Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

Discoveries: The Bookery in Placerville satisfies book lust

02/19/2012 12:00 AM

03/01/2013 12:34 PM

Noam Chomsky is rubbing spines with Ann Coulter. The Amish and Mennonites share space, presumably peacefully, with the Salem witches. Henry James and Henry Kissinger stand sternly side by side looking off at some fixed point, their visages oozing importance.

All over The Bookery, a wonderfully eclectic literary treasure on Main Street in Placerville popular with tourists and locals alike, tomes of every subject matter and ideology imaginable (about 300,000 titles by unofficial count) are crammed into a labyrinthine, M.C. Escher-like 1,800-square-foot building.

People have been known to get lost amid the stacks and, thus, late to their Tahoe reservations, but that's one of the charms of the place. For 30 years – the last 28 under the ownership of fast friends Nancy Dunk and Celia Lux, and their trusty black lab, Abby – The Bookery has served as something of a rabbit hole of knowledge into which those wanting to feed their heads can tumble.

Nothing is too esoteric or prosaic for this used – but hardly used-up – bookstore. There are sections on beekeeping and blacksmithing, whole shelves devoted to "Sea Disasters" and "Urban Legends." To show just how well The Bookery knows its clientele, there even is a self-referential "Books on Books" display located near the restroom.

Oh, and about that bathroom: Yeah, there are shelves of books there, too, because hardcore bibliophiles want to peruse even when they use the facilities.

But the bathroom's big draw, what often draws giggles of delight, is the motif. Glued, jigsawlike, onto the four walls and ceiling are bookmarks, scraps of paper, cancelled checks, photos, even high school graduation programs.

"Those are all things we found in the books the first few years we started buying them," Dunk said. "People love that. We worried that we'd have to spend more money on toilet paper, because it's such a big draw."

A closer look at those bathroom walls will, alas, show bookmarks from independent or used bookstores long gone. Many survived the early '90s advent of big-box chains (Barnes & Noble, Borders) and the initial assault of online sales ( yet finally reached a death rattle now with e-readers.

Yet even during these post-recessionary days in which 13 empty storefronts can be found on a two-block section of downtown Placerville, The Bookery endures. Sales have dipped, sure, but Dunk says she can't complain when she's still in business while many of her independent counterparts in other locales have closed.

"We have a niche," she said. "The biggest thing that's saved us, besides loyalty here in the community, is the tourism. About 40 percent (of business) is tourism. I have people come in at least a couple times a week saying, I live in Santa Barbara or Fairfield or wherever. For a few people, it's a destination. For others, it's a stop on the way to Grandma's or to ski in Tahoe."

To Dunk and Lux, the two-syllable word "Kindle" is spat out like a profanity. E-books' surge in popularity has her nervous, she concedes. In previous recessions, The Bookery benefitted because, Dunk says, "We got the people who normally bought new books." But what happens when publishers do away with pulp altogether?

"Somebody joked to me a few days ago," Dunk said. "She said, 'If they quit printing books, you can just become a museum.' "

What places like The Bookery provide that even the most savvy online search can't is the surprise of discovery – finding a book you read in your youth and want to revisit, stumbling upon a notable author's obscure and remaindered first novel, chatting up a fellow book lover across the stacks.

Do not discount, too, the sensory pleasures in a place like The Bookery: the rough feel of a frayed cloth cover; the slightly musty (in a good way) scent of a book from deep in the last century; the near vertigo-inducing sight of books stacked floor to ceiling.

"Feel these bookshelves," said customer Bob Martin, who came from Shingle Springs to browse. "Feel how solid that is. It's not going anywhere. But look at how inelegant they are. Well, who gives a damn? Nobody comes in here to worry about whether it's mahogany, OK? It's not that kind of place."

Why, then, do they come?

Martin paused, tapped his temple.

"OK, here's an analogy for you: It's kind of like an old-fashioned hardware store," he said. "You go in and say, 'I've got a 1938 spray pump for the orchard but the nozzle's gone.' They'll say, 'Oh, I've got that nozzle.' Most people'll go to Home Depot and buy a whole new pump. Here, you can find all sort of old things."

For example, books by the 1950s comic novelist Peter DeVries, long out of print, often can be hard to find. The Bookery has two. (Or, rather, had. Sorry. I had to have them.) Customer Stephanie Sorensen, from Camino, has found many obscure books on herbs while combing The Bookery's shelves. On this day, the store didn't have the book she wanted, "The Mastery of Love," by Miguel Ruiz, but "I'm not going to go get it some place else online," she said.

Instead, Dunk's "book scouts" will try to find it for her. Customers can fill out a card requesting any book, in or out of print, and they'll hunt it down. It may take a while, but they are dogged.

One recent day, when a customer told Lux that she no longer needed her request for "Never Let Me Go," by Kazuo Ishiguro, "because I found it in the library," Lux smiled and said, "Great!" without a hint of rancorous envy.

Maybe that's because Lux and Dunk know their readers well. They know that woman will be back. That's why, in that "Books on Books" section near the back, they make sure to have three copies of a nonfiction title aptly named "Book Lust."


326 Main St., Placerville


Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday- Saturday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

Directions from Sacramento: Take Highway 50 east for approximately 40 miles. Exit at Spring Street. Turn right onto Main Street.

Reason to go: A used-book store with a voluminous stock and a restroom wallpapered with bookmarks.

What else to do in Placerville: You'll be hungry after book browsing. Try Sweetie Pies, a restaurant in a Victorian house just a few blocks away at 577 Main St.

About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

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