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WESTERN TRAVEL

A literature lover strikes it rich

There's a mother lode of independent bookstores in two towns in California's Gold Country.

November 06, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Grass Valley, Calif. — I enjoy the company of books, especially on vacation. No matter which country I visit -- even such places as China, Japan or Greece, where deciphering the language is not an option -- I seek out bookstores and hang around. So when I heard that one of the great Western concentrations of independent booksellers, more than two dozen establishments at last count, was just a few hours away, a trip seemed mandatory.

No less a personage than Richard Booth, who turned Hay-on-Wye in Wales into the world's first book town, had given his blessing to the Gold Cities Book Town Assn., placing the neighboring Gold Rush hamlets of Grass Valley and Nevada City, Calif., in the company of such other bookish venues as Larry McMurtry's Archer City, Texas; Kedah Darul Aman, Malaysia; St.-Pierre-de-Clages, Switzerland; and Fjaerland, Norway.

Not only was the Gold Country a lot closer than Fjaerland, but it also promised to be at least as pleasant, an area whose relaxed ambience, crisp mountain air and splendid scenery had turned writers including poet Gary Snyder into permanent residents. The location, a couple of hours north of Sacramento, proved as charming as the wine country without the hurly-burly of the consumption industry.

Not that I was looking to be totally relaxed. A potential book-buying weekend in a region with so many choices had to be planned with strategic care. Suitcases couldn't be too full because room must be left for those inevitably bulky purchases. Checkbooks had to be taken because booksellers don't always accept credit cards. And hours of operation needed to be rechecked because booksellers are not always obsessive about posted times. They leave that to their customers.

Which is how my wife and I found ourselves at 5 p.m. on a Friday hurtling feverishly along California Highway 49 toward Grass Valley, a town of about 10,000. A combination of delays on our flight from LAX to Sacramento plus unyielding traffic on Interstate 80 had made us nearly three hours later than we'd planned. I was already too late to visit Bud Plant Comic Art, an exemplary source of books on popular culture, and now I feared, as only a zealot can, that everything else would be closed before we got to town.

Carol's Recycled Paperbacks, however, was still open, and it proved a soothing segue to the weekend. About 20,000 paperbacks were tidily arranged into such categories as historical fiction, romance and the always popular "ghosts and angels." It felt so good to be among books -- and to see a sign describing biblioholism as "the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess" -- that I couldn't pass up a mystery by the underrated Thomas Perry selling for $3.76, tax included. Let the purchasing begin.

In keeping with the business-like tenor of the weekend, my wife and I had chosen not to go the bed-and-breakfast route but to stay in the Grass Valley Courtyard Suites. It was an inspired choice. Our room was large, comfortable and a short walk from Grass Valley's historic downtown. The helpful staff directed us to some excellent restaurants, starting with the Owl, an updated 19th century saloon that still boasts the enormous wooden bar that made it around the Horn from Austria in the 1880s.

The next morning, after a large, excellent country breakfast of eggs and home fries at nearby Charlie's (book hunters need to keep up their strength), the search began at perhaps the most exciting stop, the aptly named Booktown Books.

This high-ceilinged, 3,200-square-foot cooperative features stock from more than a dozen dealers in a beautifully illuminated space built as a Salvation Army Citadel in 1933 and more recently remodeled as a day spa. Occupying four rooms in the same building is an excellent separate store called Tomes run by Eric Tomb, one of the area's used-book pioneers.

Browsing Booktown was like visiting a college dorm of books. Some rooms were messy, some neat, all of interest. One of the tidiest stalls belonged to Argus, specializing in California books with a section on archaic skills that featured such titles as "Practical Wireless Telegraphy" and "Let's Whittle." Equally eccentric was Lost Horse Books, devoted to all things equine. I was mightily tempted by an enormous volume called "Moving the Earth: The Workbook of Excavation" because of its vivid yellow cover, but its 1,400 pages made it a deal-breaker.

If Booktown could be the future of antiquarian books, Ames Bookstore, a few blocks away, was a trip into the past. Having moved from Whittier after the 1987 earthquake, Ames remains a genial throwback, with books in dozens of categories as varied as opera and plumbing, squirreled away in a rabbit warren of shelves and rooms. Total stock numbers around 200,000 to 300,000 volumes. "Books reproduce in the night when we're not here," Tomb said.

On to hip Nevada City

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