At lunchtime during my senior year at Arcata High School, I’d dart from class and hurry to my favorite bookstore, Tin Can Mailman. Once there, I had 22 minutes of undisturbed browsing through the store’s labyrinth of shelves before I had to get back to school. I unearthed many secondhand paperbacks that I still have today: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and a stack of Peanuts comics, among them. Tin Can Mailman is the type of bookstore where you’re left alone to follow your intellectual curiosity through a maze of dusty volumes—an experience not unlike reading itself.

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

Tin Can Mailman’s building was erected in 1913, two blocks from the Arcata Plaza. It was originally a bank, which accounts for the store’s unusual layout. The upper mezzanine, once offices, looks down onto the first-floor stacks. Shelves twist behind the children’s room, which is in the former vault. Everywhere you look is packed with books.

“We don’t have a lot of floor space,” says co-owner Margo Glenn-Lewis. “Pretty much every inch of that store that can have a bookshelf on it has a bookshelf on it.”

Glenn-Lewis and her husband, Michael, purchased Tin Can Mailman in 2017. Recently retired, they saw the store come up for sale and drove up from Davis to take a look. Self-professed bookaholics, they fell in love and became the store’s fourth owners.

Founder Will Mauck opened Tin Can Mailman in 1972. During his time in the Peace Corps, Mauck had visited the South Pacific archipelago Tonga, and he named the store after Niuafo’ou, or “Tin Can Island.” The island had no harbors for ships to dock in, so mail was stuffed into tin cans and thrown overboard for swimmers to retrieve. The store’s brown-and-white wall hangings are a nod to the name—they’re traditional Tongan tapa cloth.

Much to the relief of long-term customers, the new owners opted not to change much in the store. However, they did add a small selection of new books, mostly young adult and science fiction. The reason? Neil Gaiman.

“We couldn’t keep Neil Gaiman books in stock,” says Glenn-Lewis. “So I thought, We’ll just buy the silly things new. And then we started taking special orders as well.”

Despite this, Tin Can Mailman remains dedicated to used books, which is important in a college town, where half-price textbooks are a relief to students. (Nearby Cal Poly Humboldt was established the same year Tin Can Mailman’s building was constructed.) Equally important is the inclusivity that comes with selling a large assortment of books. The store’s motto is that it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you’re reading.

As a result, Tin Can Mailman’s bestsellers are as quirky as Humboldt County itself: Books on mushrooms are popular. So are sci-fi, children’s books, new age, young adult, philosophy, and hiking guides.

After five decades, Tin Can Mailman continues to be a Humboldt staple. It offers a reprieve from this complex, fragmented world that’s as simple as a search for a good book.

“It’s really nice on a cold rainy day to go upstairs and park yourself in one of the bays near a window with a book,” says Glenn-Lewis. “People have done that in the past. They’ll come in with a bagel and a coffee and go upstairs. Then later we’ll see them without the bagel and with an empty coffee cup, and a pleased look on their faces.”•

Tin Can Mailman

1000 H St., Arcata,

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Joy Lanzendorfer’s first novel, Right Back Where We Started From, was published in 2021.