By Pamela Dozois
This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Book Loft, the oldest independent bookstore under continuous ownership in Santa Barbara County. It is also the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Hans Christian Andersen Museum located upstairs in building. The Museum has many rare, collectable editions along with memorabilia.
To celebrate, The Book Loft is rolling out a year-long stream of events and specials to mark the store’s 50-year history and will host its annual Hans Christian Andersen birthday celebration on April 2.
Kathy Mullins has been the proprietor and the main book buyer since she opened the doors, with her now-deceased husband Gary, in the spring of 1970. When asked how they came to open a bookstore in Solvang, Mullins said that she “could not remember who came up with the idea,” but recalls “the idea quickly became a subject of our after-dinner conversations.”
The couple had moved to the Santa Ynez Valley in the early 1960s. They loved the area so much they wanted to find a way to stay. Gary was an electrical engineer working for Boeing at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Kathy was a housewife and mother of three girls, with a degree in American studies from the University of Minnesota.
“I guess we started the bookstore because we thought the town needed one,” said Mullins. “We convinced ourselves that if we didn’t try to open one, we might later regret not taking the chance. There had been a small bookstore in Solvang but it was closed before we opened The Book Loft.”
The initial location of The Book Loft was in a small space up a narrow staircase above Natalie’s Doll House in the Rasmussen Building on Alisal Road. When the bookstore “quietly” opened for business the third week of April, the bookshelves, built by Gary in the family garage, were mostly empty due to a truckers’ strike that held up delivery of their books.
Their first sale was a children’s book from their meager selection. The Mullins considered that first sale prophetic because, at a time when most general bookstores seemed to regard their children’s section as an unwanted stepchild, children’s books in The Book loft quickly became one of the most important departments.
Having started from scratch, the Mullins learned the book business through trial and error.
“The support of the Santa Ynez Valley community, tourists and cities beyond are important because the valley population alone is too small to support a viable bookstore,” said Mullins.
After a modest success, during its first two years in operation, it became apparent that to prosper and grow, the store needed to expand and relocate to a street level, as the stairs up to the loft proved to be troublesome.
With the help of realtor Fil Condit, the Mullins were able to purchase a piece of land on Mission Drive and retained Dallas Brown, an architect and one of their earliest customers, to design the building.
“Dallas Brown was a young architect who had just moved to Solvang,” recalled Mullins. “He was so excited to have the chance to design a commercial building of Danish Provincial architecture. The only request we had was that the building had a loft.”
When the building was completed in 1974, boxes of books were hand-carried through the alley to their new home.
“Initially the building housed 5 other small retail shops along with the bookstore,” Mullins said. “But as we grew, those spaces were required for the creation of the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and a used books section, which was initially started by Donna Bland in 1981. When she moved on, it was taken over by Gary in 1985 as his new-found passion and continued for many years until he became ill.”
The used books section was eventually sold to Ed Gregory, a long-time manager of The Book Loft, and is called the Solvang Book Company, which is still housed in The Book Loft. It features used, rare and antiquarian books. One of the highlights is a working model of the Gutenberg Press built by master craftsman, the late Bud Tullis, a focal point for the used book browsers. Complementing the press are the oak bookcases throughout the store, also built by Tullis.
“We have had to adapt to the rapid technological changes, and there have been a lot of changes over the past 50 years with Amazon and other big box stores along with e-books. We learned as we went along,” said Mullins. “We gradually increased our expertise in the business along with customer base knowledge and service. It kept us afloat through some lean years.
“Over the years we’ve had so many wonderful people who worked at The Book Loft. There is a lot of detail involved working at a bookstore and it takes time to learn,” Mullins said. “Our current staff is exceedingly well rounded when it comes to books, competent and eager to assist. I’m very happy to work with these people.”
One of The Book Loft’s longest-tenured employees is Elaine Revelle, who has been with the store since 1977.
“Solvang has maintained an old-fashioned vibe and has more tourists now than in the ’70s,” she said. “There are a lot of tourists who come in with their children and we have spent a lot of care building our children’s section. To be child-friendly can often lead to stress, but our terrific staff understands. We are not only child-friendly but dog-friendly as well. Our regular canine visitors know where the dog biscuits are located.”
In a 1990 edition of The Book Loft’s newsletter, Gary wrote a short piece titled “A Bookseller Reflects” in which he credits his wife Kathy with the success of the bookstore: “The key to an interesting bookstore is its buyer. Kathy’s book buying decisions are based on a vast reservoir of knowledge and an intense love of books.”
And 30 years later Mullins continues to run The Book Loft with grace and wisdom making it one of Solvang’s most popular places to visit.
“The Book Loft has given me over the past 50 years a wonderful sense of community,” she said. “Interacting with the public and sharing my love of books in this beautiful Valley has been and continues to be a blessing.”