Last summer, when British nature writer Robert Macfarlane launched the American tour for his book Underland: A Deep Time Journey, appearances were mostly limited to big-city hubs like Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. There was one detour, however, to a small bookstore in west Marin County: Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station.
In an email, Macfarlane recalls the scene: “When I went through the door, the store was so crowded with book-browsers and book-buyers it was hard to move around.” Eventually, everyone trooped to a nearby school gym, where Macfarlane was interviewed by Rebecca Solnit. “Five hundred people,” he remembers. “Some people had flown in from Los Angeles to be there.… It was like no literary event I’ve ever been part of: generous, passionate, unorthodox, engaged.”
All those words could be used to describe Point Reyes Books. And one more: thriving. In an era when independent bookstores are making a comeback, this one is particularly, forcefully alive.
“We wanted the bookstore to be a place that brings in community,” says Stephen Sparks, who with his wife, Molly Parent, has owned Point Reyes Books since 2017.
The couple’s path to proprietorship was a unique one. The previous owners, community organizer Steve Costa and psychotherapist Kate Levinson, had made Point Reyes Books a literary and environmental center with high-profile readings and events. When, in 2016, they announced they were selling, reactions ranged from alarm to anguish.
Sparks and Parent were among the unhappy clientele. The two had met while working at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books. “For years,” Parent recalls, “we’d drive to Point Reyes Station for weekends. We’d come into the bookstore and have this fantasy: What if this was ours?” Now that the bookstore was for sale, that dream seemed unfulfillable. “We didn’t have the money,” Parent says. “We thought, Now this will never be.”
But Costa and Levinson didn’t want to sell to just anybody. They were looking for someone who would maintain—would grow, even—their legacy. The first test for aspiring owners: to explain, in writing, why they wanted to buy Point Reyes Books. “Essay questions,” Parent says, laughing. “We thought, That we can do.” The answers she and Sparks delivered impressed Costa and Levinson. Meetings followed. The two helped Sparks and Parent line up financing, much of it local. Seven months later, the bookstore was theirs.
The grand reopening, on New Year’s Day 2017, was delayed because Parent and Sparks were given the wrong key to the front door. The ride has been smoother since. “Every year we’ve been here has been the best year the store has had,” says Sparks. “We were up this year over last year, which was a great year.”
How does a small bookstore compete in the era of Amazon? What’s essential, as booksellers around the country have discovered, is community. It helps that Point Reyes Station is Point Reyes Station—an Edenic retreat that hasn’t forgotten its farm-town roots. (On any given Saturday, you’ll see a few mud-spattered dairy pickups.) It has a bookish rep. “The joke is that half the residents are retired Berkeley professors,” Sparks says. It’s also next to Point Reyes National Seashore, which annually draws more than two million visitors. “Around 70 percent of our customers,” Sparks acknowledges, “come from out of town.”
The bookstore occupies the restored Point Reyes Emporium building, from 1898, which sits more or less in the middle of downtown. Step inside and you find yourself in a warm, calming, homey place. Offerings are curated but ample. There’s a hefty natural history section; across the room is poetry, a particular passion for Sparks, a National Book Awards poetry juror in 2018. Then, nonfiction, Parent’s favorite. Among her recent recommendations? Oakland writer Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. The children’s section has evolved since the arrival of Sparks and Parent’s son, Liam, 14 months ago. And, of course, the bookstore continues to host events; upcoming highlights include an appearance by Gary Snyder in celebration of his 90th birthday.
For Sparks and Parent, Point Reyes Books, like other bookstores, plays an acutely necessary role in an anxious America. “Almost every day,” Sparks says, “we get somebody coming in and saying, ‘I love this place.’ You don’t get that at the Gap.”
More to the point is the notion that information, narrative, helps us find a place for ourselves by showing us where we are. “We’re seeing how stories and storytelling matter,” Parent observes. “Both serious journalism that tells us what’s going on in the world and other kinds of narratives that expand our understanding of things.”
Peter Fish is a writer, editor, and teacher specializing in California and the American West. He lives in San Francisco.