It seems like just a few years ago that we were mourning the loss of independent bookstores. Those neighborhood places that fostered community were being edged out by chain stores offering a wider selection and discounted prices. Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Brentanos were the mighty triumvirate, ubiquitous in every mall and often with multiple stores within a few miles of one another. But how the mighty have fallen! Where there were three, now there is one: Amazon. Strange thing, though. The independents have made a comeback, offering good service and allowing that most important of retail customer behaviors: browsing.
One such place is not in Los Angeles proper where there are several excellent independent bookstores like Vroman’s in Pasadena, but eighty miles north in Santa Barbara. The place is called Chaucer’s Books, and it has been alive since 1974 serving Los Angeles’ version of the Hamptons, a vacation community in summer, a college town in winter. Yes, the prices are shamelessly without discount and the same books can be found more cheaply on Amazon, but the browsing is what keeps me coming back. The Amazonian algorithm can suck it; I rarely have anything interesting recommended to me by the digital gods at Amazon. However, at Chaucer’s, I always find books I never knew existed, and this is from someone who pays attention to publishing news and gossip. Because they offer me such an eclectic selection as well as ample time to browse, I’ll drop some dollars there when I’m in SB day-tripping.
In addition to books, the store carries a huge selection of cards, calendars, journals, and other reading life bric-a-brac. They have a children’s department separate from the main store with an extensive stockpile of kiddie lit. In a glass case on one side of the store are rare and hard to find books, such as coffee table tomes and art house publications. They regularly feature local Santa Barbara writers like Douglas Adams and Christopher Buckley (no, not the political writer but the poet-essayist).
My only criticism of the place is that the aisles are narrow. Overstock is stacked on top of the bookshelves or at the base, making it difficult when looking on the lower shelves. Many times, I had to get down on my knees to peer at the lowest stacks, but I was amply rewarded with some good finds. They have an extensive collection of religion and philosophy books as well as history and the decorative arts.
Chaucer’s Books has drawn me to Santa Barbara time and again. Yes, the city is beautiful with the ocean breeze and the laid back atmosphere, but SB is not just a pretty face. There is an intellectual life there, too, and Chaucer’s is the best evidence of it. The town is a little crowded in summer, and I prefer the colder months when most of the tourists are back home and the city is quieter. Nothing like a little rain on the roof while browsing for books. Chaucer’s contact details are listed on their website.