Bart’s Books, a landmark of Ojai, is a Central California destination like you’ve never seen before


I had heard about the outdoor bookstore at Ojai in many different places – or, more specifically, through many different social media posts. Travel blogs have called it “the world’s largest open-air bookstore”. Beautifully shot videos on Instagram, showing row after row of books lit by the sun, describe it as a “maze of books”. Every time I stopped scrolling to take another peek inside Bart’s books, it piqued my curiosity even more. I had to experience this bookstore even though it meant a 100 mile drive through a lot of traffic in Los Angeles to get there.

But here’s the thing about the Internet, my friends: The Internet is full of lies.

One Tuesday afternoon, when I just couldn’t look at a computer screen for another minute, I got in my car and headed north. I walked the mile from my apartment at 101, and all of a sudden it was like a scene from a movie… if this movie is “The Truman Show” and this is the moment when Truman tries to run away from her. hometown and directors report blocked traffic to keep her from realizing there is no escape.

The shelves outside the store walls are sold on the 24 hour honor system.

Julie tremaine

Granted, it was not planned and probably unwise to choose a getaway just before rush hour 78.5 miles north of the Ojai Valley, just east of Santa Barbara. But in the pile of lies I had accumulated about this mythical bookstore, there was one that crossed my mind as I watched snails pass me on the highway: not only was this maze of books a point of A must-see on the central coast, but it was open around the clock. Even though the website said the store closed at 6 p.m., other online sites said you could buy books there at any time.

It’s okay, I thought as the minutes went by faster than the miles. By the time I get there I’ll have about an hour to explore and then I’ll stay late.

So weird to think Facebook videos are unverified, right?

Bart's is surrounded by neighborhood houses.

Bart’s is surrounded by neighborhood houses.

Julie tremaine

Two hours into what should have been an hour and 15 minute drive, I pulled into Bart’s Books. Occupying the corner of two residential tree-lined streets, it was nothing like what I had imagined. I immediately knew that the place was special. But I also knew right away that it looked nothing like what I had seen online.

When I heard “maze of books” I envisioned a collection of shelves in a field, where room after room had been added as the store’s inventory and popularity increased – much like the Bottle Tree. Ranch in Oro Grande, where Elmer Long has built “trees” from old glass bottles in the desert and people travel all over the world to see it.

Bart’s Books was, well, a house. Not just a house, but a house in a residential area. I parked and headed for the door, not stopping to stare at the shelves on the book shelves on the exterior walls of the building. My clock was ticking. By the time I walked in I only had 15 minutes before the store closed.

“Are you looking for something specific? The man behind the counter asked me.

A time machine? I thought but I didn’t say.

Bart's Books was founded in 1964.

Bart’s Books was founded in 1964.

Julie tremaine

A quick glance around and I knew this was a place I could spend an entire afternoon browsing. I wouldn’t call it a labyrinth, but the space was so vast, with so many corners and alcoves, that I couldn’t figure it out all at once. There were shelves and racks and shelves everywhere I looked, and in the spaces where there weren’t any books there were typewriters and old plants and a million other beautiful distractions. A woman sat at one of the store’s patio tables, peacefully reading a book in the late afternoon sunlight. I wanted to be that woman. But instead, I just picked a direction and went for it.

And I walked into … a living room?

Bart’s Books was founded by Richard “Bart” Bartinsdale in 1964, when, according to the store’s account, he decided to put his oversized book collection to good use, putting up a few shelves outside his house and asking. a payment on the honor system. Customers would drop coins and money into coffee cans and take what they wanted to read.

The different "rooms" of the open-air bookstore have nooks to sit and read in the sun.

The various “rooms” of the open-air bookstore have nooks for sitting and reading in the sun.

Julie tremaine

Eventually they would resell what they had finished and probably buy another armful of books to take home. The store estimates that nearly a million pounds have come and gone over the half century that Bart’s has been in business. Bart himself is now deceased and the store has completely overtaken what was once his home. It is now owned by another Ojai local, Matt Henriksen. That’s why the kitchen is now a space for cookbooks and food culture writings, and there’s a narrow hallway filled with Shakespeare. This lounge is mostly devoted to adult non-fiction, but an intimate corner by the fireplace is filled with children’s literature.

By some estimates, there are now over 100,000 mostly used books in their inventory, much of it brought in by readers for trade credit. Some books come from real estate sales. There are rare collections, such as a complete 18-volume set of the 1900 “Samuel Pepys Journal” that sells for $ 2,000. These stay inside the building, but even the exterior sections aren’t really exposed to the elements. Everything is covered with overhangs, but the east-west positioning of the Ojai Valley means it only gets 20 inches of rainfall per year.

This room has windows facing the exterior part of the bookstore.

This room has windows facing the exterior part of the bookstore.

Julie tremaine

Those shelves outside the walls are still there, and still on the honor system, just like Bart designed. They’re filled with $ 0.50 books that didn’t make it into the store. The difference is that now, instead of cans of coffee, payment goes through a slot in the door.

The irony of my terrible timing on this excursion is that normally when I walk through bookstores it is an exercise in restraint. I tell myself as I walk in that I am not allowed to buy anything, because my “to read” stack isn’t really a stack, it’s a whole library. It never works. I always leave with two or three more titles that I can’t resist bringing home.

On the way to Bart’s, I made a mental exception. I was allowed to have whatever I wanted. Anything. I spent those slow miles imagining myself leaving with a huge load of books: travelogues, a few books of poetry that I hadn’t read yet, maybe ghost stories. In my rush to see everything in the store, I scanned and scanned something I might want to take home – but I was too impressed with the character of the place to focus on just one title. If I had had the time I should have had, that would have been a different story.

Bart's Books in Ojai, California.

Bart’s Books in Ojai, California.

Julie tremaine

Instead, I wandered the rooms and spent some time talking to the man behind the counter. “I read on the internet that it’s the biggest bookstore in the world,” I told him.

– No, he said, shaking his head. “Not even close. He pointed out Hay on Wye, a town in Wales which has established itself as “the town of books”. It’s basically a huge bookstore, he added, and much of it is outside.

Still, I couldn’t find another open-air bookstore in this country that was larger than Bart’s – not that, I think, there is any real official measurement of these things. Even the store’s website says it’s the world’s largest outdoor bookstore. Honestly, I don’t care if it is or not. I want to go back and spend a day there, sit and read in the sun and leave with my armful of books.

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