Best Bookstore in Palm Springs is the only bookstore, but it tries harder
Palm Springs has a population of well-educated residents, many with a cultural or entertainment background, and gets a huge number of visitors who are there expressly to loaf.
And yet for a decade, the city had nowhere to buy a book.
“You have tourists coming here literally to read by the pool!” Paul Carr exclaims. “It’s a rare fail of the cultural and capitalist systems at the same time. It’s madness. How do you not have a bookstore?”
Carr and wife Sarah Lacy responded last fall by opening a bookstore, the only one in Palm Springs. Its cheeky name: The Best Bookstore in Palm Springs.
“No one can argue with us,” Carr points out.
I learned about the store from reader Janet Spiegel. She wrote me after a column here about Riverside’s Cellar Door Books, which likes to tout itself as the Inland Empire’s only independent bookstore.
“Your article said there are no other independent bookstores that sell only new books in the region,” Spiegel wrote. “You missed The Best Bookstore in Palm Springs!”
To address this grievous oversight, I made a point of seeking out the shop, which is downtown at 180 E. Tahquitz Way, on my recent visit.
Coincidentally, I’d been inside the same storefront last year when it was a comics shop. One of the city’s former bookstores got its start there too. Perhaps the address is fated to sell reading matter.
The bookstore’s vibe is largely intentional: floor to ceiling bookcases on both walls, with tables and chairs in the center rather than more bookcases. The idea was that customers would mingle, overhear conversations about books and chime in.
Then there are the chatty recommendation cards, known in the trade as “talkers.” Some for shelved books are almost mini-essays, like bookseller Taylor Reddeman’s card for Joan Didion‘s novel “Play It As It Lays.”
By contrast, the talkers on the entry table display, most of them written by Lacy, are filled with exclamation marks and all-caps.
On Katrine Engberg’s “The Tenant”: “Start the next HOTTEST Scandinavian crime series NOW!”
On Jesse Sutanto’s “Four Aunties and a Wedding”: “NOT QUITE as good as Miller or Barker but BRILLIANT as a story of women paying the price for what MEN do (with some hope at the end!)”
On Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife”: “Wish I could go back in time (HAR!) and read it for the first time.”
“We write them like a friend grabbing your arm,” Carr says. “The same tone you find online, the enthusiasm.”
The store came about to fill a need, for the community and for themselves.
Carr and Lacy were tech journalists in San Francisco who relocated to Palm Springs shortly before the pandemic.
Both are big readers. Lacy has a degree in English literature and writes business books. Carr was involved in writing, editing and publishing in his native London. They’d just left San Francisco’s Mission District, where four bookstores were within walking distance.
“We could not believe there was not a bookstore in Palm Springs,” Carr says.
After two years of “grousing about the lack of bookstores,” as Carr put it, and saying in social situations that “someone should really open a bookstore,” the couple pivoted to thinking that they should be the ones to do it.
They remortgaged their home and got backing from friends, as well as advice from Elizabeth and Otis Chandler, the founder of Goodreads.
Best Bookstore opened the day before Thanksgiving 2022.
Carr had calculated the minimum take they needed each day to survive. “The first day we did 12 times what we would have to do,” he says, and not a day has gone by when the shop hasn’t exceeded that minimum.
Running a bookstore is both harder work and more fun than Carr envisioned. One benefit is the clientele: “If you open a bookstore,” he reasons, “eventually every interesting person in Palm Springs will enter.”
“When I saw a bookstore was opening here,” bookseller Dillon Bloodworth confides of Best Bookstore, “I said ‘yes’” — he pumps his fist — “and then I ended up working here.”
The 1,000-square-foot shop has nearly 20,000 titles, either on display or in storage, double the number at opening. It offers free shipping anywhere in the U.S. and same-day delivery locally to residents or visitors.
Shopping at an independent bookstore instead of a chain or on Amazon shouldn’t be “about guilting people,” Carr insists. “We’re not a charity. We should be better.”
All the store sells is books, plus a few magazines and jigsaw puzzles.
“There’s about 10,000 places in Palm Springs where you can buy a journal,” Carr observes. “No, this is a bookshop. People want to buy books.”
The No. 1 seller: “The Guncle,” about a man who unexpectedly finds himself the primary guardian for his niece and nephew after a family tragedy. He is their gay uncle, or guncle. It’s set in Palm Springs, home of author Steven Rowley.
While many bookstores and libraries are under pressure from touchy people, the desert has fewer snowflakes, in both senses of the term.
“We have lovely customers,” Carr says. “This is Palm Springs. If you’ve made it this far, books probably aren’t going to bother you.”
As we speak, a regular walks in: Grace Garner, the mayor.
She picks up “Braver Than You Think” by Maggie Downs, which she likes to give as a gift.
“I tell people all the time now, ‘This is the place to come to buy a book,’” Garner says. “People read a lot here. The Crown Books closed right after I graduated high school, and that was 20 years ago.”
If a second bookstore ever opens in town, Carr jokes that he and Lacy might have to soften their store’s name to The Better Bookstore in Palm Springs. But he’d rather the store stayed worthy of its boast.
“That’s my dream,” Carr admits, “that even if there were more bookstores in Palm Springs, we would still be the best.”
David Allen, one of the Inland Empire’s better newspaper columnists, writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Email email@example.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.