Times Past

Dan Krieger: Book-selling era in SLO closes with shop

A “Fifteen-volume set Dickens $5.75, and other standard works in same proportion” were available at William Wordsworth Goodrich’s bookstore on Monterey Street in March of 1896.

San Luis Obispo has always been hungry for knowledge and fresh information. Judge Walter Murray, who presided over the Committee of Vigilance in 1858 and founded this paper in 1869, frequently complained about the lack of books and newspapers in our region.

From the 1850s, general stores like that of Sam Pollard stocked a few books, but they were likely to be of the almanac and medical self help variety. Magazines such as The Overland Monthly along with the San Francisco newspapers were delivered to subscribers via the Pacific Coast Steamship Line.

In the late 1870s, I. N. Choynski’s bookstore opened selling both “best sellers” of the era and high school level textbooks. Goodrich’s establishment took over operations in the same location in the early 1890s.

Eleven-year-old Ernest Dawson got a job distributing leaflets for Goodrich’s in 1896. They advertised “Special Sale: New Merchandise; We Have the Best Books in Town.”

Within several months, Ernest “temporarily” dropped out of school and became Mr. Goodrich’s assistant. Ernest went on to found Dawson’s Bookshop, Los Angeles’ best source of books about the history and literature of California and the American West.

Young Ernest discovered that people were willing to seek out and pay for books.

Even economic downturns didn’t seem to greatly affect the demand for books. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was first published seventy-five years ago this spring.

Despite the Great Depression the novel cost $3, about $50 today. Over a million copies were sold by Christmas, 1936.

Over the last 40 years, San Luis Obispo had a wide variety of booksellers: Leon’s, Norwood’s, Gaby’s, Bookland, Paper Reads, and a branch of Santa Barbara’s The Earthling.

All of them are now closed, although Leon’s, which had a national reputation as a source of hard to get books, continues to offer online sales.

Leon’s donated many hundreds of children’s books to Hawthorne School and to a Peace Corp. project in Malawi when they shut down their downtown store.

Bruce Miller worked for the “impresario of used books,” the late Moe Moskowitz of Moe’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Bruce brought the concept of quality used nonfiction paperbacks to San Luis Obispo at his Phoenix Bookstore.

We are losing The Novel Experience at 779 Higuera St. Jim Hill and his wife, Christine, bought the old Bookland in 1992 and renamed the store in honor of Christine’s mother, Margaret Nybak, who had a store with the same name.

Jim had no retail experience whatsoever, and did not consider himself a “book person.” Jim became a reader and the shop has come to epitomize the essence of what most booklovers wish for in a small independent bookstore.

Shortly after opening The Novel Experience, Barnes and Noble was completed at the Downtown Center.

The Novel Experience quickly felt the drain in volume of sales. As other local bookstores were shuttered, Jim’s sales would get a slight boost.

The last 10 years have been marked by a far greater transformation. Barnes and Noble and Amazon came online.

Then there was Kindle, the E-book and iPad. Financial necessity is obliging Jim to close the doors of The Novel Experience at the end of April.

This marks the end of a tradition of more than a 130 years of independent new book selling in San Luis Obispo.

Jim is offering a large discount on his wonderful stock. During the remaining time, Jim is featuring signed copies of “More than My Share” by my good friend and colleague, Starr Jenkins.

It’s a remarkable account of Starr’s life as West Point plebe, his time as a “smoke jumper” and a Yosemite National Park ranger and a professor of English at Cal Poly.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.