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Readers Hope Sale Has a Happy Ending

Patrons of Bart's Books, an Ojai landmark, pray its new owner won't close or change the beloved retreat.

March 17, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Equal parts flea market and intellectual haven, Bart's Books is as much a city institution as Ojai's celebrated "pink moment" sunsets.

For 40 years, book lovers have trekked to the open-air shop under a sheltering old oak tree to buy used classics, bestsellers, paperbacks and the odd rare volume.

If customers arrive after hours, they can choose from a selection of potboilers stacked on outdoor shelves, tossing their payments through a gate.

But bookworms from near and far are fearful they may lose their much-loved Bohemian retreat.

Longtime owner Gary Schlichter is selling the place. The shop's fourth operator, he has decided to call it quits after running Bart's Books for 27 years.

"It's been a good run, but I'm going to be 70 in June," said Schlichter, who plans to settle in Northern California with his wife, Cathleen. "It's a big job maintaining the place. It's time for someone new to see what they can do with it."

That is just what the shop's devoted fans are worried about.

They want to keep the shop just the way it is -- from the dusty hand-lettered signs identifying categories to the jars of stick candy still selling for 10 cents.

"It's such a gem. It stands for so much being lost in this day and age," said Ojai Valley Inn & Spa spokeswoman Merrill Williams, who has often steered guests to the bookshop. "It is peaceful and unhurried. It's the embodiment of what people come to Ojai for."

Schlichter was asking $1.1 million for the business and two adjacent homes. Last week he accepted an offer from an Orange County businessman, whom he declined to name. The new owner has promised to keep the bookstore open, he said.

"I strongly believe it will remain a bookstore," he said. "We told everyone who made offers that is what we wanted."

Stan Coburn, Schlichter's real estate agent, acknowledged that the new owner was not obligated to continue the business. The area is zoned for a mix of business and residential uses.

"Someone could buy it and do whatever they want," Coburn said. "But everyone in the Ojai Valley hopes it would stay as it is. It's a landmark."

Bart's Books is what your grandma's dated home would look like if she turned it into a bookstore. The shop, in fact, is tucked in and around a small "honeymoon cottage" built in 1935.

Cookbooks are stacked in the kitchen's cabinets and countertops. Travel books fill shelves along a hall corridor. A shaded patio and attached stalls house thousands more tomes dealing with philosophy, art, health, sex, horror -- you name it.

And then there are the bookshelves lining the walls outside the store, the ones filled day and night with paperbacks for passersby to browse. The shop's quaint honor system for paying for those books (35 cents each) has brought the establishment modest fame.

Founder Richard Bartindale, a former pilot, opened Bart's in 1964, inspired by the wooden book stalls he had seen along the Seine River in Paris, Schlichter said. It was Bartindale's idea to stock the outdoor shelves, he said.

Bartindale had envisioned an entire arts community sprouting around his bookstore, and when that didn't happen, he left, Schlichter said. The little shop went through two more owners before Schlichter bought it in 1976.

Over the years, he has transformed it from a disheveled mess of magazines and books to a shop with a somewhat more organized system. But he still shuns computers, preferring to add up sales on paper.

Jack Randolph, 57, has helped work the counter for 18 years. A Vietnam vet with a long gray ZZ Top beard, Randolph says it's the best job he has ever had.

"People come from all over the world," said Randolph, drawing from a Marlboro. "A hitchhiker once came in and said he found us from a Bart's bookmark someone gave him in the Midwest."

Ojai, population 8,000, is home to many writers, artists and actors, and Bart's has had its share of curious celebrities.

Former residents Anne Heche and Mary Steenburgen have dropped by. Actors Peter Strauss and Bill Paxton, who own spreads in town, are frequent customers. A masked Michael Jackson once drove down from his Neverland Ranch to browse for an hour or so, buying several books on health and nutrition, Schlichter said.

But the bookseller's most thrilling encounter came in the 1970s, when Paul Newman arrived looking for an old-edition "Huck Finn." His wife, Joanne Woodward, bought one of the plays she had been in, he said.

"Six feet with piercing blue eyes," he said. "They just nail you."

Newman's visit sparked another Bart's tradition: the sign-in guest book.

Schlichter hoped to capture Newman's hard-to-get autograph during a repeat visit, but the actor never again stopped by.

Serious collectors come looking for rare volumes, and Schlichter has quite a few. From a glass case, he pulls a book written by Amelia Earhart that is signed by the flier, whose disappearance over the Pacific Ocean is still a mystery.

He also carries first editions by Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf.

Sometimes the unexpected happens, Schlichter said, like the day a Carpinteria teacher found a book he had owned as a child.

"It made its way from Nebraska to Bart's Books," he said.

During a fierce storm a few years back, a massive oak near the shop came crashing down, dousing the lights. Absorbed readers standing in the stalls never even looked up.

"I've formed this opinion over the years that some of the best people in the world are book people," Schlichter said. "They're just different from everyone else."

The shop's devotees say the same is true about Bart's.

"This is a unique place," said John Mostachetti of Santa Barbara, who has been browsing there for years. "I hope whoever buys it is smart enough to keep it that way."

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