Bookshop Santa Cruz has deep roots in its earthy California seaside community. The downtown store opened in 1966, and was later bought by the Coonerty family, who are celebrating their fiftieth year of ownership. We spoke with Casey Coonerty Protti, who currently runs the bookshop and has fond memories of playing in the store as a child.
ZYZZYVA: What’s the coziest spot in your store for reading?
CASEY PROTTI: When booksellers say that they are the community’s living room, it conjures up the dream of curling up with a great book, a comfy blanket, and a cup of tea in the middle of the bookstore surrounded by all our shelves of books. However, that quiet solitude is hard to replicate when you have the diversity of a town meeting, browsing, and book discussion. So that is why I would trade a cozy place to read with a place to read at the center of all that life. In the center of Bookshop’s main aisle, we have a circular bench. You can sit and read and people-watch all day. I find that when you are looking for exploration on the page, glancing up and seeing all kinds of people, in all walks of life, is the best way to truly connect with humanity in all forms.
Z: What’s a little-known fact about your store?
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CP: I think the fact that gets the most attention is that Bookshop used to have a waterbed in the center of our store. It was truly a store of the ’60s! I once had a customer tell me that they conceived their child in the stacks of Bookshop. For a second, all I could think about was that waterbed, but in fact they meant that they found a book about infertility at the bookshop that really helped them with their journey to be parents. Phew.
I think the life of our wooden rocking horse in our children’s section is our driving force. When the bookshop was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake, my father had fifteen minutes to go into the store to rescue important financial papers before they were going to demolish the entire building with all the books inside. At the last minute, he grabbed the rocking horse that lived in our children’s section. He said if he was going to rebuild the bookstore, he needed one thing to remember the old store by. Generations of kids have ridden on that horse (including me!), which speaks to the generations of customers who have learned to love reading in our stacks. It is the symbol that got us through the earthquake, chain stores, Amazon, Covid, e-books and more. That rocking horse just might be the secret sauce of our ability to be a community bookstore for over fifty-six years.
Z: How would you describe the smell of your shop?
CP: Since we have a farm-to-table restaurant as a neighbor, a lot of the time our store smells like whatever food they are cooking. I can often tell what is in season in the fields up the coast by the smells in the bookstore. But when they are done with their food prep, we turn to the quintessential Santa Cruz smell. How to be poetic about that unique Santa Cruz smell of salt water and patchouli oil mixed with books? Aging hippies, surfers still in their wetsuits, eager UC Santa Cruz college students, everyone’s favorite dogs and the scent of cherry blossoms from the trees outside on downtown Santa Cruz combine for a perfect Santa Cruz fragrance. However, many days, it just smells like the mist of fog that sits right along the coast.
Z: Which new book would you recommend most to readers?
CP: Maybe it is because of all the rain we’ve had in California, but reading about the sun-drenched outback of Australia was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had this year. The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane follows a little boy who goes missing in the middle of a dust storm in the colonial 1800s. His disappearance activates his large family and a variety of townspeople—from police to indigenous trackers, from artists to schoolteachers—to find him. We are immersed in the varying emotional lives of this cast of characters as they come together to navigate a dramatic landscape in a race against time. Centering on the human experience, as well as larger issues of self-determination and the divine, McFarlane exquisitely holds both beauty and hardship in the same breath. That being said, I recently reread East of Eden and visited the National Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, and I think there is joy to be found in reading both new and old books.
Z: Aside from your own, what’s your favorite bookstore?
CP: I’ve long since banned the question “What is your favorite book of all time” from the store, but I now think that this question is even harder. Some of the best people I know in this world are bookstore owners, and each store beautifully reflects their passion, dedication, love of learning, and community. I genuinely love each and every one of them. But to single one out, I would have to say Changing Hands in Arizona. Not only do they have multiple generations of passionate booksellers at the helm (who are also some of the smartest people in the business), but I so admire their willingness to take a stand for their values in the midst of such a politically divisive purple state. Bookshop Santa Cruz has always been political, as we were born out of a deeply engaged, progressive community. But for us to take a stand in Santa Cruz is relatively easy. For Changing Hands to take a stand, which they do every day, they risk alienation of their customers, protests at their events, and more. I admire their willingness to live their values and to create a store that is a safe place for all viewpoints, a showcase of how to promote voices that need to be heard and a store where the ownership is willing to stand at the forefront to further the national dialogue about important issues facing us today. Arizona is lucky to have them.