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The Honor System Works All Night Long at Bart's Books : Ojai: Real estate agents cite the store as an example of the city's small-town style. They say it helps sell houses.

December 16, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bart's Books in Ojai is a bookstore that believes in doing business on the honor system.

When the store is closed, customers may still buy books from a dozen four-shelf bookcases mounted on outside walls.

The honor system is in effect all day on Mondays and every night of the week from the time the store closes at 5:30 p.m. until it reopens the next day at 10 a.m.

And very few of the bookstore's customers ever abuse their privileges.

"We feel good about it," said Gary Schlichter, 56, owner of the bookstore at 302 W. Matilija St. "It's a tradition going on since the store opened 26 years ago. Very seldom does someone take a book without paying.

"It restores your faith in humanity," Schlichter added. "I'd say at least 95% of the time people drop their money into the box."

The outside shelves are always stacked with about 1,000 used books--paperbacks, hardbacks, a mix of fiction and nonfiction--all selling from 15 to 50. Prices are marked on each book.

"Sometimes a person lacks the correct change or leaves an IOU. They'll come in when the store is open and say: 'Here's the money I owe you,' " Schlichter said.

People on foot, bicycle, horseback, in cars and trucks patronize the store after hours.

"If the overhead lights aren't strong enough for them, they will often use vehicle headlights or flashlights to help read the titles or browse," Schlichter said.

"Bart's Books is a bookstore that makes everybody feel good and proud of their hometown. It speaks very well for Ojai and the basic honesty of people who live here," Mayor Nina Shelley said.

Ojai, population 7,000, is home to many writers and artists.

Realtors say they point out the bookstore to potential home buyers, citing it as an example of Ojai's small-town style. They say the image helps sell houses.

"I drive my clients by Bart's and describe the honor system in buying books when the store is closed. They are in awe," realtor Goldena Stallings said.

Jack Randolph, 53, the store's assistant manager, said out-of-towners constantly tell him that the system would never work where they live, that the books would be cleaned out overnight.

"They're all curious about what happens when it rains. The shelves have a large overhang and the books are fairly well protected. We may lose a few in a driving rain storm, but it doesn't happen very often," Randolph said.

The bookstore is in a 55-year-old house, two garages and a large patio jammed with bookshelves containing more than 100,000 used books.

Books are arranged on shelves according to categories, from travel to the occult. The kitchen is full of cookbooks. Hallways have travel books. History is in a garage. In the patio, the books are on shelves sheltered by the branches of a 300-year-old live oak tree.

The books come from estate and library sales as well as from individuals who bring boxes and shopping bags full of books every day to sell or trade. Many of the contributions come from people who are moving or cleaning out the house.

People from all over Southern California find their way to Bart's.

Lilibeth Bishop, 31, of Malibu, a writer for Women's Journal, a popular Philippines weekly, told how she looked all over the Los Angeles area for "Elmer Gantry" and "It Can't Happen Here," two Sinclair Lewis books long out of print.

She found them at Bart's.

"If you can't find a book anywhere else, chances are you will find it here," she said.

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