When your parents are no longer together, and neither lives within a thousand miles of where you grew up, when your friends and family are scattered across the country, and when you haven’t spent more than a year or two in one place without moving during your adult life, what is the place you go home to? What place serves as the nucleus of your life, where, no matter how things change, you can always count on to keep you grounded? For me, that place has been Leon’s Bookstore. And as of next month, Leon’s – my home away from home – is shutting its doors forever.
Leon’s Bookstore has been a San Luis Obispo institution for 39 years. Before it was a used book shop, it was Leon’s Toy Store. Speak to anyone who grew up in San Luis in the 60s and they’ll probably have memories of that checkerboard floor and old Leon who gave out the candies. I never knew that part of the store’s history, but my aunt and uncle and their friends and family still remember. At some point, Leon decided to make a thing of collecting globes. By the 80s, the store must have had a couple hundred globes topping the shelves around the store (not for sale, mind you). Amidst the ever-more-outdated traditional globes, there were a few oddities like the globes of the Moon and Mars, and a few that opened up to reveal secret compartments. Well into the 90s, then retired Leon would still pick up any globe that he spotted at a garage sale and bring it to the store.
I don’t remember when I first visited Leon’s Bookstore, but I don’t remember a time, from when I first moved to California in 1982, when I didn’t know the place. My dad’s first job in this state was working there at Leon’s. His friendship with Rick, the owner—son-in-law of the eponymous “Leon” – that lasted well beyond his short employment there, kept me tied to the bookstore throughout my childhood. I went camping with the owner and his wife in Big Sur. I visited their home and played Wizards and Warriors and Tetris on the Nintendo system that my parents would never let me have. The bookstore itself was like a lending library, where, starting with Garfield and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, and moving on to 80s fantasy fare like Dragonlance and Terry Brooks’ Shannara, I developed a book habit. For a few years there, my mom relocated us some 25 miles away, so my trips to Leon’s became less frequent, confined largely to visitation weekends and “Farmer’s Market” nights, when the city hub would be closed to traffic and vendors and performers would take over the downtown strip. It was during these years that I first met Susie and Brent, Leon’s two longest-lasting employees. I was just a precocious, socially maladjusted kid who would rather do “volunteer work” shelving books than deal with life outside.
In the summer of 1991, after a few years away from San Luis, I switched parents, moving from my mom and stepdad’s ranch, to my dad’s tiny apartment situation in San Luis. Once again, Leon’s Bookstore was just a short walk away. That summer, when I turned 14, I went legit with my volunteer shelving, becoming an actual summer employee at Leon’s. Truth be told, there wasn’t a lot of interaction with books that first year. Most of my time was spent tarring the rooftop, painting the walls and mopping toilets. When I did get to deal with books, it usually involved hauling them in and out of storage. Back in those days, I don’t think Brent particularly liked me – that relationship would take time to develop. Susie, however, became my big sister right off the bat. The best times to work where when Susie was in charge, as she would basically let me manage myself. That first summer I made $1,600 – not bad a bad raise from the $500 a summer I’d been making raising sheep for 4-H. (With the added benefit of knowing that the fruit of your labors wasn’t destined for the slaughter.)
The next summer was more of the same. During my Junior year, when I was 16, I started working weekends. Senior year, I added a few weekday evening as well. I worked full time during Junior College, and summers once I moved away to USC. I gradually moved up from doing the schlep work to working the register and cataloging and taking books in for trade credit and cash. Rick would take me along to estate sales and house calls to purchase stock for the store. I got my own key and opened and closed shop as assistant manager – a key that I have to this day (unbeknownst to Rick) and have used to take a visitor to my old haunt under cover of night.
Thanks to my time at Leon’s, books were no longer just things to be read – they were commodities with a value that could be calculated by those in the know. The standard used book practice is to sell at half of retail. That’s simple enough with books still in print, but when you’re dealing with books ten, twenty or a hundred years old, many more factors come into play. Being able to read when a book’s oldness and esoteric subject matter made it a treasure as opposed to trash was like a secret language that I became more and more fluent in the longer I worked with it (and I barely scratched the surface of that world).
As exciting as the books themselves could be, Leon’s Bookstore isn’t my home because of books – it is the people that I’ve met there who have made me who I am. Rick and Cathy, Brent and Susie, Joe and Jean and Rose and Sean and many other amazing people who were like family to me. For a couple years, there was a core of us, ranging from our late teens through late thirties, who were a tighter family than my own blood. The summer I left for Los Angeles to go to film school – that was my real “coming of age” experience, and Leon’s was the lens through which I entered adulthood. At Leon’s, I saw marriages struggle, affairs fizzle, friendships evolved and lives begun. That a friendship at Leon’s would lead me on one of my greatest adventures into the hills and hollows of West Virginia, and that the ripples that trip would be felt in that community a decade later…it makes me feel like I’m a part of a web of Kurt Vonnegut novels, and it will take a lifetime to sort out the cast of characters. So many memories, so many friendships…
Back to the Book Store that brought about these reminiscences. For a few years now, I’ve harbored fantasies of going back to San Luis and buying Leon’s. I had elaborate plans for how I’d refocus the store’s inventory, remodel the interior to make it inviting for a new generation of children and misfit teens, and innovate with business models to try and keep used books viable. Now that dream will have to stay a dream, as the books and shelves and globes and family go their separate ways. I’ve known for a while now that Leon’s days were numbered. The Used Book market is dying, thanks in the short term to low cost, high volume alternatives like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and the power of the internet in allowing resellers to sell direct. Add to that the changing face of San Luis Obispo, which despite many small town touches, has gradually embraced chain stores for most local commerce, and this week’s news was all but inevitable. I wish I could say that the store’s closing will be a great loss for the community, but I think the city and the store fell out of sync a while back, at least on a practical basis. But for many people, those book-o-philes who liked things the old-fashioned way, San Luis is losing an old friend. And for me and, I’m pretty sure, a handful of others, we’re losing a place that was home.