Santa Barbara was once known as a "city of books," where a page-turning tourist could spend days prowling the stacks of small and large stores. The massive Earthling Bookstore was the progenitor of the bookstore-as-meeting place style later embraced by the chains. It was one of the first to fall victim to the big-box bookstores (though perhaps overly optimistic expansion plans had as much to do with its collapse).
While I don't want to cheer the demise of any business during a recession, I had to admit there is an upside to the recent closing of the Borders and Barnes & Noble stores downtown. It has given breathing space to the few surviving independent stores.
Today, the largest downtown bookstore is the Book Den, which has been on Anacapa Street near the courthouse since 1933. It has moved into slightly smaller quarters next to its former location. Of its 25,000 books, only 20 percent are new.
For book lovers, a trip to Santa Barbara has to include a few hours in Chaucer's Bookstore on the downmarket uptown portion of State Street. Owner Mahri Kerley has kept the focus on books since she started her first bookstore in Santa Barbara in 1974. Seemingly every inch of the 6,000-square-foot store where she's operated since 1990 is given over to books. No coffee bar. No lounge chairs. No big music section. The once-scruffy Loreto Plaza shopping center has been given a Spanish stucco makeover, but inside, Chaucer's is still the same -- the place to go for hard-to-find titles. It has one of the best history sections of any bookstore in the Western U.S. Travelers can find plenty of titles beyond the usual Frommer's, Fodor's and Lonely Planet guidebooks found at the big-box stores back home. There are travelogue books from authors other than Bill Bryson and Tim Cahill.
A few doors down is the national retail shop of online travel products giant Magellan. A good place to stop in to plan your next trip to Santa Barbara or beyond.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: The Pacific Surfliner train runs directly between Orange County and Santa Barbara four times a day in each direction. Station stops include San Juan Capistrano, Irvine, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton. One train a day stops in San Clemente. One train a day goes to San Luis Obispo. There are other options, including connecting trains, train-bus and using Metrolink to Los Angeles and then transferring to Amtrak. Fares run about $35 one-way from Orange County to Santa Barbara. Business-class seats cost an additional $15. Check for discounts for seniors, children, AAA members, military and others. The Santa Barbara station is at 209 State St. For more information, call 800-872-7245 or go toamtrak.com
WHERE TO SLEEP: The less-expensive hotels are the first to sell out in Santa Barbara. Plan well ahead or be ready to pay more. Rates shown here are for midweek in May. Weekend rates are usually higher.
--Holiday Inn Express, 7 W. Haley St., 805-963-9757. Rooms from $165 per night.
--Franciscan Inn, 109 Bath St., 805-963-8845. Rooms from $155 per night.
--Castillo Inn, 22 Castillo St., 805-965-8527. Rooms from $116 per night.
--Best Western Pepper Tree, 3850 State St., 800-338-0030. Rooms from $162 per night.
--Orange Tree, 1920 State St., 805-569-1521. Rooms from $85 per night.
--Lemon Tree, 2819 State St., 805-687-6444. Rooms from $115 per night
--Motel 6, 443 Corona del Mar, 805-564-1392. Rooms from $90 per night.
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