Budget Bookstores Flourish in County : Reading: Normal Heights, downtown San Diego and El Cajon experience boom in shops with used, out of print, rare and specialty books.


Looking for a good rainy day read? In search of a rare classic or specialty book? Or do you simply enjoy browsing through stacks of out-of-print and hard to find books?

Whatever your literary mission, your best bets for “one-stop shopping” within San Diego County will be one of three spots: Normal Heights, downtown San Diego or El Cajon.

This unlikely threesome represents the hot spots in a countywide bookstore boom. They are the largest clusters of used, out of print, rare and new specialty books for sale within the county.

Normal Heights, a central San Diego neighborhood, has eight bookstores along Adams Avenue between 32nd and 35th streets, with 220,000 to 230,000 books for sale. Add to that the occasional trove of literary treasures you might discover in any of 2 dozen antique shops in Normal Heights.


Downtown San Diego has seven such bookstores, including four within a block of 7th Avenue and Broadway. At 726 Broadway is Wahrenbrock’s, said to be the largest new and used bookstore this side of Los Angeles with an estimated 300,000-book inventory.

Wahrenbrock’s, which opened in 1935, is truly a book hunter’s paradise, with three long, narrow floors jammed with books. Stacks of books are literally pressed into bookshelves. Stacks also line the stairway and many shelves contain double rows of books.

Large subject signs, however, ease the way through the maze of shelves, which feature an impressive variety of soft and hard-bound books. The third floor, often locked, contains rare books that date back to 1460, according to proprietor Chuck Valverde.

A half-block north of Wahrenbrock’s at the corner of 8th Avenue and Broadway, Bill Burgett, long-time owner of the Lemon Grove Bookstore, opened William Burgett Bookseller on Jan. 7. The two-level store has about 25,000 titles, with almost half the inventory in paperback. Some shelves were still being stocked last week.

Next door to Burgett is Smith & Co. Booksellers, a small, even more recently opened specialty bookstore. At 632 Broadway is the larger J & J Bookseller.

A block-and-half from J & J is Aardvark Books, 925 6th Ave. It is “more or less an egghead bookstore,” said owner Forrest Curo. “You won’t find any self-help or sports books here.”

If you are into the ancient Oriental game of Go, Aardvark features a large selection of Go books in its inventory of 45,000 books. In fact, a Go club meets there monthly.

In El Cajon, there are two large bookstores across from one another in the 100 block of East Main Street with a combined inventory of about 100,000 books: Valley Book Store and 50,000 Books. In October, Tom Chambers, owner-operator of 50,000 Books, tripled his floor space to 6,000 square feet. He is now utilizing only two-thirds of the space.


Rapid growth in the county’s used and specialty bookstore industry began in mid-1988. Today there are about 85 such bookstores countywide. At the same time, many of the existing shops have been expanding.

During the past three years, the chain stores that sell new books exclusively also opened new outlets throughout the county.

Those in the local used and specialty trade attribute much of their own growth to the retail prices of new books.

The average prices for new hardcover fiction and nonfiction are $21 and $25 respectively, up $6 to $7 from seven years ago, and most new paperbacks now retail for $5 to $7. Most used books--hard and soft--can be purchased for half the cost of their original price.


Local proprietors pointed to another economic factor to explain the local boom: the San Diego-area bookstores are considered a bargain to tourists and traveling book dealers when contrasted with Los Angeles.

“There are a lot of very fine used and antiquarian bookstores in Los Angeles, but they are also extremely expensive,” said Kim Smith, owner-operator of Smith & Co. which opened Monday and specializes in science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Smith referred to the local bookstore growth as a “phenomenon that has been taking place over the last two to three years.” She considered locating in Normal Heights, but decided there would be too much competition.

Ironically, Phyllis Brown, who moved her popular Grounds for Murder mystery bookstore last month to 3287 Adams Ave. in Normal Heights said the only specialty bookstore missing on Adams Avenue is a science-fiction shop.


Brown, who operated her bookstore for the 10 years in an upstairs, hard-to-find shop in Old Town, said she has had her eye on Normal Heights for 2 1/2 years.

She and husband Lewis Berger feel they now have the ideal location. The building gives them more space, reasonable rent and infinitely more visibility. Business has increased close to 50%, Brown reported.

Grounds for Murder, with its flashy storefront sign, is the highest profile bookstore on Adams Avenue. Neighboring merchants attribute increases in business to it.

In 1985, there were only two bookstores in Normal Heights. The scene changed after Robert Schrader opened the Normal Heights Bookstore (NHB) in 1986 at 3349 Adams Ave.


Schrader credits himself with being the catalyst for the creation of the Adams Avenue book row. He quickly saw the benefits of a book row, since he had witnessed the demise of bookstores isolated from other bookstores. “There were a few bookstores in El Cajon and a few in Hillcrest, but there really didn’t appear to be anyone intent on clustering--like others do with auto parks and antique shops.”

NHB, which has between 20,000 and 25,000 volumes, offers a wide variety of books. One recent shopper said Schrader “has the best selection of military history in the county.” Shrader, who has long offered customers an informal national book search service, has plans to link up by computer with a national network in March.

Schrader is quick to point out that his book row dream would not have materialized without Jack Hastings, who brought bookstore No. 4 to 3201 Adams Ave. In May 1988, Hastings opened The Prince and the Pauper, specializing exclusively in books for juveniles.

“It was Jack who really began to talk up the idea of a Book Row when he came here in 1988,” Schrader said.


After considerable study, Hastings, who has a marketing background, chose to locate in Normal Heights because it is centrally located, there were three other bookstores in the neighborhood, and the commercial and residential areas represented quite a bit of diversity.

“Normal Heights has a real small-town neighborhood feel,” Hastings said. His colorfully designed The Prince and the Pauper, is stocked with an estimated 50,000 used and antiquarian children’s hard-bound books. About 95% of his books are out of print, and he also carries about 1,000 new titles.

Last March, in what former San Diego State University chief librarian Louis Kenney termed a “very courageous” move, Ruben (Rube) Goldberg opened the expansive San Diego Book Mall.

The Mall, at 3401 Adams Ave., offers space to 20 independent dealers with a combined inventory of about 25,000 titles, according to Goldberg, who grew up in Normal Heights. “Half our business comes from our neighbors and East San Diego. We get a lot of business from San Diego State students and faculty. We also draw quite a bit from Los Angeles and Orange counties.” Because the Mall houses so many dealers, it is perhaps the best place on Book Row to purchase hard-to-find books, according to Schrader.


Jeff Bohanon of nearby Safari Books, 3311 Adams Ave., might take issue with that statement. With at least 60,000 books, this aptly named shop features the largest inventory along Book Row but is the least conveniently laid out. It is best suited to those who like to hunt for odd topics through nooks and crannies.

Although Safari doubled its retail floor space last June to 3,200-square feet, the place still is bulging at the seams, and Bohanon is searching for even more room. “I even have started putting books in my office,” he said

Bohanon says he carries all subjects, “from Art to Zebra. . . . I got guys coming in here from Vegas for pre-1920 erotica and dealers from as far as Boston for Bible reference books.”

Newest on the block in Normal Heights is Paradigm, a small shop featuring lesbian and women’s literature. Karen Merry, who opened Paradigm Feb. 9, moved her business to 3343 Adams Ave. from Kettner Boulevard and A Street.


In El Cajon, the Valley Book Store moved to a new location on East Main Street in February. Owner Cliff Clifford estimates his inventory of new, used and antiquarian books at 50,000. “I’ve got books that range from 1 week old to 100 years old,” he said.

A quick check of his bookshelves shows that the shop carries a wide variety of specialty subjects (soft- and hard-bound), including hunting, fishing, military history and Americana.

Across East Main Street at 50,000 Books, veteran bookseller Tom Chambers said his business has substantially picked up in the past year. “I’m selling over 4,000 books a month to people who come here from all over the county. . . . San Diego’s book market has been somewhat underrated for some time.”

Perhaps San Diego, once hard up for good supplies of good reading, has begun a new chapter.