I enjoy the company of books, especially on vacation. No matter which country I visit — even such places as China, Japan or Greece, where deciphering the language is not an option — I seek out bookstores and hang around. So when I heard that one of the great Western concentrations of independent booksellers, more than two dozen establishments at last count, was just a few hours away, a trip seemed mandatory.
No less a personage than Richard Booth, who turned Hay-on-Wye in Wales into the world's first book town, had given his blessing to the Gold Cities Book Town Assn., placing the neighboring Gold Rush hamlets of Grass Valley and Nevada City, Calif., in the company of such other bookish venues as Larry McMurtry's Archer City, Texas; Kedah Darul Aman, Malaysia; St.-Pierre-de-Clages, Switzerland; and Fjaerland, Norway.
Not only was the Gold Country a lot closer than Fjaerland, but it also promised to be at least as pleasant, an area whose relaxed ambience, crisp mountain air and splendid scenery had turned writers including poet Gary Snyder into permanent residents. The location, a couple of hours north of Sacramento, proved as charming as the wine country without the hurly-burly of the consumption industry.
Not that I was looking to be totally relaxed. A potential book-buying weekend in a region with so many choices had to be planned with strategic care. Suitcases couldn't be too full because room must be left for those inevitably bulky purchases. Checkbooks had to be taken because booksellers don't always accept credit cards. And hours of operation needed to be rechecked because booksellers are not always obsessive about posted times. They leave that to their customers.
Which is how my wife and I found ourselves at 5 p.m. on a Friday hurtling feverishly along California Highway 49 toward Grass Valley, a town of about 10,000. A combination of delays on our flight from LAX to Sacramento plus unyielding traffic on Interstate 80 had made us nearly three hours later than we'd planned. I was already too late to visit Bud Plant Comic Art, an exemplary source of books on popular culture, and now I feared, as only a zealot can, that everything else would be closed before we got to town.
Carol's Recycled Paperbacks, however, was still open, and it proved a soothing segue to the weekend. About 20,000 paperbacks were tidily arranged into such categories as historical fiction, romance and the always popular "ghosts and angels." It felt so good to be among books — and to see a sign describing biblioholism as "the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess" — that I couldn't pass up a mystery by the underrated Thomas Perry selling for $3.76, tax included. Let the purchasing begin.
In keeping with the business-like tenor of the weekend, my wife and I had chosen not to go the bed-and-breakfast route but to stay in the Grass Valley Courtyard Suites. It was an inspired choice. Our room was large, comfortable and a short walk from Grass Valley's historic downtown. The helpful staff directed us to some excellent restaurants, starting with the Owl, an updated 19th century saloon that still boasts the enormous wooden bar that made it around the Horn from Austria in the 1880s.
The next morning, after a large, excellent country breakfast of eggs and home fries at nearby Charlie's (book hunters need to keep up their strength), the search began at perhaps the most exciting stop, the aptly named Booktown Books.
This high-ceilinged, 3,200-square-foot cooperative features stock from more than a dozen dealers in a beautifully illuminated space built as a Salvation Army Citadel in 1933 and more recently remodeled as a day spa. Occupying four rooms in the same building is an excellent separate store called Tomes run by Eric Tomb, one of the area's used-book pioneers.
Browsing Booktown was like visiting a college dorm of books. Some rooms were messy, some neat, all of interest. One of the tidiest stalls belonged to Argus, specializing in California books with a section on archaic skills that featured such titles as "Practical Wireless Telegraphy" and "Let's Whittle." Equally eccentric was Lost Horse Books, devoted to all things equine. I was mightily tempted by an enormous volume called "Moving the Earth: The Workbook of Excavation" because of its vivid yellow cover, but its 1,400 pages made it a deal-breaker.
If Booktown could be the future of antiquarian books, Ames Bookstore, a few blocks away, was a trip into the past. Having moved from Whittier after the 1987 earthquake, Ames remains a genial throwback, with books in dozens of categories as varied as opera and plumbing, squirreled away in a rabbit warren of shelves and rooms. Total stock numbers around 200,000 to 300,000 volumes. "Books reproduce in the night when we're not here," Tomb said.
On to hip Nevada City NEXT stop was Nevada City, a.k.a. "the Queen City of the Sierra Nevada," a lovely place just three miles away where the tourists were more numerous and more noticeable than in Grass Valley. This town of less than 3,000, hip enough to have its own film festival, is so literary it once boasted of having one bookstore for every 452 residents.
The first stop was Mountain House Books, one of the class acts in the area. This white-frame house with a raised ceiling features venerable books in aesthetically pleasing surroundings. You could buy a 21-volume 1860 edition of the works of Washington Irving for $400. I couldn't resist a gift for an outdoors-minded friend: "Le Pêcheur en Suisse," a beautifully illustrated 1945 look at, yes, the different species of fish in Switzerland.
A few blocks down the street is Main Street Books & Antiques, chockablock with ephemera and old toys, where a copy of one of my childhood treasures, "Two Little Miners," was plastic-wrapped and for sale at $22. (I didn't buy it because I still have mine.) I also stopped at Inner Sanctum, a charming store with a stock that included out-of-print magazines. Captivated by the pretty face on its cover, I bought the Dec. 10, 1911, issue of the Sunday San Francisco Examiner magazine, complete with a new serial by the once-famous Elinor Glinn.
The last stop of the day had three bookstores in one location, all run by Gary Stollery and his wife, Clarinda: Brigadoon Books is heavy on Scottish material; Toad Hall — complete with a life-size Tin Man made of metal — concentrates on children; and the Cannibal Book Store, a name possibly inspired by the fate of the Donner Party, which had suffered not far from here, has a stock that speaks for itself. After that, indulging in a dinner of tasty California cuisine at the nearby New Moon Cafe was the least we could do.
Sunday was spent revisiting some of our favorite stores, but, addict that I am, that was not enough. On our way to the Sacramento airport, we stopped in Auburn, where Highway 49 meets the interstate, and paid a fortuitous visit to Winston Smith Books.
Winston Smith, open little more than a year in a pleasant and airy two-story space, has a satisfyingly schizophrenic quality. Half of it is a fine selection of classic used stock and ephemera (I snapped up a vintage travel brochure for "Western Montana, the Scenic Empire"); the other half is well-curated genre paperbacks.
When I inquired about the owner, I was reminded that the store was named after the hero of "1984," set in a future world where books are dangerous. Let the bookstores of Fjaerland try to match that.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Chapter and verse
From Southern California airports, Alaska United and Southwest offer nonstop service to Sacramento. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $142.
WHERE TO STAY:
Grass Valley Courtyard Suites, 210 N. Auburn St., Grass Valley; (530) 272-7696, fax (530) 272-1203, http://www.gvcourtyardsuites.com . Friendly, comfortable, well-located. Doubles begin at $150.
WHERE TO EAT:
The Owl Grill & Saloon, 134 Mill St., Grass Valley; (530) 274-1144. Lively spot, tasty dinners. Main dishes $16-$27.
Charlie's Cafe, 145 S. Auburn St., Grass Valley; (530) 274-1839. Satisfying country breakfast. Biscuits and gravy a specialty. Main dishes $5-$9.
New Moon Cafe, 203 York St., Nevada City; (530) 265-6399, http://www.thenewmooncafe.com . Fine California cuisine. Main dishes $16-$24.
TO LEARN MORE:
Nevada City-Grass Valley Booksellers, (530) 470-9090.
For a listing of bookstores in that area, visit latimes.com/booktown.
— Kenneth Turan