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Santa Barbara to Books: Drop Dead

Once Mighty Downtown Superstores Laid to Waste by Online Purchasing


BOOKED FOR SALE: Well, I’ve found out who killed both downtown Santa Barbara bookstores: Me.

Not me alone, of course. But everyone else who went online for books and DVDs and every kid who downloaded music instead of going into Borders and its nearby State Street mate, Barnes & Noble.

I’m shocked. Not just one but both downtown bookstores are closing, bang-bang (Barnes & Noble on December 31 and Borders January 7). They’ll be replaced by discount apparel shops (just what we needed to fill the culture gap, eh?).

Barney Brantingham

Borders reportedly has been trying to sell its lease for years, and finally found a buyer, discount clothing retailer Marshalls, also in Oxnard. And oddly, just as it could have had a downtown monopoly, Barnes & Noble also gave up the ghost. Are B&N execs cursing the bad timing or just happy to surrender in the S.B. bookstore wars, one that killed the beloved Earthling a few years ago?

Okay, so I helped shove the knife in. I recently bought a Kindle, an e-reader that Sue went crazy on ordering Jane Austin books on the cheap. When Borders was a hot spot a few years ago, Sue spent many hours and many dollars in the music section. But when the inventory faded, so did she.

Fortunately, we still have good old locally owned Chaucer’s (which owner Mahri Kerley says is going strong) in Loreto Plaza, Tecolote in Montecito’s upper village, and Borders in Goleta. And plenty of good used bookshops.

Why go online for stuff? Well, the newly published 736-page Autobiography of Mark Twain runs $34.95, but Kindle will ship it to you for $9.79. My beloved New Yorker priced me out, so I now read it on Kindle. Saves me money, but the page-turning pleasure is gone, baby, gone. I’m reconsidering.

EL ENCANTO’S WISH LIST: El Encanto Hotel, partly rebuilt, has a $30- to $40-million wish list for Santa. That, I hear, is what it will take to finish the new, improved enchanted inn on the Riviera overlooking town.

According to my sources, Orient-Express (O-E), owner of the famed inn, is looking for a local angel to invest the money to finish the hotel. O-E reportedly has necessary funds to complete the work, but at a slower pace.

But the scrooge part is that hotel investment money is harder to come by than USC and UCLA football wins. (They’ll meet head-on Saturday so one will chalk up a victory.) What’s scary for potential El Encanto investors is that, according to informed sources, the project’s costs have ballooned to a figure as frightening as a Halloween witch on the next bar stool at midnight.

Not that it’s all the fault of the prestigious owner, Orient-Express. There was a lovely honeymoon period after O-E bought the century-old classic inn for a reported $30 million and announced ambitious remodeling plans. When Kerin Friden (wife of longtime owner Eric Friden, who died in a 2003 polo accident) sold the place, there was great rejoicing.

The Orient-Express brand spells luxury and quality all over the world. But the honeymoon tapered off, as they do. City permitting is still dragging. Neighbors objected strenuously to plans for noisy above-ground valet parking and a power facility and appealed to the City Council.

That required re-juggling of the plans, but finally the council was satisfied and neighbors smoked the peace pipe. It was discovered that the main hotel building, which O-E planned to save, was so far gone that when engineers examined its base, the whole building had to be razed. More unforeseen dollars. You can see the new skeleton if you drive by. About this time, the recession hit, drying up investment money. In 2009, work stopped. According to a newsletter being sent to neighbors this week, construction was restarted in September on a water-main relocation and other phases.

All remaining permits should be issued by early spring, O-E said. “In the weeks ahead, pending receipt of permits, we should be starting excavation of our underground valet parking and site utility trenching,” O-E said. No mention of when major construction might start and when El Encanto will reopen.

Meanwhile, three other major hotel projects are stalled, waiting for a Christmas angel bearing gold. Fess Parker didn’t live long enough to see his proposed 150-room hotel rise on East Beach. Then there’s what was once called La Entrada, a colossal mistake proposed on lower State. It was approved by a past City Council, but surely could never be okayed now, even after the time-share plan was junked in favor of 114 hotel rooms. Now for sale dirt-cheap, I hear.

Mistakes by developer Bill Levy and a drawn-out approval process dragged the project into the recession. Levy declared bankruptcy, and now the project is in limbo, leaving rows of abandoned buildings and the derelict California Hotel. Rumor has it that some mysterious money people are in the wings but want to do something even bigger.

Last but not least is the once-beloved blue-roofed Miramar Hotel, now a shamble of razed cottages, a project that sets Montecitans’ teeth a-grinding. Owner Rick Caruso got a one-year permit extension from county supervisors last March. But some supes were clearly unhappy about the years of delay. First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal called it a “dilapidated nuisance.”

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