At a mere 200 square feet — about the size of three broom closets combined — The Mesa Bookstore easily ranks as the best used bookstore, per square inch, this side of the Rocky Mountains. The fact it’s survived for 24 years in such a tiny space, shoehorned into the same Cliff Drive stretch of mom-and-pop shops such as the Rose Café and Mesa Barbers, has much to do with the twinkle-eyed ebullience of co-owner David Karys-Schiff.
Although an unapologetic Luddite — he favors adding machines and cigar boxes over cash registers and computers — Karys-Schiff qualifies as an in-the-flesh algorithm who long ago learned to suss out what customers like to read more accurately than anything Amazon.com could devise. The trick, it turns out, is simple. “It’s like being a bartender but without the drinks,” he explained. “We listen to what the customers want.”
Once upon a time, Karys-Schiff — who sports a tightly woven ponytail and expertly twirled mustache — was, in fact, a bartender, not to mention an executive chef in many of Santa Barbara’s fanciest restaurants. After growing up in Walnut Creek, he moved to Santa Barbara in the late ’60s with his high school teacher/father and fell into restaurants because he lacked the science and math needed to pursue his dream job as a marine biologist.
Books came by accident. When his mother-in-law moved her Javine’s Sandwiches Etc. from the Cliff Drive storefront to bigger digs, Karys-Schiff and his wife, Lisa, took over the lease. That was 1991. Lisa was an avid reader with an eye for organization and presentation — to cram 10,000 books into such a small space, someone had to be.
Back then, Santa Barbara was loaded with secondhand bookstores. Today, there’s only The Book Den — more a collector’s paradise than secondhand book emporium — and Paperback Alley in Goleta. Mesa Bookstore is mostly about paperbacks, though about 10 percent of the titles — cookbooks and classics mostly — are hardback. Karys-Schiff buys about two-thirds from customers in exchange for store credit, and the rest come from rooting around estate sales and the like. “It’s the thrill of the hunt,” he explained. Mysteries, suspense, contemporary fiction, and sci-fi are the bread and butter, but there are also shelves for biography, business, philosophy, self-help, natural science, kids, and history. The erotica section — a top shelf four feet wide — is discreetly titled “Ahem.”
Successful bookstores are supposed to have no fewer than 150,000 titles, said Karys-Schiff. He has 7 percent that number, so he credits the store’s success to stubbornness and loyalty. One frequent visitor, now in his thirties, first visited the shop when he was 10. Another woman, who now lives in Rome, stops by whenever she’s back in town.
Some customers browse in peace, but for those inclined to talk, Karys-Schiff offers an uncommonly attentive ear. Their enthusiasms, it often turns out, are his enthusiasms, too. He knows what they’re talking about. “Book people are the best,” he gushed. “They’re always excited about the book they just read or the next book they’re going to read.”
The Mesa Bookstore is located at 1838 Cliff Drive. Call (805) 966-3725.