Karen Thrasher
Paul Wellman

In 1972, when Isla Vista’s Unicorn Book Shop closed its doors, longtime employee Karen Thrasher made a promise to herself: “One day I will open my own bookstore.” In January 1997, 25 years later, Thrasher Books opened at 827 Santa Barbara Street, next door to Our Daily Bread. The cozy shop, with its worn sofas, potted plants, cheerfully cluttered surfaces, and bric-a-brac tucked among the books, attracted a mix of local customers and tourists. Now, after 15 years in business, Thrasher has lost her lease. September 30 marks the end of a chapter.

Last week, Thrasher and I sat at her paper-strewn desk, chatting as customers browsed and sat quietly reading. The proprietor’s got a no-nonsense gruffness that soon gives way to warmth — especially when the subject is close to her heart. “The bookstore I had in mind all those years ago looked almost exactly like this,” she noted, pointing out the northern exposure that has protected her books from sun damage, the antique wall treatment, and the skylight above her desk. For this lifelong lover of books, running her own store has been a dream — even if it hasn’t made her much money. “In my best year, I made $3 an hour,” she said. “It was a community service: a wonderful, selfish experience of coming in contact with Santa Barbara’s finest.” What does she mean by that? “People who read books carry on good conversations,” she explained. “They have high standards of ethics. They’re just my kind of people.”

Thrasher has no plans to reopen in a new location, though she will remain in the area and will continue to buy and sell books wholesale. The closure of Thrasher is in keeping with a trend: in 1971, the Santa Barbara region boasted 27 bookstores; by 1999 there were 14 left; today, Thrasher counts eight.

Those who have come to love Thrasher Books are dismayed by the news of its impending closure, yet Thrasher says she’s excited about what’s to come and grateful for the years she’s had. Her landlords have not increased her rent for the past nine years, which she says allowed her to stay in business through the economic downturn.

“Within 16 hours of receiving the notice that my lease was up, I determined that it was a good thing,” she said. “There are no bad guys here. For 15 years, I’ve known what I was going to do every day. Soon I’ll be able to make other choices.” Her new goal, Thrasher said, is “to learn how to have fun: gardening, bike riding, walking on the beach.”

“How about reading?” I asked.

“That goes without saying,” Thrasher said. “That’s not something I do for fun. It’s more important than that.”


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