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Pages Keep Turning for The Book Den as Newest Owner Marks 35 Years

The Book Den is “the bookstore everyone loves,” and you can show your love during the month of April, as Book Den owner Eric Kelley is celebrating his 35th year as head "Denizen" of Santa Barbara’s downtown bookstore that stocks new, used collectible and hard-to-find.

It’s also California’s “oldest used book store” — now 112 years old. Cruise into the long-narrow store with that special "book" aroma and you’ll also find brand new books — hardback and paper — to choose from in the inventory and people who know their stock and trade to help you find the perfect book.

Taking over the store in 1979, Kelley has ridden the highs and lows of the book market through it all — from the big bookstore chains to the Internet and back — The Book Den survived. No small feat considering the tsunami of competition.

In 2010, when big-box bookstores failed, it made The Book Den, at 15 E. Anapamu St., the largest bookstore downtown. Kelley actively added new books to the inventory. Now the store sells an equal amount of old and new books.

“It’s around 50/50,” Kelley said. “I’m so glad to still be in business 35 years later and really want to let everyone in town know we stock the latest bestsellers now as well as new books in paperback. Under 10 percent of all books sold are sold in independent bookstores like this.”

Given those odds, it’s even more impressive and a testament to his tenacity that The Book Den is still serving book fans.

Kelley, Carrie Lauer, Joaquin Gray and Michael Moore are the "denizens" who bring more than 100 years of experience to the fore and have a deep fondness for literature that’s infectious. You can find out-of-print books here as well. They know their stock and trade well.

Among the most expensive books the store has sold are an older copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce with an inscription to Sylvia Beach, published by Shakespeare & Co. that sold for $5,000. And on the other side of the literary aisle, a Charles Bukowski tome Hot Water Music with an original painting by Bukowski bound in, which fetched $3,000.

“Currently, the highest-priced books on our shelves include North American Indians: Being Letter and Notes on Their Manners, Customs, and Conditions by George Catlin for $2,500; a signed copy of Edward Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip for $2,000; a first edition of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy at $1,750; and, Colored Cadet at West Point: the Autobiography of Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper for $1,500," Kelley said. "Flipper was the first black cadet ever admitted to West Point.”

It makes for quite an eclectic selection, from Indians to the Sunset Strip to West Point.

The bookstore opened in 1902 in Oakland by brothers Ernest and Thomas Angel, who later went out of business and the store was taken over by Clarence Fellows Rowell, who died in 1926 his early 40s. Rowell was a recent graduate of the University of California, where his father was the university’s first librarian. (Books ran in their blood.) Max Clemens Richter purchased the store and since his family owned considerable property in Santa Barbara, he decided to move the store here in 1933.

A Sunday News-Press article from Feb. 19, 1933, noted that 40 tons of books were being moved into the ground floor of the Odd Fellows building — the same building it occupies today (just next door to the original location). Richter passed away in 1973 at age 89, and his son sold the business the next year. New owners Richard and Susan Phelps, splitting their time between here and the East Coast, opened The Book Den East on Martha’s Vineyard. With the seasonal nature of Martha’s Vineyard, they spent winters here and summers in Massachusetts.

Then in 1979, the Phelps’ decided to focus on the East Coast store. So it was on April 1, 1979, that Kelley and his business partner, Michael Isador, took over, and about four years into the business Isador sold his share to Kelley. Bringing us to the present.

Click here to read the full history.

The Book Den will be part of First Thursday on April 3 from 5 to 8 p.m., put on by the Downtown Organization. We invite you to join us and discover why the oldest used bookstore in California is still around and why it is “the bookstore everyone loves” — it’s the people who make the store special.

— Maureen McFadden is a publicist representing The Book Den.

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