When Mahri Kerley opened Chaucer's Bookstore in 1974, she had no idea that the store's survival would be threatened by the arrival of chains like B. Dalton, Crown Books, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, but more than 36 years later her competitors in Santa Barbara have all closed, and Chaucer's reigns securely as the upscale beach community's only remaining bookstore.
Kerley has always followed her own instincts when it comes to the book business, refusing to offer discounts when other booksellers buckled under the pressure first applied by Crown Books, and never carrying remainders. "I never had the space for the necessary tables, and everyone else carried them," she says about the latter decision. Chaucer's hasn't suffered from Kerley's determination to operate autonomously and as a "real bookstore." Although she won't reveal sales, Kerley says, "I'm making money on the store. I have good stock, good customers, and good customer service." All but three of her 30 employees are full-time, and many of them have been with Chaucer's for more than 10 years. Kerley provides 100% health care coverage to her staff and pays them "a living wage."
When she lived in the Bay Area in the early 1970s she walked into Kepler's Books and thought it was a good store, but lacking in mysteries and history titles. This motivated her to gradually build a stellar history section when she opened Chaucer's, and to also establish an account with the then popular Ben Stark wholesaler to stock the store with as many imported British mysteries as she could; no other bookstore in Santa Barbara was carrying them at the time. "My philosophy has always been that if you don't have it, you can't sell it," Kerley explains, and her store is renowned for carrying a breathtaking array of titles, including the obscure Beginning Cherokee from University of Oklahoma Press that Chaucer's has sold 16 copies of to date. "Our stock is eclectic," she notes. "We do a large business in special orders, because our customers know we'll do whatever it takes to get books for them." Ed Conklin, formerly of Dutton's Books in Los Angeles, shares the book-buying responsibilities with Kerley and helps maintain the store's stock of more than 150,000 titles in 369 sections.
Although Chaucer's doesn't discount, the 6,500-sq.–ft. store in Loreto Plaza does hold two sales a year that last three days each during which customers receive 20% off on everything in stock. Kerley is aware that her store has survived this long largely because of customer loyalty, and these biannual events acknowledge that. Other ways Kerley gives back to the Santa Barbara community is to host book fairs in the spring and fall as fund-raisers for the area's schools. Kerley donates 25% of the profits from each one to the participating schools, and last year she wrote checks to them totaling about $20,000. "We support the schools big-time," says Kerley, who also offers a standing 20% discount to teachers. The children's book department at Chaucer's is one of the most profitable areas of the store and includes a wide selection of toys and games.
A native of Canada, Kerley lived in San Francisco in the 1960s and '70s before moving to New York after getting married. She and her husband eventually settled in Santa Barbara, where a modest bequest from her late mother allowed her to buy a small paperback bookshop. "I bought it for $35,000," Kerley says, "and had no idea how to run a bookstore. If a book sold, I replaced it with two copies instead of one. You can imagine how cramped that space became." Four moves to increasingly larger spaces finally brought the store to its spacious present location, where Kerley has been since 1990. She is an accomplished gourmet cook and photographer, and framed prints of images she shot on a recent trip to India currently line the walls of the store.
Kerley says she will likely begin offering e-books in 2011 and is exploring different options. "I'm willing to do anything if customers want it," Kerley notes. "As long as the written word is being disseminated, any form of that seems fine."