It’s the open-air bookshelves and palm trees standing sentry in the courtyard.
It’s the inventory of more than 100,000 books, including rare finds such as a first American edition of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,”
It’s the Instagram-famous cats that have dwelled at the shop through the years.
It’s the long-standing traditions, like selling some books on the honor system.
For decades, the unique charms of Bart’s Books have beckoned literature lovers from far and wide to the quiet corner of Matilija and Canada streets in Ojai.
“A hitchhiker once came in and said he found us from a Bart’s bookmark someone gave him in the Midwest,” Jack Randolph, a longtime worker at the bookshop, told The Times in 2004.
Over the years, the outdoor bookstore — think: rows of bookshelves covered by tin roofing and surrounded by lush greenery — has become a fixture on lists such as “The Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World” and “Bookstores Every Book Lover Must Visit in Their Lifetime.”
“I am always amazed as to how far some people travel just to experience this unique outdoor bookstore,” said Jamie Fleming, chief executive of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, via email. “Bart’s Books is the most circled destination on our Ojai visitors map when we are suggesting places for people to see in the Ojai Valley.”
Bart’s Books’ status as a travel destination feels fitting — a story coming full circle — given that the bookstore was inspired by its founder’s travels far from home.
Richard Bartindale, the namesake of Bart’s Books, was born in Oxford, Ind., in 1917. Newspaper clippings from the Lafayette Journal and Courier reveal a childhood spent largely in his small town, with occasional trips to Boy Scout camp and Niagara Falls.
Then came World War II.
“He was a navigator … and flew the Hump over the Himalayas and into China,” said Barry Bartindale, one of Bartindale’s sons, via email. According to the Journal and Courier, Bartindale served on air evacuation planes, transporting prisoners of war from Guam and Tokyo and removing wounded men from Okinawa under enemy fire.
After World War II, Bartindale’s position in the military took him and his young family to Naples, Italy, and London, where they lived when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953.
His time in the Navy opened up the world to Bartindale, said his daughter Monica Allshouse, born after Bartindale returned to the U.S.
“He enjoyed traveling to different countries when he was with the Navy. That put the love of travel in him.”
It was during this postwar period, on a trip to Paris, that Bartindale is said to have found inspiration for his famous outdoor bookshop.
Parisian book merchants have long spent their days selling novels, biographies and all manner of other volumes in an open-air market along the Seine.
The famous “bouquinistes” charm locals and tourists alike — including Bartindale, who was taken with their open-air approach to bookselling.
“His eyes lit up, I would say it was almost magical to him,” said Allshouse, who later accompanied her father on a trip to Paris. “He always liked fresh air.”
“Being able to just be outside, walking along the Seine … it put him in a happy place.”
It took at least 10 years for Bartindale to go from lieutenant commander in the Navy to outdoor bookseller in Ojai. But by 1964, his famous bookshop was born.
Before founding Bart’s Books (once called Bart’s Outdoor Bookstore), Bartindale worked for Rand Corp. in Santa Monica and experimented with bookshops in Santa Monica and North Hollywood.
“I think what he enjoyed about bookselling was the end result — a house/store full of books by thousands of authors with so much to say,” said Barry Bartindale. “He knew a lot about the books he sold because he read so many of them on all different subjects. He always had five to six books with bookmarks on the floor by his bed.”
This appreciation for books eventually turned into a full-time career.
“He left a good paying job at Rand to work for peanuts selling used books,” Barry Bartindale said. “I remember him telling me that he was going to do it, and that he knew it would work. It always stuck in my mind how sure he was.”
His sense of scrappy determination was perhaps a product of his time.
“He did a lot of ‘pioneering,’” Barry Bartindale said. “By the time he was 28 years old, he had been through the Depression and World War II and had a kid. A lot of people that grew up in that era just think differently.”
Bartindale and his wife, Rachel Bartindale, used their pioneering spirit to weather the challenges of the bookselling business and bring Bart’s Outdoor Bookstore to life.
“My stepmother, Rachel, said that one of the things she admired about him was that when something didn’t work, he’d just try something else,” Barry Bartindale said. “For instance, when he started Bart’s Books in Ojai, all the bookcases were painted white with the cheapest paint Standard Brands sold. Drips and rough edges didn’t seem to bother him. He had rolls of Naugahyde [a faux leather] nailed to the tops of the bookcases that dropped down the front of the bookcases in case it rained.”
Acquiring a supply of quality used books was another hurdle. For every dozen books that someone would bring in, Bartindale would often only see one that he could easily sell at the shop. But he didn’t want to send a person back home with 11 books — so he would buy all of them.
“His old van was always full of books because he had to make so many house calls to get a few good books,” Barry Bartindale said.
Bartindale’s appreciation for books seemed to be matched by his affection for his customers.
“He was very social,” Allshouse said. “He loved meeting people and helping them find the right thing to read.”
Allshouse was just 5 years old when the bookstore opened its doors. “I would always be with [my parents], laying the cement down … building the bookshelves,” she said. “It was a labor of love for them.”
The fabled oak tree that once grew inside Bart’s Books, estimated to be around 300 years old, holds a particular significance in Allshouse’s memory. “I’d go sit on a little bench around the oak tree and read my comics,” she recalls.
It was a happy childhood, Allshouse said, filled with books, art projects and playing with her pet duck, named Duck.
“I got to play with all the children who came,” she said, including one of Paul Newman’s daughters. “Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were regular visitors at the bookstore,” Allshouse said.
During the shop’s early years, Allshouse remembers her mother would sell jewelry out of an indoor portion of the shop. In the summer months, her parents set up an outdoor theater. “They put up a big white sheet, and they would show movies on the weekends.”
Allshouse’s older sister, Anne Bancroft, spent about six weeks helping out at the bookstore after graduating from high school.
At 18, Bancroft recalls being “enthralled” by her father’s efforts to build the bookstore — and by the customers.
“This is early Ojai. It was all these bohemians,” she said. “They were freethinkers. … I liked listening to them and hearing ideas exchanged.”
A longing to foster community and provide a space for culture and dialogue was central to Bartindale’s mission.
“One of Bartindale’s hopes was that the neighborhood surrounding his corner would become a sort of Parisian Left Bank, with a variety of shops for the stroller to explore,” reported Robert Bryan in the Ventura County Star in 1977.
By the late 1970s, this dream had been largely achieved. “Antique shops are in the area, as well as the shop and studio of Hellmut Cordes, German goldsmith and fashioner of old world custom jewelry,” reads the County Star article. “Lou Ann Schlicter’s shop, looking like something out of turn-of-the-century Montparnasse, offers flowers, fresh and dried, as well as gift items that are book related.”
But, by that point, the Bartindale family had been gone for roughly 10 years, having left Ojai in the late 1960s for Bartindale’s Indiana hometown.
“The corner of Canada and Matilija streets in Ojai is what it is because of the stubborn persistence of one man and his wife,” Bryan wrote in his 1977 article. “They have long since left town, having passed through like a hurricane but leaving behind their impossible dream made real.”
In subsequent years, the Bartindales went on to open a restaurant in Indiana and continued their travels, spending large chunks of Allshouse’s childhood abroad.
“Spain and England were my favorites,” Allshouse said. “We had an apartment that was right across the street from the beach, with views of the Mediterranean.”
After the Bartindales’ departure, Bart’s Books changed hands a few times before it was purchased by longtime owner Gary Schlichter, who left the landscaping business to become a bookseller.
“There were a lot of hard times. The weather was always a problem. Either heat or cold or rain,” he said. But despite weather-related challenges, “it was mostly a positive experience.”
“Mostly, it was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was the interaction with the customers that was the most fun.”
Other perks included trips to Europe to source books. “We went to England twice. … I bought a lot of books there,” Schlichter recalls. “Sometimes I bought an extra suitcase and filled it with books.”
In addition to the shop’s selection of books and unique outdoor setting, he credits the shop’s resident felines for attracting customers.
“I always had a cat or two or three there, and some people would come in just to see the cats.”
Schlichter, who kept a guest book at Bart’s Books, recalls customers visiting from New Zealand, Argentina and beyond. “It was amazing where people came from.”
Plenty of A-list customers stopped by during Schlichter’s tenure too.
“One actor that I liked especially was Anthony Hopkins … he loved books. He would come in every so often,” Schlichter said. “And Bill Paxton too. He was a nice guy.”
Schlichter ran the bookshop for 27 years, until 2004, over the years adding features such as handicap ramps.
“After I sold the place, for years I had dreams of being in the bookstore,” Schlichter said. “Mostly dreams about standing at the sales desk and interacting with the customers. I loved that.”
Over the decades, each owner and operator introduced changes to Bart’s Books, though some of the earliest traditions remain. Most notably, visitors can still purchase books lining the shop’s exterior walls at any hour of the day on the honor system — they simply place their money into a slot box on the front door.
“It’s a tradition going on since the store opened,” Schlichter told Times writer Charles Hillinger in 1990.
“It restores your faith in humanity. … I’d say at least 95% of the time people drop their money into the box.”
Today, Bart’s Books is owned by recently retired South Coast Plaza general manager David Grant and his wife, Andrea Grant. The shelves are painted an earthy green and clay brown instead of white, like they were in Bartindale’s era. Gone are the hitching posts for customers who arrived by horseback.
Perhaps most difficult for customers to reckon with is the loss of the shop’s beloved oak tree, removed after part of it fell into the street.
“Everybody misses it,” says manager Matt Henriksen, who has been coming to Bart’s Books since he was a child growing up in Ojai.
During his career as manager of Bart’s Books, he’s seen business struggle in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis — and then thrive in the years since. In the last two or three years, he said there’s been a 30% growth rate.
Popularity, partially driven by social media, can be a double-edged sword. “There’s an intensification of the trend to visit the place as a sort of tourist attraction,” Henriksen said, “which can be frustrating for somebody who genuinely cares about books.
“When I see [visitors] walk through, take a picture and leave, it’s frustrating, because it makes part of what I do feel empty.”
However, he adds, Bart’s Books depends on tourist traffic, which makes up a large portion of the bookstore’s revenue. “ Seventy percent of my sales are people outside of Ventura County,” Henriksen said, with the bulk of customers coming from the Greater Los Angeles area. “It’s mostly been helpful to us; it allows me to pay my employees a little better than most bookstores.”
Paige Murray and Michael Rodriguez, a couple from Orange County, had a particularly memorable first visit to Bart’s Books last December.
“I had always wanted to visit Bart’s Books,” Murray said.
When they passed a picturesque, ivy-draped set of shelves — between the psychology and self-help/inspiration sections — Rodriguez got down on one knee and proposed to Murray.
“My whole life revolves around reading and books,” Murray said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
After taking photos and grabbing a quick bite to eat, the newly engaged couple returned to Bart’s to browse. “We stayed in the bookstore for an hour and a half or two hours. … There’s so much to see,” she said.
Murray ended up purchasing a copy of her favorite book, “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. “We wanted to take a little piece of the bookstore with us,” she said.
Henriksen’s advice to other first-time visitors to Bart’s Books?
“Avail yourself of the staff,” he said. “People feel shy about asking us for our time or attention, but that’s really why we’re here.”
The Bart’s Books staff also recommends checking out the shop’s calendar — upcoming events include a poetry reading from poet laureate Lee Herrick, on Sept. 2.
In addition, “make sure you spend some time and walk around and see every little part [of the shop],” Henriksen advises, noting that the poetry room can be hard to find, even for customers who have visited multiple times.
Despite the evolution of Bart’s Books over the years, one returning customer knows her away around the shop better than most.
“I love the bookstore,” said Allshouse, who has returned a handful of times since her parents left the business in the late 1960s. “When I’m in Southern California, I have to stop in and see the changes that have happened.”
On one such visit, Allshouse brought her daughter and granddaughter to see the bookstore her parents created almost 60 years ago.
“Every time I approach it on the outside, it just gets me all excited, because it looks just as it did. … I think about my dad and mom every time I see it,” she said. “I just love seeing that it’s being cared for … and still prospering.”