SANTA BARBARA -- There was once a little bookstore, tucked into an unglamorous mall on the wrong side of town, where few visitors were likely to stumble upon it. Its owner had opened a small shop in 1974 with a modest bequest from her mother, and she and her husband had had to dip into their life insurance funds to keep it going. People from across the county drove for miles to buy books there — and to see friends, to pick up free copies of the New York Times Book Review, to special-order out-of-print works no one else could be bothered to find. But these days, so it was said, it was easier, cheaper — more fun — to shop online. A computer could read your taste better than you could. One click could bring you the whole world, radically discounted.
Just as Amazon.com was getting going, a large store called Borders came into the small town and set up a three-story emporium at its central intersection. This bright new palace sold CDs and boasted aisles full of magazines and cookies and coffee; musicians struck up concerts outside its entrance; thousands of books were sold at vastly marked-down prices; and it used the cozy chairs and community air of a neighborhood store to crafty corporate advantage.
But a few years later, to everyone’s surprise, the huge citadel of books, next to a free, multistory parking lot and a five-screen cinema in downtown Santa Barbara, closed. Just one week before, on the last day of 2010, the sprawling Barnes & Noble bookstore across the street from it, in the chicest mall downtown, had also shut its doors. Then the Borders near the town’s large public university closed.
Online retailers and e-readers had become ubiquitous. But the little bookstore called Chaucer’s just kept growing and growing, housing more books — 150,000 and counting — in its happily overcrowded aisles than the central megastore had carried in a space six times as big.
How could this happen? Well, 24 of Chaucer’s 26 employees work there full time, many of them for more than 10 years. They have an investment in the concern that the part-time workers in big-box bookstores usually do not.
People come there just to browse through a carnival-like children’s room of books and toys and games. They come there to meet dates, to receive personal commendations, often to buy nothing at all. They come there as to a community center, a sanctuary or a trusted friend’s living room (albeit a living room where Salman Rushdie is reading from his latest, and sometime-local Sue Grafton is sitting around for four hours to chat with her many fans). Chaucer’s sells no coffee or remainders, but it offers teachers 20% discounts and holds two book fairs a year to raise money for local schools.
So perhaps the story of the bookstore stands for something larger than mere books. Most of us can get anything we want online these days — except for the tactile reassurance of human contact, the chance to do nothing at all and a sense of connection that persists even after the electricity has gone off and the batteries run out. Convenience is not always an ideal substitute for companionship, and speed isn’t infallibly the fastest way to well-being. Even the $2 — or $10 — discounts that corporations can offer may exact a cost at some deeper level that sometimes we find ourselves paying and paying.
When the two giant bookstores in the center of Santa Barbara closed, the owner of Chaucer’s, Mahri Kerley, expressed her sorrow; more books were always better than fewer.
Besides, the passion she’d chosen to share was about something less visible than the bottom line. When the writer of this article was invited to give a reading at another new local bookstore — only to find that its owner had neglected even to buy any books to sell — he wasn’t surprised when a worker from rival Chaucer’s instantly responded to an emergency call and brought down copies from his store, to help out its new competitor, because some things matter more than mere spreadsheets.
One worker at Chaucer’s, after his previous independent bookstore home (Dutton’s in Brentwood) closed down, took to driving 100 miles through the dark every morning to work at the Santa Barbara store, before driving back 100 miles every afternoon. Another, when I purchased a copy of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s history of cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” told me that the book had shaken her profoundly, not least because she’d been diagnosed with cancer many years ago.
“You’re OK now?” I asked. She certainly looked the picture of health.
“So it seems,” she answered. “Not all terrible diagnoses prove fatal.”
Pico Iyer is a presidential fellow at Chapman University. This essay is adapted from one in
“My Bookstore,” a forthcoming anthology in which 80 writers describe the bookshops they love.