Based in Ojai, California, Bart’s Books is a bookstore unto itself.
I was first introduced to Ojai by actors who were in my first play, Bang! A Love Story. That’s going back a few years now, and although my wife and I have visited several times since then we somehow never got around to visiting Bart’s. Truth be told, one of our cousins continually suggested we stop by, but, for whatever reason, we never made the trek.
Until finally we did.
Bart’s was a revelation.
A literal love-at-first-sight experience. Both my wife and I are writers and book fanatics, which works out well, because once we arrive we both know we’re basically there for the day. Eventually as dusk falls, one of us has to drag the other out. Bart’s visits have become regular pilgrimages akin to religious experiences.
I’m not one for buying books online, because I seldom start with a specific book in mind. For me the pleasure is in browsing, searching and finding a book I’ve never heard of, that seems to call out. And Bart’s has yards and rows and shelves filled with books. It’s a magical place bursting with fiction and non-fiction, the popular and the arcane. It’s a wonderful space in which to lose yourself and enter other worlds.
Bart’s is the largest independently owned and operated outdoor bookstore in the U.S. The story goes that in 1964 Bart’s Books was little more than a sparkle in the eye of Richard Bartinsdale whose collection of books had gotten so overwhelming that he constructed a series of book cases along the sidewalk so that passersby could peruse the titles.
In lieu of a cash register, “Bart” left coffee cans atop the book cases. People would select a title or two and leave payment in the cans, giving birth to Bart’s world-famous tradition of selling books via the honor system. Since that time Bart’s Books has become host to nearly one million books ranging from the thirty-five cent special (that have now gone up to a whopping fifty-cents) which line the outside walls and are still for sale on the honor system, to rare, out of print first editions, and art books valued in the thousands of dollars.
Matt Henriksen Bart’s general manager kindly took some time to tell us a bit more about the magic of Bart’s.
What initially drew you to the bookstore?
I have been coming to the store since I was in middle school. I used to ditch school to come here to hang out.
How long have you run it?
I’ve been managing the place for seven years.
How would you describe Bart’s to someone who’s never visited the store?
The slogan from the bookmark back in the eighties said, “everything under the sun.” I think that’s a fair description, used new antique rare and valuable books, inside and out of a 30s honeymoon cottage and its courtyard.
Does Bart’s have a mission?
To get the best possible book into the hands of the person who needs it most, to preserve ideas and ideals and encourage their circulation, and to get our customers to try something just a little bit outside of their zone of comfort.
What type of events to you have at the bookstore?
Art, music, book signings, wedding receptions, poetry readings, private dinners. Almost anything one could imagine if we think it will support our goals.
As you mention on your site you offer “thirty-five cent specials which line the outside walls and are still for sale on the honor system, to rare, out-of-print first editions, and art books valued in the thousands of dollars”.
How good are people at honoring the thirty-five cent honor system?
They have actually been 50 cents for over a decade now. the honor system is after hours only and seems to generate somewhere between 20 and 0 dollars every month.
What are some of the more valuable books you’ve sold at the bookstore?
Value is relative, we have sold books I consider valuable from fifty cents to tens of thousands of dollars.
What are some of the most unusual books that have found their way to Bart’s?
My current favorites are four bound volumes of New York Times mid-week pictorials featuring beautiful rotogravure reproductions of Europe throughout the first world war, an uncorrected proof of Ernest Hemingway’s ” A Movable Feast”, and an early California promotional book published in Oakland in 1888 advertising for people to settle in east Los Angeles which includes an article by John Muir on the San Gabriel mountains. I also Have a couple john Muir first editions, “Travels in Alaska” & “My First Summer in the Sierra”
The sheer number and types of books you carry is dizzying. That said, is there a prototypical Bart’s patron?
As a location that benefits a lot from tourism we get a large number of one time customers, many of whom are not regular bookstore visitors. As far as repeat customers the single unifying feature of a Bart’s customer is curiosity.
Learn more about Bart’s at bartsbooksojai.com