At a time when Internet sales are gobbling up shopping centers and spitting them out, there’s something perversely fitting that the oldest retail store in downtown Santa Barbara happens to be a used bookstore. Located across the street from the Central Library, The Book Den (15 E. Anapamu St.; bookden.com) recently celebrated its 85th anniversary. Guiding the Book Den for the past 39 years has been owner Eric Kelley. With owlish round designer glasses and a trim beard, Kelley comes across as either hipster professor or professorial hipster. Certainly, he doesn’t look like someone likely to win the reality game show Survivor, yet survive he has.
Although the Book Den still retains its vintage vibe, it’s been forced to change with the times. It now sells new books as well as used ones, a change Kelley embraced seven years ago after the collapse of great behemoths Borders and Barnes & Noble. Self-help books are no longer rooted in modern psychology but in Eastern mysticism instead. With the advent of online sales, Kelley has reduced his inventory for cookbooks and car manuals.
The Book Den has always boasted a strong local history section, and that’s not changed. And it never hurts to have a great landlord. The store occupies the ground floor of a building that’s been owned by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge since 1915. “They’re not giving it away,” said a grateful Kelley, “but they’re hardly bleeding us dry either.”
Kelley grew up in Germany, where his father ran the school systems on U.S. military bases. In 1967, the Kelley family moved to the Bay Area. “It was the Summer of Love,” he said. “I was 15.” Kelley studied film at UCLA and got the book bug working in a Brentano’s bookstore. It turned out he had a talent for numbers. He could prove how just about any bookstore could pencil out.
Nearly 40 years later, Kelley still enjoys what he does. He’s gotten to work with a lot of great people, he said. Contrary to what a lot of people think, no, he doesn’t hang out and read all day. “If I did that, we’d have sunk years ago,” he laughed. Kelley has seen downtown go through several major metamorphoses; downtown is in the throes of yet another. “I think the idea that retail can save downtown is kind of dead,” he said. “Things will be bad for a while, but soon a new model will emerge. I see us muddling along toward a solution.”