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Feature: A passion for books

From child book-duster to manager of the store, Faith Bell marks 75 years of her family's business

As a small girl, Faith Bell was given a huge turkey-feather duster and would spend afternoons tickling the books on display in her parents' Emerson Street shop, Bell's Books.

A half-century later -- as one of Palo Alto's oldest family businesses marks its 75th anniversary -- Bell occupies the manager's chair while her 6-year-old grandson Joshua plies the shelves with the very same feather duster.

But Faith Bell's path from child book-duster to running the store, which her father, Herbert, launched in 1935 to supply textbooks to Stanford University students, was neither smooth nor assured. A sojourn on a muddy goat farm in Canada intervened, as did economic vicissitudes both global and local that have knocked seven other local bookstores out of business.

In a back room of her shop piled floor to ceiling with books, Bell recently mused on what it takes to survive as an independent bookseller these days.

"We own the building -- and we're also extremely frugal," said the 55-year-old, who graduated from Los Altos High School and hitchhiked and farmed in Alberta before returning home to buckle down to her family's business in 1983.

A passion for books is palpable inside Bell's, where new titles coexist with Steinbeck first editions, and staff members hold decades of expertise. Dominating the front table is the hot-off-the-press, 760-page autobiography of Mark Twain, which has avid reader Bell "over the moon."

Adjacent are Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," a "Children's Mathematics Calendar for 2011," David Eggers's "Zeitoun," a compact 1991 hardback of Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd" and bird and butterfly guides to the Bay Area.

No wonder the shop is hard to pigeonhole.

"A lot of people think we're just an academic bookstore," Bell said. "That's a misconception. Researchers can come and find wonderful resources here, but we also have hundreds of people who bring in their 5-year-olds to pick out picture books, or ladies doing craft works who come to get knitting books. ... I've got this entire world that reflects all the knowledge of the ages."

Bell is especially gratified when people come in and say, "I've been walking by this store for 30 years," or "ever since I came to Stanford," or "every week with my granddaughter on our way to Peninsula Creamery," and "had no idea it was so incredible in here.

On the subject of frugality, "we're the ultimate green business," she said.

"Our stock is things that other people used and we bought from them and we're re-using, and hopefully somebody else will re-use with pleasure and joy.

"Some customers come in and say, 'Oh, I wouldn't want to read a book that somebody else has read. But for most people, there's a fascination with who's owned the book before, especially if they've written little notes that are an inspiration to somebody else."

With a two-story-high ceiling, Bell's accommodates top-to-bottom shelves of poetry volumes, giant art books and more. A children's section, with small wooden chairs painted red and a yard-long model of a tall ship, includes a large shelf of Caldecott Medal-winners and a special section on kids' mathematics.

Gift items are displayed for sale beneath a calligraphy snippet from John Milton: "For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are ..."

Describing her childhood as the youngest of five children in the family home in Los Altos Hills, Bell said: "For us, reading was like breathing -- there was a nonstop flow of books through our lives. Even when we were up in Canada, my mother would send me enormous boxes on a regular basis. We had a tiny library in the town, and we read through it in no time."

Bell was summoned back to Palo Alto with her husband and young children in 1983, when Herbert Bell became ill with leukemia. Her parents told her if the bookstore was to have a future, it would be up to her.

"My husband and I had a discussion that was shorter than you'd think," she said. "We were living in rural Canada and our kids were starting to show the signs of not having the intellectual stimulation and different opportunities for education, so we welcomed the opportunity."

She credits her mother, Valeria, still the owner of the store, and three knowledgeable staff members with teaching her the business.

One of Bell's favorite aspects of the job is visiting the homes of retiring scholars and others to purchase their collections. In the past five years acquisitions have included the collections of numerous Stanford professors, a "flawless group of 19th-century medical treatises covering everything from smallpox to venereal disease," early Twain books and a local-history collection of the retiring director of the California History Center.

Bell's civic involvement has included board posts with the Downtown Business Improvement District, the Palo Alto Historical Association and Off the Streets, a coalition working to house the homeless.

"I know my friends are struggling and it's tough times -- there are too many vacant storefronts," she said. "We're all hoping this holiday season will bring a little lifeblood into it."

Bell said she wishes the city could find ways to be more flexible about challenges facing small business. She recalled a time she was cited for displaying a handmade banner on her storefront proclaiming Children's Book Week.

"It was a charming banner in multiple colors, with children's illustrations on it. They said if I didn't take it down I was going to have to pay a fine, and would have to pay for a permit to keep it up."

She's a fan of the Downtown Streets Team, which enlists local businesses and homeless people to improve downtown. Since 2005, homeless people have worked in street cleanup in exchange for food, shelter and other services.

On any given day, the traffic in Bell's shop can include homeless people, symphony conductors, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, mothers pushing strollers, poets and artists.

"I think Palo Alto has more multiple advanced degrees than anywhere in the nation -- you never know who you're talking to," Bell said.

"I've had a very eclectic education. I've been to multiple colleges and universities and never got a degree in anything. This store was my education -- and is every day."

Info: Bell's Books, at 536 Emerson St., Palo Alto, is marking its 75th anniversary by displaying historic local materials, and holding a 20-percent-off storewide sale from Nov. 19 through Nov. 21. Call 650-323-7822 or go to bellsbooks.com.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Will
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Nov 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Quite a fun store, totally unlike "the big guys". You might not find what you are looking for but you'll find something.


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