After years of holding fast amid the rise of Amazon, St. Helena’s only bookstore is calling it quits.
Main Street Books owner Liza Russ said the store will close Saturday, Nov. 16 due to declining sales. She said the closure is not the fault of her landlord, who’s been very generous to the store.
Local book-lovers mourned the news, with Nancy Garden calling the store “another piece of our small-town village that’s gone and will never come back.”
“When I was having a bad day, going in there and looking at books and talking to Liza would always set my world back in balance,” said Cate Conniff. “I can’t imagine my life in St. Helena without Liza and the bookstore.”
Former teacher Robin Macrae started what is now Main Street Books in 1982 in the basement of Spring Street Restaurant, now Goose and Gander. Macrae eventually partnered with Russ and moved the store a few doors down from Vasconi’s. It moved to its current space under Russ’ sole ownership in 1998. At 200 square feet, it’s said to be California’s smallest bookstore.
The store lacked the usual trappings of a modern bookstore like coffee, events and any semblance of social media promotion – no dancing girls, as Russ put it in a rare 2005 interview.
Yet it gained an avid following. Supporters once flooded the Star with aggrieved letters after a columnist praised a rival as “a real bookstore” without mentioning Main Street Books. On June 2, 2012, fears of its impending closure sparked a day-long “cash mob” that gave the store its best day of business ever.
Brooke Casey, who helped organize the cash mob, said her love of reading began at Main Street Books as a child.
“I am so glad my children have gotten to grow up perusing the shelves there too,” she said. “It was a rite of passage when they got their very own index cards to keep a credit for trading books in and out. I’ll be sad to see this fixture in our community go, but I wish Liza and (part-time bookseller Christie Young) well in whatever adventures they have planned after this one.”
Other customers praised Russ’ book recommendations – two described them as “spot-on” – the store’s small but carefully curated inventory, and its appeal to readers of all ages. Two longtime customers cried when a reporter told them the store was closing.
David DeSante called it “the epitome of local-serving” and praised Russ’ ability to recommend books for himself and his son Marcus, based on their various interests.
“Seeing Liza was always something I looked forward to in my day,” DeSante said. “I’d always spend longer in there than I should and always come out better for it.”
“Over the years, there has been something wonderfully small-town about knowing Liza awaited at the bookstore, with her spot-on suggestions of just the right book,” said Antonia Allegra.
Russ usually didn’t make recommendations over the phone, she told the Star in 2005.
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Instead, “I wait and I pounce when I see them,” she said. “It’s unusual for me to call because I think that puts people at a disadvantage, so I wait and I’ll say, ‘Oh, by the way … ‘”
A reader could go into Main Street Books with only a vague description of the book they were looking for – like “a story about a spider on the wall” – and Russ would rattle off the title and author, said Paula Young, a member of a local book club.
“She’s a font of incredible information. What a delightful woman,” Young said.
Stephanie Gamble called the store “a computer-free book sanctuary with world globes at just the right height for little fingers to twirl.” Recently those fingers have belonged to her 3-year-old great-nephew and her son, a college senior who stopped in to give Russ a hug during one of his visits home.
“I’ve had three sets of fingers twirling the globes, and feel tremendous gratitude for the warm, welcoming, and wise allies I had in Liza and Christie as my children grew,” Gamble said.
Gillian Casey praised Russ’ “spot-on suggestions and quiet wisdom,” saying the store “will be deeply missed.”
“Liza’s literacy and kindness were exquisite,” said Rebecca Bell. “No matter what you asked her, she either knew about it or knew how to find out about it in a way that made people feel valued. In some ways she was the heart of the town for book lovers.”
Maureen Olen said Russ inspired a love of reading in her daughters, Meg and Kate. When they went off to school, Russ ordered books for Olen’s book club.
“This is a sad, sad day for the city of St. Helena,” Olen said. “I wish Liza the very, very best because she has brought the best to St. Helena.”
DeSante added that kids were always welcome to pick a book off the shelf, settle into one of two padded chairs, and read for as long as they wanted, whether they bought the book or not.
“It was a safe place for kids to develop an interest in reading,” DeSante said. “It was like their own personal library.”
Independent bookstores seem to be “dropping by the wayside one by one,” said Jeanne Baswell, who ran the Calistoga Bookstore with her husband Reece until 2006.
“Books are still where it’s at for me,” Baswell said. “I still think holding a book in your hand is better than an iPad or a Kindle. … But I guess this is how it is. Things are changing.”