I have a particular affection for Bart’s Books in Ojai, California. When I first started driving cars, just getting there was an adventure. To get there from my hometown, you have to take a deep, veering right-hand turn off the coastal 101 North out of Ventura, away from the Pacific Ocean and east toward crop-terraced foothills edging into Los Padres National Forest and the Topatopa peaks.
It’s an odd and cool journey jumbled with citrus orchards, oil wells, mature king palms, heavy-lift cranes and stands of eucalyptus trees. You’ll pass taco shops, gas stations, ATV lots, rashes of mustard grass, and hand-lettered signs advertising pottery and free dirt. You can smell sage, chaparral, and sometimes skunk. Horse trails and white painted fences braid into willow trees; suddenly there’s a lot of white stucco and clay roof tiles and Ojai says hello.
I first started coming to Bart’s Books alone in high school, when it would suddenly occur to me that a little solo drive in my 1984 convertible Chrysler LeBaron was much preferable to attending class. It would be about a half-hour journey, with the sun on my shoulders and my CDs skipping from all the beach sand I rarely bothered to vacuum from the LeBaron’s ratty carpet. I’d always buy a striped, clear-wrapped sugar stick for the drive back.
On the day I first bought A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I had to re-park in the high school lot to give my sister a ride home. I remember the magical words finning up like reef garibaldi from the first page just as the school unzipped itself and my classmates began to circle the street like dizzy, radiant baitfish. I’ll never forget that: the language, the sugar, and the heat. Feeling both apart and among.
Today, Bart’s Books is still situated at 302 West Matilija Street, surrounded by big trees, banked in white alyssum, and trimmed with window planters loaded with prehistoric-looking succulents. My last visit was in April; I wanted to choose some books to take with me for a ten-day road trip in Florida.
The bookstore wears its walls like double-sided tape; sand or cinnamon-colored shelves line both its interior and exterior. Sunshine streams through closely spaced, corrugated tin roof panels, warming a bare concrete floor. Patio tables lounge in the sunlight like canyon lizards.
On the morning of my visit, it’s already hot. Wondering if Ojai’s rattlesnakes ever visit Bart’s Books, I step past spider webs draped among indoor planters crowded with what look to be strawberry plants. Some of my favorite prose books are already waving hello as I make a beeline for the poetry section: Democracy in America, Angle of Repose, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, The Year of Magical Thinking.
Pickings are great, as usual. Sonnets from the Portuguese, Takuboku Ishikawa’s boxed Poems to Eat, Sexton’s love poems, May Swenson, Paul Muldoon’s collected poems from 1968-1998. Centolella. Signed copies of both Sarah Maclay’s Whore and Dorianne Laux’s Awake. What Narcissism Means to Me.
Someone trails a Bart’s Books employee to the literary section and inquires, “What qualifies books to get in the literature section?”
“Our opinion,” the guy says.
A giant fruit tree with softball-sized lemons and perky blossoms tilts over me while I purchase the books I plan to travel with: Wakoski’s Inside the Blood Factory, Carole Muske-Dukes’s An Octave Above Thunder, Lorca, and de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. I choose a tangerine-flavored sugar stick from a big glass jar, for briefer sweetness.