A Short History of the Book Den
by Eric Kelley
Sometime during 1902, two brothers, Ernest and Thomas Angel, opened a
book store at 1257
Broadway in Oakland, California. In 1904, they moved the store four
blocks down Broadway
to 464 Eighth Street, and by 1905, they were out of business. Not a
beginning for what would become one of the oldest book stores in
But the store was taken over by Clarence Fellows Rowell, a recent
graduate of the University of California,
where his father, Joseph Cummings Rowell, was the University's first
A Book Den
business card in the Edward C. Kemble Collections of the California
contains the name C. F. Rowell written across the top in pencil. From
phrases "Books Bought Sold and Exchanged" and "Libraries Purchased",
we can deduce that the Book Den was primarily a used book store.
Clarence Rowell died on December 18, 1926, a relatively young man in
his early forties. In
early 1927, The Book Den was purchased by one Max Clemens Richter whose
family owned considerable property in Santa
Barbara. In 1933, Richter made the decision to move the store to Santa
The new home of The Book Den was
the ground floor of the Odd Fellows Hall at 15 East
The Santa Barbara News-Press of Febrary 19, 1933, contains an article
opening of The Book Den. The stock is described as comprising "volumes
all branches of literature, science, first editions, books on
natural sciences, art, and fiction." The description still applies.
Customers recall that in Max Richter's later years, it was usually
Richard, or long-time employee Helen Nelson with whom one dealt.
Richard worked in The
Book Den for more than twenty years, beginning when he was twenty-four.
Max Richter died
on April 14, 1973 at the age of eighty-nine. His son sold the business
the following year.
The store's new owners were Richard and Susan Phelps. A few years
later, the Phelps started The Book Den East on Martha's Vineyard. Given
the seasonal nature of business on
Martha's Vineyard, the Phelps found it possible to split their years,
summers in the East and winters in Santa Barbara. In 1979, the decision
was made to sell the Santa Barbara Book Den to concentrate
efforts on the Martha's Vineyard store.
On April 1st, 1979, I purchased the
Book Den with my business partner, Michael Isador. We both were fairly
knowledgable about books; I had worked for Brentano's bookstores in the
Bay Area. But we knew little about the used
book business. The adoption of Blanch and
Beardsly, the famous Book Den cats, was perhaps the most momentous
initiative. They would
grace the store for most of the next two decades.
In 1983, Michael Isador decided to
return to music and
I bought his share of the business. 1983 was also the year in which the
store acquired its first computer, a venerable Kaypro
I opened another Book Den store in 1985, this time in Isla Vista, near
University of California, Santa Barbara. It was a small 750 square foot
with fixtures from a B.Dalton book store. The store looked great, but
never really sold
enough to be profitable. The store was closed three years later.
Earthquake retrofitting resulted in the storefront next door
at 11 East Anapamu Street being
available and the idea of moving into the larger space took hold. It
took until September of 1990 for the
building to be ready, but when the move happened, it happened quick.
mounted on piano dollies to make rolling book carts and forty thousand
books and all the
fixtures were moved in three days. After fifty-seven years in the same
location, The Book
Den had a new home, even if it was just next door.
The 1990s saw more and more
computerization of the inventory and The Book Den began
selling on the Internet in 1999. Work began on The Book Den web site in
July of 2001 and
www.bookden.com was launched in September.
changes wrought by Internet on the book business have been profound.
The sheer volume of books available online has brought prices down, and
many bookstores, both new and used, have closed. The Book Den's
response was to concentrate on two lines of inventory - antiquarian
books valuable enough to sell on the Internet and a good general used
books which would sell to walk-in traffic in the store.
In 2005, The Book Den moved back to 15 East
Anapamu. The effects of Internet bookselling made it advantageous to
have a smaller store and a more select stock.
Book Den in 2008
At the end of 2010, both the Borders
and the Barnes & Noble stores in Santa Barbara closed.
Suddenly, The Book Den was the largest bookstore in downtown
Santa Barbara! There were two signifigant consequences: We acquired a
large amount of very handsome shelving from B&N, and we went
the new book business in a big way.
store had always carried new books - local history, new trade fiction
and limited backstock. But with no other store selling general new
books downtown, we saw a need and an opportunity. In the course of a
year or so, we've added new book inventory and gotten the
word out. At this point, our sales are just about half and half, new
Book Den today, new and used books
So where do we stand, ten years into
our second century? We see that the Internet is a permanent factor in
bookselling. And the coming of ebooks is already having an effect on
the sales of printed books. Some catagories, like reference books, will
probably lose out to the electronic version. Other subjects, like
literature will probably sell in both formats. Really sumputuous
productions - art books, fancy cookbooks, and the like - will do better
in print. We think our business model of selling a wide variety of new
and used books, both in a physican store and online, will continue to
function well into the future. We will continue to depend on the
patronage of the reading public of Santa Barbara.
thanks to Charles Johnson of the Ventura Art and Historical Museum for
his invaluable help in compiling the early history of The Book Den.