By Tiobe Barron
Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has its titular tower, San Francisco has its Golden Gate Bridge; Ojai has the
Post Office tower, and Bart’s Books.
Ojai’s iconic secondhand bookstore is a wonder that weaves together outdoor and indoor spaces, bookstore browsing, and something naturally and effortlessly “Ojai.”
Standing on the corner of Cañada and Matilija streets, Bart’s Books is lined on its outer walls with brick planters … and stocked bookshelves. Step through the front entrance into a beautiful, enclosed terrace that houses the checkout station, along with “room” after room formed from walls of bookshelves and live plants. The vibe is very much mid-century kitsch, like parts of Ventura (Pierpont, Midtown), only less beachy and more desert.
Perhaps you walk to the right, traversing through biographies, and then turn to the right again to see the outdoors section, featuring books on recreation (Kayaking! Skiing! Mountaineering! Surfing!), farming, and wildlife. For those who care about drinkable water, breathable air, and biodiversity for future generations, adjacent to the outdoors section is a robust selection of environmental studies titles, featuring authors such as David Suzuki, Bill McKibben, and more.
On a whim, you wheel left and enter the cooking section, appropriately lodged in what was once an actual kitchen (the Bart’s building was originally a house). This selection is perfect for when you need a new recipe for pierogis, or know someone who has discovered a newfound passion for canning or bread-making, or simply on the hunt for the perfect marinara sauce but tired of Pinterest fails. Popping back out, you could peruse the works of fiction, maybe selecting a tempting title or two to sample under the delicious shade of the resident trees. Some of these very same trees offered yours truly respite many moons ago, when I was an angsty teen pretending to do her homework whilst surreptitiously getting lost in yet another wonderful Noir story.
You could then slip into the room housing the classics. Maybe on a freestanding spinner rack you find a vintage collection of mysteries by Edgar Allan Poe published in the 1960s with a B-movie-style cover (for under $10!) that is definitely going home with you.
Established in 1964 by Richard Bartinsdale, Bart’s Books is the largest outdoor bookstore in the world, home to more than 130,000 volumes. Other categories available to browse include “California,” history, spirituality, science fiction, travel, kids’ books, geography, art, and many more.
So many retail spaces claim to offer “something for everyone,” but Bart’s actually delivers, and has been a go-to gift-finding source for those in the know for decades. From the old-fashioned candies by the register, to the vintage editions and tomes of poetry, to the perfect guide to hiking in California, Bart’s is truly a lifesaver for those in dire need of a last-minute gift, and a veritable smorgasbord for those simply in search of some new reading material. Not feeling particularly inspired? Ask the staff — self-professed book lovers, all — for suggestions, and they will steer you in the right direction, like an old-school, less privacy-violating search engine.
Far more than a mere tick off a requisite roadside attraction checklist, Bart’s is a steadfast respite from an increasingly mad and frenetic world, a bastion of stories and solace. A resource for students of all ages, a local landmark and beloved hub of community, Bart’s has played host to numerous local authors’ readings (including local heroes, dynamic dad-and-daughter-duo Lucy and Peter Bellwood) and other public events. The bookstore even offers a service by which bibliophiles can drop off boxes of their cast-off books for credit toward used book purchases in the shop.
Browsing at Bart’s offers an experience all too rare these days: authenticity. The antithesis of the corporate, homogenous model of bookstores, Bart’s is truly one-of-a-kind. Whether you have never heard of Ojai and have no idea how to pronounce it (hint: “o-hi”), whether you make a regular pilgrimage or have been here for years, visiting Bart’s Books is a great way to experience the real Ojai.
Bart’s Books is open 10 am to 6 pm daily, and is located at 302 W. Matilija St, Ojai. For more, visit bartsbooksojai.com
or call (805) 646-3755.