Even as national book chains sputter, local booksellers see a bright future.

Dusted Off: Since re-opening Old Capitol Books in October, owner Matt Sundt has mostly been vacuuming. He plans to introduce a small section of new books to the used bookstore.

When Matt Sundt’s mother decided to clear out her cookbook collection – some 2,500 strong, including titles like Cooking with Love and Butter, a 1977 paperback, and Tennessee Favorites, including a page of instructions for “How to Cook a Country Ham” – she gave the books to him last year.

Those boxes full of books got him thinking about a return to an old family business: bookselling. 

So when the former owners put the downtown spot, Book Haven, up for sale, Sundt bought the store and the thousands of books inside. 

As he walks the length of the poetry section, Sundt considers his 21st-century re-entry to the book business and asks, “Am I crazy?”

As web-based content cannibalizes paper books to the point that even chains like Borders are going under, Sundt knows the answer is yes. He’s not a book lover, reading mostly newspapers and magazines, but since he bought Book Haven and turned it into Old Capitol Books in October, Sundt says business has been good. 

“People have tactile need,” he says. “I’ve had incredible responses.” 

Some of those responses might be the result of a decline in local bookshops. 

From 1983-2003, Sundt’s brother owned Old Capitol Books on Lighthouse Avenue. It was an era that saw five bookstores thrive on a stretch that today hosts just one, BookBuyers. 

BookBuyers co-owner Rammurti Reed says what’s left here is actually pretty good; some industry calculations put the national decline at 80 percent. Part of what drew the four-store enterprise to Monterey was a relatively large appetite for books: “We felt that it was a very literate community,” Reed says. 

There’s enough of an audience that Mary Hill and James Bryant are expanding their Carpe Diem Fine Books. Hill says when the market tanked five years ago, she observed a change in customer behavior – less browsing, and more one-book shopping – but that’s reversing. 

Old Capitol sells books people might read on the beach, but also stocks rare items that can feel more like artwork than literature. 

There’s a signed first-edition (1937) copy of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row ($3,500), or a 1917 El Gablian High School yearbook with Steinbeck’s signature to a friend – and his graduation year inscribed as “never” ($3,000). 

To Reed, the booksellers play a curatorial role, albeit a diminished one, in intellectual life. “At one point,” he says, “booksellers were really a repository of information, like a librarian, but more with the pulse of what was going on.” 

In today’s used bookstore climate, that might be the pulse of throwback thinkers, but it’s a pulse nonetheless. 

OLD CAPITOL BOOKS is open 10am-6pm Mon-Sat and noon-6pm Sun at 559 Tyler St., Monterey. 333-0383, www.oldcapitolbooks.com

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