Ojai, Calif. — Bart's Corner bookstore, which sprawls out under the spreading branches of a 300-year-old live oak near the center of Ojai, may be one of the most unusual open-air book stores in the United States. We discovered it on a summer day after driving from Santa Barbara to Ojai to admire that town's old Spanish architecture and many artists' studios and craft shops. The bookstore immediately struck us as a very special place.
About 100,000 volumes - 95 percent of which are secondhand - make Bart's a browser's paradise. Half of the books are paperbacks and half are hard cover. Prices range from 20 cents to $300 a book, and the turnover is fast and constant.
Moreover, when the shop is closed, an honor system enables customers to pick the books they like from shelves on the outside wall and toss the money into the locked courtyard. For book hounds that means 24-hour-a-day service!
Bart's was started in 1964 by Richard Bartindale, a Santa Monica bookseller who was inspired by the book stalls he had seen on the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris. The current owner of this al fresco, pavilion-like store is Gary Schlichter. He says the book-selling business is lots of fun, but also a whale of a lot of work.
What are his bookish customers buying? ``Jane Austen is in constant demand,'' says Mr. Schlichter, ``and E.M. Forster and F.Scott Fitzgerald we never have enough of, though it is current fiction that actually sells fastest. Always at the top of the sales chart are westerns by Louis L'Amour and romances by Danielle Steel. Barbara Cartland's historical romances are somewhat less popular than they were, but the ladies still love them.''
The ratio of women to men book purchasers, he says, is about 60 to 40. Men tend to buy spy thrillers, westerns, science fiction, and car-repair manuals. Women are broader in their reading tastes; their choices run from fitness, diet, and nutrition to books on how to parent and grandparent, biographies, and brush-up books on typing, math, and accounting.
``We deal, however, in the whole spectrum of books,'' the book dealer says. Rare first editions and cookbooks are kept in ``the bookhouse,'' a somewhat dilapidated old residence on the property.
Hundreds of books fill the bookcases that rim the courtyard and line the outside walls of the shop. Books are protected from the elements by overhanging eaves of corrugated iron, by plastic roofs, and by the branches of the great tree.
``Our weather is generally mild enough and dry enough to operate this way,'' says Schlichter, ``though once or twice we've had to move books indoors during a long wet spell.''
Customers come largely from the Los Angeles area, but also from many other states and foreign countries. His guest book lists many famous names, including rock star Michael Jackson, singer Shirley Jones, and actress Brenda Vaccaro.
The most exciting visit, according to Schlichter, was that of actor Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, who came one day seeking a copy of Mark Twain's ``Huckleberry Finn'' for their daughter. He was only able to rustle up a dogeared paperback of the book, but the couple gratefully accepted it.
Schlichter and his wife, Cathleen, live next door to Bart's Corner.
``We buy from people who are moving, or whose lives or tastes are changing. And when we travel we are always looking for books,'' he says.
Schlichter says his biggest satisfaction is the mutual ``thank-yous'' exchanged at the checkout register. ``I thank people for coming, and they thank me for being here and for being such a rich source of good reading material.''