Happy birthday, Bell’s Books!

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I knew that downtown Bell Books on Emerson Avenue predated my own arrival in Palo Alto by at least a few years — but who would have guessed the family-owned bookstore is 75 this month? Bell’s still gives the younger generation a taste of an old-fashioned bookstore, pre-Kindle, pre-Amazon — back in the days when the proprietor knew the entire inventory without resort to the computer or shelves (none of this “Dante?  How are you spelling that?” stuff).  Back in the days when a bookstore was a dimly lit chamber of mysteries, with the musty smell of old paper and leatherbound volumes.

Bell’s Books is featured this week in Palo Alto Online News.  Store manager Faith Bell, daughter of owner Valeria Bell, recalls her childhood this way:

“For us, reading was like breathing — there was a nonstop flow of books through our lives. Even when we [Faith Bell and her husband and children] were up in Canada, my mother would send me enormous boxes on a regular basis. We had a tiny library in the town, and we read through it in no time.”

I remember when Chimaera Books was the big green house on Lytton Avenue, and you could browse, even read for hours in hidden rooms, among its exhausted couches with creaky springs.  When rent hikes threatened to oust it, Denise Levertov came to the rescue with a fundraising reading and a show of support that roused the city.  When the rents went up persistently, the store eventually moved to Redwood City. And now it’s gone.  I remember the California Avenue Printer’s Inc, where you could sip coffee on well-worn wooden chairs while perusing a new purchase.  Printer’s Inc boasted of a legendary bookstore cat (a skinny brown tabby — can’t recall its name).  Few other bookstores in the world have had several sonnets written in their praise.   From Vikram Seth‘s Golden Gate:

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves,the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One’s weak papillae as one’s browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don’t inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who’ve been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.


But Printer’s Inc is gone, too, subsumed by a clattery, trendy, not-so-hot cafe that has commandeered its name but not its memory.

Only Bell’s has survived.  Faith Bell apparently enjoys her clientele:

“I think Palo Alto has more multiple advanced degrees than anywhere in the nation — you never know who you’re talking to,” Bell said.

“I’ve had a very eclectic education. I’ve been to multiple colleges and universities and never got a degree in anything. This store was my education — and is every day.”


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One Response to “Happy birthday, Bell’s Books!”

  1. eBooks Says:

    I think that it is so great that there still are such great book shops 🙂
    especially nowadays when all those eBooks are available!

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