January 17, 2022

Room 9 AV

Genuine Travel

Bart’s Books, an Ojai landmark, is a Central California destination unlike anything you’ve ever seen

I had heard about the outdoor bookstore in Ojai in lots of different places — or, more accurately, through lots of different posts on social media. Travel blogs called it the “world’s biggest outdoor bookstore.” Beautifully shot videos on Instagram, showing row after row of sunlit books, described it as a “book labyrinth.” Every time I paused my scrolling to get another peek inside Bart’s Books, it piqued my curiosity even further. I had to experience that bookstore, even if it meant a 100 mile drive through a lot of Los Angeles traffic to get there.

But here’s the thing about the internet, friends: The internet is full of lies. 

On a Tuesday afternoon when I just couldn’t look at a computer screen for another minute, I got in my car and headed north. I drove the mile from my apartment to the 101, and all of a sudden, it was like a scene from a movie … if that movie is “The Truman Show” and it’s the part when Truman is trying to flee his hometown and the directors cue dead-stopped traffic to keep him from figuring out there is no escape. 

Bookshelves outside the store’s walls are sold on the honor system 24 hours a day.

Julie Tremaine

I’ll admit, it was unplanned and probably unwise to pick a just-before-rush-hour jaunt 78.5 miles north to the Ojai Valley, just east of Santa Barbara. But in the pile of lies I had accumulated about this mythic bookstore, there was one going through my mind as I watched snails pass me on the freeway: Not only was this book labyrinth an unmissable Central Coast landmark, it was open all hours. Even though the website said the store closed at 6 p.m., other places online said you could buy books there any time you wanted. 

It’s fine, I thought to myself as the minutes ticked away more quickly than the miles did. By the time I get there, I’ll have about an hour to explore, and then I’ll just stay late. 

So weird to think Facebook videos don’t get fact checked, right?

Bart's is surrounded by neighborhood homes.

Bart’s is surrounded by neighborhood homes.

Julie Tremaine

Two hours into what should have been an hour and 15 minute drive, I pulled up to Bart’s Books. Occupying the corner of two residential, tree-lined streets, it wasn’t anything like what I had pictured. I immediately knew the place was special. But I also immediately knew it wasn’t anything like what I had seen online. 

When I heard “book labyrinth,” I imagined a collection of bookshelves in a field, where piece after piece had been added on as the store’s inventory and popularity grew — kind of like the Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, where Elmer Long built “trees” out of old glass bottles in the desert and people travel from all over the world to see it

Bart’s Books was, well, a house. Not just a house, but a house in a residential neighborhood. I parked and headed for the door, not pausing to look at the shelves upon shelves of books on the building’s exterior walls. My clock was ticking. By the time I got inside, I only had 15 minutes before the store closed. 

“Are you looking for anything specific?” the man behind the counter asked me.

A time machine? I thought but didn’t say. 

Bart's Books was founded in 1964.

Bart’s Books was founded in 1964.

Julie Tremaine

One quick glance around and I knew it was a place I could spend an entire afternoon browsing. I wouldn’t call it a labyrinth, but the space was so vast, with so many corners and alcoves, that I couldn’t take it all in at once. There were shelves and shelves and shelves everywhere I looked, and in the spaces where there weren’t books, there were antique typewriters and plants and a million other beautiful distractions. A woman sat at one of the store’s patio tables, peacefully reading a book in the late afternoon sunlight. I wanted to be that woman. But instead, I just picked a direction and went. 

And I walked into … a living room? 

Bart’s Books was founded by Richard “Bart” Bartinsdale in 1964, when, according to the store’s account, he decided to put his outsized collection of books to good use, installing a few bookshelves outside his house and asking for payment on the honor system. Patrons would drop coins and cash into coffee cans and take what they wanted to read. 

The various "rooms" of the outdoor bookstore have nooks for sitting and reading in the sunshine.

The various “rooms” of the outdoor bookstore have nooks for sitting and reading in the sunshine.

Julie Tremaine

Eventually, they’d sell back what they were finished with, and probably buy another armful of books to take home. The store estimates that nearly a million books have come and gone in the half-century that Bart’s has been doing business. Bart himself has now passed away, and the store has completely overtaken what used to be his home. It’s now owned by another Ojai local, Matt Henriksen. That’s why the kitchen is now a space for cookbooks and writings about food culture, and there’s a narrow hallway filled with Shakespeare. That living room is mostly devoted to adult nonfiction, but a homey corner near the fireplace is stocked with children’s literature.

By some estimates, there’s more than 100,000 mostly used books in their inventory now, largely brought in by readers for trade credit. Some of the books come from estate sales. There are some rare collections, like a complete set of 18 volumes of “The Diary of Samuel Pepys” from 1900 that sells for $2,000. Those stay inside the building, but even the outdoor sections aren’t really exposed to the elements. Everything is covered by overhangs, but Ojai Valley’s east-west positioning means it only gets about 20 inches of rainfall a year

This room has windows looking out into the outdoor part of the bookstore.

This room has windows looking out into the outdoor part of the bookstore.

Julie Tremaine

Those bookshelves outside the walls are still there, and still on the honor system, just like Bart designed. They’re filled with $0.50 books that didn’t make the cut to get inside the store. The difference is that now, instead of coffee cans, payment goes through a slot in the door. 

The irony of my terrible timing on this excursion is that normally, when I walk into bookstores, it’s an exercise in restraint. I tell myself walking in that I’m not allowed to buy anything, because my “to be read” pile isn’t actually a pile, it’s a whole bookcase. It never works. I always leave with two or three more titles I can’t resist taking home. 

On the drive up to Bart’s, I made a mental exception. I was allowed to get anything I wanted. Anything. I spent those slow miles envisioning myself leaving with a huge armful of books: travelogues, a few collections of poetry I hadn’t read yet, maybe some ghost stories. In my rush to see everything in the store, I scanned and scanned for something I might want to take home — but I was too taken with the character of the place to zero in on any one title. If I had the hour I should have had, it would have been a different story. 

Bart's Books in Ojai, Calif.

Bart’s Books in Ojai, Calif.

Julie Tremaine

Instead, I wandered the rooms and spent some time talking to the man behind the counter. “I read on the internet this is the world’s biggest bookstore,” I said to him.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not even close.” He pointed to Hay on Wye, a town in Wales that has branded itself as “the book town.” It’s basically one huge bookstore, he added, and a lot of it is outdoors. 

Still, I couldn’t turn up another outdoor bookstore in this country that’s bigger than Bart’s — not that, I think, there’s any real official measurement of these things. Even the store’s website says it’s the world’s largest outdoor bookstore. Honestly, I don’t care whether it is or it isn’t. I care about going back and spending a day there, sitting and reading in the sunshine and leaving with my armful of books. 

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