Chaucer’s Dominates Santa Barbara Bookstores

Founder Reflects on Nearly Four Decades of Business

“I actually kind of wish there was still a bookstore downtown,” said Mahri Kerley, founder and owner of Chaucer’s, about the recent closure of both Borders and Barnes & Noble. She was sitting at a cluttered desk in the back of her Loreto Plaza store, surrounded by shelves of books, posters, and publishing companies’ catalogs. For the last month, Chaucer’s has once again reigned supreme.

When Santa Barbara’s two chain bookstores nearly simultaneously vacated their spaces downtown in early January, it was a small victory for Santa Barbara’s much-loved and biggest seller of new books. (Used bookstores are another story.) It’s been a long journey to the top for Kerley, who opened Chaucer’s 37 years ago in a tiny lot in nearby Five Points Shopping Center. The first half a dozen years were rough, she says, and she and her husband even borrowed money against their life insurance just to keep the store’s doors open.

Mahri Kerley
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Mahri Kerley

While the major chains dented her income, Kerley said she never worried they would put her out of business. Chaucer’s had the advantage of great customer service and a better selection. “Frankly,” she laughed, “I’ve got more books in my 6,500 square feet than Borders had in their 38,000 square feet. They were only interested in stocking books that they knew they were going to sell x number of in x number of days,” she added. “I’ve got books in here that I haven’t sold in over a year!”

Although Chaucer’s doesn’t place any of its merchandise on sale, Kerley said that’s the tradeoff for having great employees who receive full benefits, a 401k, a Christmas bonus, and good wages. She has 24 fulltime employees, she said, many of whom have been with her for 10 or 15 years. One has been with her for over 25 years. She only has two part-time employees—a sharp contrast with Borders, which according to Kerley had just four full-time employees.

Born in Canada, lifelong book-lover Kerley described how even in elementary school she would spend her free time helping the school librarian paste envelopes inside of books and lacquer the fronts. But buying the little bookstore that would be Chaucer’s was more like a whim than a childhood dream; Kerley had no experience and said she just “learned by the seat of my pants!”

She expressed no desire to relocate in the absence of any major bookseller on downtown State Street. “I’m comfortable with where I am,” she said, adding that she was “definitely not” planning on getting any larger, either. Kerley’s got enough on her plate just managing what she’s got; her schedule is packed full of meetings with publishing company representatives, and other tasks involved in choosing the books that will line her beloved bookshelves.

That she is not interested in moving Chaucer’s downtown may come as a disappointment to some. But even Santa Barbarans who got used to the convenience and certain other charms of the bygone chains are cheering for the triumph of this longtime, local, high-quality bookstore.

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