As the Southern California Thomas wildfire rages through Ventura County into Santa Barbara County, filling the air with smoke and ash, some indie booksellers in the area are working hard to keep their doors open, while others have been forced to close temporarily.
The fires are burning in an area larger than New York City and Boston combined and, for local booksellers affected by the blaze, the timing is particularly painful. Usually, booksellers are worried about keeping up with demand in this pre-holiday period, not the safety of their stores and patrons.
Deborah Ruddy, co-owner of Ventura’s Bank of Books said her store, which is in the heart of the downtown retail area, was closed for three days, due to smoke and power outages. Ruddy’s other store in Ventura, Abednego Book Shoppe, has fared better, remaining open and clear of danger.
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” said Ruddy, who has one employees who lost her home. While she acknowledged that sales are down, she said a group of fire fighters came into Abednego Books on Sunday, telling staff that it was their day off and they wanted to “relax with some reading.”
Ojai, north of Ventura and just south of the Los Padres National Forest, was almost completely encircled by flames from the Thomas fire (which is the most intense of the blazes) on Monday. Bart’s Books, which is primarily an outdoor bookstore in downtown Ojai, closed on December 5.
The store’s manager, Matt Henriksen, told PW the high amount of ash in the air forced the closure. “The air quality is so bad,” he said, adding that insurance adjusters will need to inspect the property before the store can reopen to make sure “everything is clean and safe.” Although the store lost much of its inventory because of the fire, there was a small silver lining. Henriksen said that, thanks to a helpful neighbor who accepted a large shipment of books last week, the store will be well-stocked when it reopens.
Bookends, another Ojai store, also shut its doors last week. It is expected to re-open on December 16. “Peoples’ focus is on getting back to normal,” co-owner Celeste Matesevac said, adding she is focused on helping other because her store is “not in any danger.”
Both Henriksen and Matesevac said they have concerns that the economic impact of the Thomas fire will linger for months, if not years, in Ojai, a resort town that is heavily dependent on affluent tourists.
Adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, in Santa Barbara, Chaucer’s Books and the Book Den both reported that poor air quality had driven away customers who otherwise would be out shopping for holiday gifts. Book Den’s owner, Eric Kelley, said he has kept the store open even though “downtown is empty.”
Greg Feitt, Chaucer’s Books’ manager, said that a few of his staffers have had to evacuate their homes. Nonetheless, the store has stayed open. He plans to keep the lights on, he added, “as long as it doesn’t compromise the health and safety of staff and customers.”
At the Book Loft in Solvang and Mrs. Fig’s Bookworm in Camarillo, booksellers reported that foot traffic was way down because of the poor air quality in both towns. And, with customers staying away, sales were also down.
Despite the situation, both said they are hopeful that school closings–and worse conditions in surrounding areas–might drive people to the towns. “If people go out, this is definitely one of the places they are going to go to,” said Book Loft’s Tom Gerald.
Further south, in Los Angeles’ Brentwood area, Diesel Books co-owner John Evans said his store has, for the most part, managed to maintain regular hours. And sales, according to Evans, seemed to be at the same level as last year. He felt the difference came from local patrons, explaining that while he probably didn’t get traffic from customers who live further away, those who live close by spent more time than usual at the store.
“[A bookstore] is a refuge,” he said. “If you are kicked out of your house, where can you go? A coffee shop or a bookstore. At a bookstore, people can obtain information and can calmly have a civil conversation about what’s going on.”