By all rights, Booktown Books, the eccentric bookstore and more, should not even exist, much less be thriving. Located in the gold country town of Grass Valley—the middle of nowhere to the uninitiated—the 24-year-old cooperative brings together nine owner-sellers, each offering distinctive merchandise. The much-revered business is more than just a retail-success oddity. When COVID-19 hit, Booktown became a place where people could just go and be—it never closed. “That first month, we had regular customers that called us up and said they had cabin fever: ‘Can I come see you in your store?’ ” Marilyn Tubbs, one of the longest-tenured members, says.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

Tubbs and her husband, Tom, obliged, letting visitors browse the well-tended maze of aisles and shelves by appointment while the couple sat outside. Their booths’ specialties are regional history and local gardening, but vintage children’s and art books can be found as well. “There’s so much to view within Booktown Books—try to have a bit of time to view it all,” Tubbs advises.

When word spread that Booktown’s doors remained open while other businesses were shuttering because of the pandemic, even more folks stopped in, especially those fleeing the Bay Area. “It’s been a very hectic last two years,” Tubbs says. “It was no longer just the local crowd coming.”

Housed in a two-story, 4,000-square-foot building that the co-op leased in 2000, Booktown reflects the region’s literary affinity and alternative sensibility. One of the West’s most productive gold mines was nearby, and the area maintains an Old West ethos tempered by a counterculture vibe and an unusual density of bookstores. (Grass Valley is an internationally designated Book Town, as is nearby Nevada City, also in gold country.)

Other booths at Booktown include An Inner Sanctum, run by another original co-op member, Nicole Dillard, who sells art, music, and cooking titles, and G.F. Wilkinson Books, which focuses on metaphysics and spirituality and carries vintage board games. From his stall, longtimer Tom Cadman sells books about World War II, of which he has one of the largest collections in the region. Anthony and Carly Leano operate From the Land Beyond, peddling graphic novels, comic books, erotica, posters, and rare horror and fantasy DVDs from a large room that was once the space of legendary comic book publisher Bud Plant.

There have been as many as 14 owners operating at Booktown at one time. “That was too crowded,” Ron “the record guy” Quintana tells me. Quintana’s little room just off the entrance feels like a 1990s garage sale stuffed into a shed. The 10-by-15-foot space overflows with yellowing paperbacks, obscure posters, record crates, and placards announcing a “huge $2 CD sale.”

Mike Witter, who once owned a bookstore in San Francisco and now has two adjoining rooms in the rear—the most square footage of any member—explains the staffing schedule: “We work in direct proportion to how much space we each have. Some dealers have a lot of books and work three or four days a week, and others have small spaces and work three or four days a month.”

Witter specializes in academic texts, and his sections include Hunting & Shooting, Drama, and Nautical. “How many dealers have this much on insects?” he asks, showing off the dedicated shelves. Around the perimeter of the room are framed displays of arrowheads and sharks’ teeth. Spine up in rows on a counter are Witter’s latest acquisitions, a hardbound collection of the rare bilingual (Latin or Greek plus English) Loeb Classical Library series. “I haven’t even priced them yet, but I’ve already sold about 50, which speaks well of the community here, I think.”•

Booktown BOOKS

107 Bank St., Grass Valley,

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Marcus Crowder is a Sacramento-based music and theater critic.