It took Karen Thrasher 24 years to plan her business, but by the time she opened, it was just what she wanted.
The former UCSB sociology student worked at the Unicorn Bookshop in Isla Vista in 1968 until it closed four years later.
“At that point, I discovered that selling books was my true vocation,” said Thrasher, who has operated Thrasher Books at 827 Santa Barbara St. in Santa Barbara for the past 15 years. “I had a well-rounded general education, and selling books made a positive out of that education. There’s nothing like putting great books and information in people’s hands.”
When Unicorn closed, she promised herself she would open her own store. After the single mother raised her son and saved enough money, she opened Thrasher Books in 1997.
“It was exactly what I wanted,” she said.
From the layout to the bookcases, the location, the wall treatment, the mural and the small back room that hosted the children’s room — it was perfect, Thrasher said, adding that while the business has sustained itself, the used bookstore never made her any profit.
And now, after 15 years of building her 8,000-book collection, she will close the doors to her store.
“I am writing you to inform you that the lessor of the property has decided to move in a different direction with the premises you occupy,” a letter from Pueblo Viejo Properties manager Trey Pinner reads. “We realize that you have been a long-term tenant and greatly appreciate your occupancy at the property. Please know that we value your tenancy and, as a result, have not increased your rent for the property since 2004.”
C’est Cheese, a family-run specialty cheese shop next door, will expand into Thrasher Books by Oct. 1.
Thrasher said it took her about 16 hours to process what the letter meant and to decide her next move.
“It was like having a bag of cement dropped on your head, I suppose,” she said. “But we can’t change the external circumstances, we can’t change what’s happened, so if we are uncomfortable with what’s happening, what we can do is change our way of looking at it.”
Thrasher said she was grateful her landlords were flexible over the years and understood the decision from a business perspective. She could try to move to another location, but she plans to take her time and find another niche in the book industry.
“This is my bookstore, I created this, this is what I love,” Thrasher said as a customer asked if she carried The Mermaid Chair and she directed her to Sue Monk Kidd without hesitation. “It’s kind of like when your dog dies and people tell you to get another dog. Well, I’m not quite ready to get another dog.”
In the early 1970s, there were 29 bookstores on the South Coast. Now, there are only a handful left.
Thrasher reads three books a week, for a total of about 4,000 so far, but she said there aren’t as many voracious readers anymore.
“People aren’t taking the time to read; this is what makes us fragmented,” one of Thrasher’s customers said as she pointed to her iPhone.
People say they don’t have time, according to Thrasher.
“It takes awhile to get your brain back into following consistent lines of thought and keeping track of what’s going on because you’re so used to everything coming in in little bits,” she said. “You go as far as you can go in five minutes.”
The Book Den, which has been in Santa Barbara since 1933, upped its selection of new books to fill the void left by Borders and Barnes & Noble. Online sales make up about 30 percent of the Den’s business, according to owner Eric Kelley.
Amazon has undercut prices but made it efficient for consumers. If rents remain reasonable, Kelley said, the local demand can support the remaining brick-and-mortar retailers.
“Borders and Barnes were probably doing about $10 million in sales, so what happened with that?” he said. “We decided that some of the readers went online, some went to Chaucer’s, some went to us and most of it went away.”
So how will it play out?
“It’s a tough time if you’re looking at the industry,” Kelley said. “Some are predicting e-books will destroy the whole world and Amazon will control all of American publishing. Some categories may migrate, like certain popular fiction or eventually the big political hardcover bestseller that is priced at $35 to $40. The political stuff is so temporal.”
Jerry Jacobs, who has been running Lost Horizon Bookstore for 28 years, predicts that eventually there will be fewer storefronts and more online retailers.
“I think it’s already going that way,” he said. “That’s why we have a lot of books like the older, better things I have. A lot of people don’t want to try to buy those books online. But some people have just got in the habit of buying online.”
Thrasher conceded that she might eventually buy an e-reader if she can’t find a book she wants to read in print. But she’s worried people might stop reading altogether.
“The worst thing about losing books is that they are a source of developing an ethical approach to the world,” she said. “You learn from reading and from seeing other people’s experiences.”
While Thrasher Books will end its 15-year era in three months, its owner is excited about the new life her books will take on.
“No matter where they go, they will be carrying those books with them for the rest of their lives,” she said.
Other Independent Book Retailers
» The Book Den — 15 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara
» Bennett’s Educational Materials — 5130 Hollister Ave. in Santa Barbara
» Book Gems — 775 Mariquita Drive in Santa Barbara
» Chaucer’s Books — 3321 State St. in Santa Barbara
» Front Page — 5737 Calle Real in Goleta
» VLT Gardner Horticultural and Botanical Books — 625 E. Victoria St. in Santa Barbara
» Left Coast Books — 5877 Hollister Ave. in Goleta
» Lost Horizon Bookshop — 703 Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara
» Ozonoff Books — 950 Miramonte Drive in Santa Barbara
» Pacific Travelers Supply — 12 W. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara
» The Paperback Exchange — 1838 Cliff Drive in Santa Barbara
» Paperback Alley Used Books — 5840 Hollister Ave. in Goleta
» Paradise Found — 17 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara
» Ralph Sipper Books — 10 W. Michelorena St. in Santa Barbara
» Randall House — 835 Laguna St. in Santa Barbara
» Read N’ Post — Currently closed but is relocating in Montecito
» Solvang Book Co. — 1680 Mission Drive in Solvang
» Tecolote Bookshop — 1470 East Valley Road in Santa Barbara
» Unity Church Metaphysical Bookstore — 227 E. Arrellaga St. in Santa Barbara
» Vedanta Temple Bookstore — 925 Ladera Lane in Santa Barbara