When a book lover steps into her favorite bookstore, her blood pressure drops and her mind opens. She breathes a sigh of relief, as if she’s managed to reach an old friend. As she spots her favorite books, she scans a sea of colorful possibilities, considering titles she might never have thought to read before. Any one of them could change her life.
This is the essential beauty of independent bookstores, their distinct capacity to gather and surprise us, even as we pursue our own interests. They cultivate conversations between strangers about everything from Plato to fruit bats to Captain Underpants, with a little truth and beauty thrown in for good measure. Bookstores rattle the imagination—disconnecting us, however briefly, from our own agendas and nudging us gently toward each other.
Santa Cruz has played enthusiastic host to many independent bookstores for decades—Logos and the Literary Guillotine continue to draw loyal readers downtown, as they have for decades, and though Capitola Book Café (of which I was a former owner) has closed, its unique community and kinship with other local indies has meant its legacy lives on. And one of the most celebrated and innovative independent bookstores—not just locally, but even among booksellers nationally—is Bookshop Santa Cruz, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
“It’s a story of survival. A lot of towns the size of Santa Cruz at one time had bookstores, but too many have fallen away.” — Wallace Baine
More than ever, indie bookstores offer critical alternatives to the troubling “truthiness” and outright fake news that became such a controversial factor of the recent election—which is why Wallace Baine’s new book about Bookshop Santa Cruz, A Light in the Midst of Darkness: The Story of a Bookshop, a Community and True Love, is such an important reminder of why bookstores matter. The book winds the history of Santa Cruz’s modern literary scene around the story of the store, offering a rare account of how our formidable literary landscape evolved. I recently met with Baine at the Abbey and talked about books, readers, writers, and yes, politics—when it comes to independent bookstores, they’re all related.
What role did bookstores play in your childhood?
WALLACE BAINE: I grew up in suburbia in the ’70s, during the rise of mall bookstores. It wasn’t until I went to college and moved out West that I started connecting to bookstores that had an eccentricity to them. They were places where you could spend three hours and nobody bothered you. You could just sit on the floor and absorb. They used to have a certain complacency—we’re here, come on in, hang out, whatever—but these days, bookstores can’t be complacent. They have to hustle. They have to become, as I talk about in the book, not just bookstores, but destinations for people who like books. There’s a distinction there.
Why do people develop such passionate relationships to bookstores?
Readers are a particular kind of people. They’re the kind of people who develop attachments. Reading is a solitary activity, but bookstores occupy a central place in book lovers’ lives because of the human connection. When you go into a bookstore and talk to the clerks, they speak your language.
Why are independent bookstores in particular so good for readers and writers?
Independent bookstores tend to hire people who are very steeped in literature and reading. This isn’t always a priority in bigger bookstores. As far as writers go, a lot of people who work in bookstores are writers themselves. They want to be around books and they want to be around other writers. It’s a good day job while they do their own work, and readers benefit from their knowledge.
How did a small surf town like Santa Cruz capture the literary spotlight with Bookshop Santa Cruz?
It’s a story of survival. A lot of towns the size of Santa Cruz at one time had bookstores, but too many have fallen away. Bookshop is still here. Book Café is gone, but it put Santa Cruz on the map with many publishers. They’d look at their authors’ tour schedules and see New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Capitola of all places. Bookshop Santa Cruz has carried on that tradition. Santa Cruz thinks of itself a lot like Berkeley does, and has labored to build the same kind of literary culture here.
Speaking of literary culture, tell me about your friendship with one of our great departed literary lions, Jim Houston.
I started working at the Sentinel in 1991, when Jim’s writing career was in mid-stride. I’d read at least one of his books before moving here and instantly wanted to develop a friendship with him. He had a modest way about him, a cowboy way, and he was fascinated with other parts of the country. Almost more than any writer I’ve come across, he was focused on geography. He believed that California wasn’t just a place, it was a spiritual, emotional place. He felt the same way about Hawaii. He was heir to that kind of wide-open-spaces type thinking.
What are your impressions of Neal Coonerty, Bookshop’s steadfast owner and champion through earthquakes and big box rivals. He helped make independent bookstores political animals.
Neal was always interested in politics and he liked to come out swinging. He went into city politics because of the earthquake, feeling the need to serve, plus he saw himself as the best intermediary between merchants and progressive university types. That manifested in his business battles with Super Crown and Borders. Some people felt he was insisting they spend their money in a certain way, and they blanched at that. Of course, he was making a larger point about local business and chains and the character of the town. Most people got it, but it did divide people.
In taking over the store, how has Neal’s daughter Casey shifted that conversation?
Casey’s different than Neal. She’d tell you she’s less of a risk taker and more like her mother Candy. Also, the store itself is in a different situation. Neal didn’t have to deal with Amazon and the current retail environment. It was Casey who had to bring Bookshop into the new era, and she did that by trying to make it a destination for people who love books, providing services, outreach, events, and selling other stuff. She’s a brainstormer.
Independent bookstores have had a brief respite from their political role in the larger culture, but with the recent election they could play one again. What do you think that role might look like?
I can only speak about Santa Cruz, but I think a lot of people here who are upset about the election are Bookshop’s clientele—not uniformly, but largely. The outcome doesn’t only represent the election of right-wing politics, even though that’s what everyone is talking about. It also represents the ascendancy of an indifference to books. The president we have now is a writer and a good one, but we’re going to have a president who I don’t even think reads as a habit. So the value of books in people’s lives is going to be thrown into more stark relief because Trump is going to be, if not hostile, at least indifferent to whether books live or die.
The role that bookstores can play has to do with the truth. Whether it’s through websites claiming to be news sites that aren’t, or big networks, we’re being inundated with lies. You can go into Bookshop and find lies, too, if you know where to look, but bookstores are ultimately about the truth. Somebody needs to speak up for it, and journalism isn’t doing it, so who are the defenders of what is true? It might have to be the publishing world. Maybe they’ll step up in the next four years and try to mitigate the damage. Maybe they can convince people that to find the truth you need to turn to different sources.
The Icons at Home
Celebrating local lit legends James Houston and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston: an excerpt from ‘A Light in the Midst of Darkness’
It’s only a five-minute stroll from one of Santa Cruz’s most sun-bright, postcard-pretty California beaches, but the den in the home of James and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston is dark and cool, even on the hottest days. The room is redolent of another time, crowded with antique furniture and quiet in a way that I imagine homes used to be before television and air conditioning. I’ve been a guest in that den dozens of times, on official business and otherwise, and I rank some of those moments among the most sublime of my years as a cultural journalist. As the guy from the local paper, I had license to invite myself over and talk for an hour or two with the Houstons about books, the past, ideas and long dead heroes, all that stuff writers love to talk about. Tall, courtly, cowboy handsome, possessed of the kind of deep oaken speaking voice you would expect Uncle Sam to have, Jim Houston, a protégé of Wallace Stegner, was a gentleman writer, a mischievous spirit in a brawny frame who was always aflame with the passions that drove him, what you might call an emotional geography, in Jim’s case, California and Hawaii and the unnamable essence that those two places share. Jeanne was (still is!) whip-smart and radiant, wielding an easy charisma that could melt stone.
Jim Houston, a protégé of Wallace Stegner, was a gentleman writer.
The house is a story in its own right, a mighty ramshackle of a thing made of cherrywood and heart redwood with a cupola on top, the subject of one of Jim’s most vivid essays. He would go on to write nine novels and about twice that many nonfiction works and win the American Book Award and the Humanitas Prize, and he articulated as well as anyone the psychic and historical dimensions of being a Californian. Much, if not all of that writing took place in the attic office of his Santa Cruz house, including his luminous novel Snow Mountain Passage, a heartbreaking fictional take on the famous Donner Party tale. If a house can serve as a muse for a novel, then this is the one.
The Houstons moved into the house as little more than squatters. It was 1962 and the house had been empty for three years. The den’s picture window was shattered and whatever furniture left behind had been exposed to the elements for nobody knew how long. The Houstons didn’t have much money, so the cheap rent appealed to them. They didn’t figure to stay long, but they fell in love with the place and bought the house. In a coincidence that no novelist could get away with, the Houstons later learned that the house had once belonged to the family of Patty Reed, the youngest survivor of the Donner Party, and that some of the artifacts of the Donner Party, including Patty’s doll, had been stored in the very same attic where Jim wrote his books about the lure of California and the mythology of its history.
It was inside this house where I sat many times enthralled by Jim’s telling of the Donner Party story and its offshoots. These times with Jim and Jeanne were peak experiences for me. Though he was almost thirty years older, I saw a commonality between the two of us. Jim had been born in San Francisco, but his parents were both Southerners. I had been born and raised in the South and had moved west as a young man. We shared a certain temperament that Jeanne recognized as Southern, an introverted nature and a joy in seeing metaphorical connections across geography and history that expressed itself in storytelling. I had come to California for a better life, albeit under circumstances laughably less grim and dramatic than anyone from Patty Reed’s generation. Sitting in the Houstons’ den was to me like sitting among the ghosts of old California with the one and only man able to conduct the séance.
A decade later, Jim and Jeanne Houston tag-teamed on a book that was to become the most lasting literary legacy of each of them. Farewell to Manzanar was a memoir about Jeanne’s childhood experience as a Japanese-American detainee in the Manzanar internment camp during World War II, one of the first literary accounts to emerge from that shameful episode. Farewell to Manzanar was adapted into a television movie and was adopted into school curricula all over California and the U.S. (The Houstons would later go on to establish the Pacific Rim Film Festival, an annual event in Santa Cruz that cross-pollinated the cultures of California, Hawaii and other Pacific lands through films.) Manzanar was where the Houstons’ story intersects with the Coonertys’. The day in 1973 that Jim and Jeanne Houston introduced Manzanar at a previously scheduled book signing was also the day that Neal and Candy Coonerty were publicly introduced as the new owners of Bookshop Santa Cruz.
Author Wallace Baine will discuss A Light in the Darkness, Santa Cruz literary history and the role of independent bookstores in the 21st century this Saturday at 2 p.m. at Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, 858 Amigo Road in Aptos. He will be joined by Wellstone Books publisher Steve Kettmann, Bookshop Santa Cruz’s Neal Coonerty and Casey Coonerty, and GT editor Steve Palopoli. The event is free.