In his poem “Where My Books go,” Irish poet William Butler Yeats declared that the words he utters and writes fly to aching hearts “And sing to you in the night, Beyond where the waters are moving, Storm-darken’d or starry bright.”
These metaphorical birds, however, are becoming more and more electronic, whether a reader buys an e-book or orders a book from an online retailer. But what if you would like to feel the wings of a book before purchasing? What if running your hands along the spines of books on a shelf help you seek out your next read? Those who find themselves nodding still have their refuge: the Book Den on E. Anapamu Street.
The Book Den opened its doors in Santa Barbara almost 90 years ago in 1933. Fast forward almost five decades. Eric Kelley — who has grown up with one foot in North America and the other foot in Europe — was flexing his travel muscles from San Francisco to San Diego, in search of a bookstore to buy with his business partner.
In January 1979, on Mr. Kelley’s birthday, the pair of bibliophiles arrived in Santa Barbara and entered the Book Den.
“Do you know of any bookstores on sale?” Mr. Kelley asked Susan Phelps.
“This one is,” replied Mrs. Phelps, who had been running the business with her husband for about five years.
The folks got the ball rolling to transfer the ownership, and on April Fool’s Day about three months later, Mr. Kelley and his business partner had the key to den.
Forty years later, Mr. Kelley is a part of the four-man team that runs the store, of which he has been the sole owner since his business partner traded the den for the music stage in 1983.
With Amazon starting to gain traction approximately a decade ago, however, many book chains — such as Borders and Barnes & Noble — began to close their stores.
“You can’t out-Amazon Amazon,” Mr. Kelley told the News-Press.
With these book chains slashing prices as they downsized, independent book chains also went under. When asked how the Book Den has managed to stay afloat and thrive, Mr. Kelley pointed to a couple of things.
“A really good bookstore is about the experience,” said Mr. Kelley.
Indeed, entering the Book Den derives the feeling of coming to a familiar place of warmth and comfort, with soft lighting and an even softer whisper of the books lining the walls. Chairs and stools are scattered throughout the store, where one can test drive a book before committing to a purchase. And for the last two decades of the millennium, two adorable felines even weaved their way between the customers and books. The Book Den cats Blanch and Beardsley served as the mascots of the bookstore.
The Book Den, of course, did not survive the turbulent times for bookstores by just installing soft lighting and adopting cats.
“The secret of my success is actually used books,” said Mr. Kelley. “With used books, the profit margin is better.”
Mr. Kelley told the News-Press, however, that the store only began to focus on stocking new books when the major bookstore chains started to crumble. He recalibrated the stock percentages to meet the new demand. New books now constitute half of the Book Den’s stock of books, with the other half being used ones.
The used book prejudice of someone walking through the store’s books, however, will not be stroked until the person interested in buying flips the book over.
“We’re really fussy about which (used) books we buy,” said Mr. Kelley. The used and new books are then mixed together throughout the store.
If the book is new, the price of the sticker will reflect the price printed on the cover. If it is used, there is a sticker with a lower-than-retail price.
The Book Den is located on 15 E. Anapamu St. For more information, call 805-962-3321.