 14 separate booksellers, each with its own booth and specialty. The place can be a maze, but the theme of any given section becomes clear after you’ve been standing in it for a minute.

Booktown got its name from the movement started by Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, in 1961, in which rural towns in Europe became home to smallish used-book stores. Gary Stollery started the one in Nevada City and Grass Valley in the late 1990s.

Among the sellers: Cobblestone Books; Bud Plant & Hutchison Books, known for fine illustrated and children’s books; and The Wright Book, with an emphasis on science fiction, fantasy and mystery. Ron Quintana owns Music Town, which carries records, CDs and comic books.

Down the street a couple of miles, the aptly named Eric Tomes runs Tomes bookstore, 671 Maltman Dr., No. 3. Tomes appears at the bookstore 2 p.m. Saturdays for author talks.

A recent visit to Ojai, in the hills east of Santa Barbara, uncovered Bart’s Books, which bills itself as the “largest independently owned and operated outdoor bookstore in the U.S.”

Located in a residential corner at Matilija and Canada streets, Bart’s used to be Richard Bartindale’s house circa 1964. His book collection began to creep out the door, so he built bookcases along the sidewalk for people to buy books he had already read. Instead of a cashier, he left a coffee can for readers to pay on the honor system.

These 35-cent books still line “Bart’s” house, and they still sell on the honor system, via a coin slot in the front door after hours.

Inside the walls, rare and out-of-print first editions and art books sell for thousands of dollars.

Matt Henrickson, general manager, said the current owners want to remain incognito. An Orange County couple, they purchased the place 10 years ago because they honeymooned in Ojai in the 1970s and wanted to ensure that Bart’s remained a bookstore. The couple are the bookshop’s fifth owners, and Henrickson said the “focus is to make the experience of being here so special that it will be another bookstore that stays around.”

Although overhangs shield the store’s 1 million books, the inventory is susceptible to sun damage. Surprisingly, “we rarely lose one to water,” said Henrickson, who noted that after book jackets are exposed to too much sun, he tears off the cover and sells the book for 35 cents.

Farther south, in Pasadena, Vroman’s Bookstore concentrates on new fiction and nonfiction books and stocks an amazing collection of magazines. Located at 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena’s main drag, the store stakes its claim as “Southern California’s Oldest & Largest Independent Bookstore.”

Vroman’s, founded circa 1894 by Adam Clark Vroman, was for many years the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi River. Upon his death in 1924, Vroman bequeathed the store to his employees, one of whom was the great-grandfather of the current owner.

The two floors are divided into sections featuring their own specialty, from books to cards, gifts, pens and stationery. Author talks, book clubs and book signings are scheduled regularly.

Downtown Los Angeles is home to The Last Bookstore, 453 S. Spring St., sometimes referred to as “cathedral-like.” The old Crocker National Bank building, impressive enough to host weddings, houses 10,000 square feet of used books and buys used books.

The Labyrinth Above, on the mezzanine level, showcases more than 100,000 books at $1 each. Owner Josh Spencer chose the name The Last Bookstore for the irony, but he really believes that he’ll be the last bookstore standing after Amazon and e-books make their impact.

Perusing in Portland

Another city of books, Powell’s Books, 1005 W. Burnside St. in Portland, Ore., draws book lovers from all over the West Coast. It’s nicknamed “City of Books” because the 68,000-square-foot flagship store occupies an entire city block, with more than a million new and used books. The nine color-coded rooms each feature a separate focus. The Blue and Green rooms are currently undergoing renovations, including the installation of skylights and new lighting and roofing.

Powell’s boasts a Rare Book Room, with autographed first editions and other finds for bibliophiles. Upstairs in the Pearl Room, big-time authors like Michael Chabon and Joyce Carol Oates appear to talk with their fans.

Located in Portland’s Pearl District, Powell’s is surrounded by the Living Room Theater, which offers indie movies in a cozy environment.

Browsing abroad

If you’re traveling to England, check out The School of Life in Bloomsbury, near the Russell Square tube stop at 70 Marchmont St. in London. The bookstore/learning center specializes in the art of expanding emotional intelligence. It’s the brainchild of writer Alain de Botton, author of “The Art of Travel,” “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Architecture of Happiness,” among many other titles.

The School of Life offers bibliotherapy, where the therapist suggests various books for you to read that will help solve your problems.

Other features include communal meals, “stigma-free therapy” and courses in happiness, politics and travel.

Across the English Channel in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, a book-lover’s paradise, sits on the Left Bank at 37 rue de la Bûcherie. Founded by American George Whitman in 1951, the name “Shakespeare and Company” pays homage to Sylvia Beach’s original shop, frequented by expatriates Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Beach’s bookstore closed in 1940 during the German occupation.

Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter, now runs the shop, which houses young writers overnight and hosts poetry readings, writers’ meetings and Sunday teas. She also produces an annual literary festival in the cramped shop that draws thousands of tourists. Shakespeare and Company is set up like a bookstore should be, with velvet chairs and cozy surroundings.

While many travelers depend on their e-readers, they can’t replace the character and charm found in locally owned and operated bookstores.

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