Book Den Marks 85 Remarkable Years in Santa Barbara

Release Date: February 15,2018

Santa Barbara, Calif. - One morning in late 1932, Max Clemens Richter stepped off a train at the Santa Barbara station and began walking up State Street. He knew the city well. His family owned property in Mission Canyon and he had lived there from age 3 to 17. He wanted to return, but first he needed to find a new home for the bookstore he had been running in Oakland, Calif., for the past six years.

When he reached Anapamu Street, he turned right and found a vacant store on the ground floor of the Odd Fellows' building. It was a reasonable size and located across the street from an institution likely to attract customers – the Public Library. Richter rented the space, returned to Oakland and shipped some 40 tons of books and magazines to Santa Barbara by train.

It turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Richter's enterprise, the Book Den, has endured longer than any retail business in downtown Santa Barbara. That's no small feat considering retail trends and competition the store has faced over the decades.

When the Book Den opened Feb. 20, 1933, a Santa Barbara News-Press article described shelves stocked with “volumes treating with all branches of literature, science, first editions, books on philosophy, sociology, natural sciences, art, and fiction.” Today's patrons find little has changed.

Since its founding in Oakland in 1902, The Book Den has changed hands four times. Eric Kelley, the current owner, bought it in 1979. In 1990, he moved it next door and then back to its original location in 2005. The process of cataloging and digitizing the inventory began in the late 1980s. Online sales started in 1999 and debuted in 2001.

Over time, Kelley has replaced the fixtures and furnishings. The last remaining piece from Oakland, a green wooden table, is in storage. However, the essential character of the space remains warm and inviting. After a major makeover, a regular customer said the store "looks the same, only better.”

Kelley is often asked what makes the store's longevity possible. He cites Richter's vision and several other factors, including having a staff of booksellers who know and love books. The current staff of four has a combined 130 years in book sales.

In addition, the off-State location is more affordable than retail space with State Street frontage, and there are two nearby parking garages.

Most importantly, he said, the Book Den has a loyal following. Many customers who have visited the store over the years return with their friends and family members.

Kelley said the business has thrived by adapting to changes in bookselling and retail, in general. For example, the Book Den met competition with chain bookstores by acquiring used books in like-new condition that could be sold for less than new books at discount prices. When Borders and Barnes & Noble closed their downtown locations within a week of each other, it became possible to build a evenly balanced market for both new and gently used books and adjust title selections for in-person and online sales.

The death of the book, and corresponding demise of book stores, has been predicted for decades. But authors keep writing. Publishers bring out as many new books as ever, and more independent bookstores are opening than closing.

Readers still love the experience of browsing through a real bookstore, and the Book Den will remain open to meet the demand, Kelley said.

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