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Pico Iyer on Chaucer’s Bookstore

One of our long time favorite travel writers, Pico Iyer, also happens to have been raised in Santa Barbara. When he is in town you can often find him speaking at the Lobero about upcoming books on global travel, the Dalai Lama and other fascinating topics. Recently he wrote the following about our very own Chaucer’s Bookstore, enjoy!

Pico Iyer: A little bookstore defies odds, Internet

There was once a little bookstore, tucked into an unglamorous mall on the wrong side of town, where few visitors were likely to stumble upon it. Its owner had opened a small shop in 1974 with a modest bequest from her mother, and she and her husband had had to dip into their life insurance funds to keep it going. People from across the county drove for miles to buy books there — and to see friends, to pick up free copies of the New York Times Book Review, to special-order out-of-print works no one else could be bothered to find.

Eventually, though, online retailers and e-readers had become ubiquitous. But the little bookstore called Chaucer’s just kept growing and growing, housing more books — 150,000 and counting — in its happily overcrowded aisles than the central megastore had carried in a space six times as big.

How could this happen? Well, 24 of Chaucer’s 26 employees work there full time, many of them for more than 10 years. They have an investment in the concern that the part-time workers in big-box bookstores usually do not.

People come there just to browse through a carnival-like children’s room of books and toys and games. They come there to meet dates, to receive personal commendations, often to buy nothing at all. They come there as to a community center, a sanctuary or a trusted friend’s living room.

When the two giant bookstores in the center of Santa Barbara closed, the owner of Chaucer’s, Mahri Kerley, expressed her sorrow; more books were always better than fewer.

Besides, the passion she’d chosen to share was about something less visible than the bottom line. When the writer of this article was invited to give a reading at another new local bookstore — only to find that its owner had neglected even to buy any books to sell — he wasn’t surprised when a worker from rival Chaucer’s instantly responded to a call and brought down copies from his store, because some things matter more than spreadsheets.

One worker at Chaucer’s, when I purchased a copy of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s history of cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” told me that the book had shaken her profoundly, not least because she’d been diagnosed with cancer many years ago.

“You’re OK now?” I asked. She certainly looked the picture of health.

“So it seems,” she answered. “Not all terrible diagnoses prove fatal.”

Pico Iyer, a presidential fellow at Chapman University, wrote this for “My Bookstore,” in which 80 writers describe the bookshops they love.

Originally printed here: http://www.sunherald.com/2012/11/12/4299250/pico-iyer-a-little-bookstore-defies.html


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