One of my favorite bookstores is small but mighty. Treehorn Books, specializing in used, out of print, and antiquarian volumes, occupies a simple storefront at 625 4th Street, Santa Rosa, California, between a pizzeria and a taqueria.
Keith Hotaling and Michael Stephens opened Treehorn in Santa Rosa in 1979. Originally they were a few blocks farther west in an area called Railroad Square. In the 70s and 80s, the square was what you might call, tactfully, “un-gentrified.” In the late 80s they moved up to 4th Street. Keith doesn’t remember exactly when they moved, but he knows they were there on October 17, 1989, the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
The name “Treehorn” comes from a children’s book called The Shrinking Tree Horn, and children’s books are one of the store’s specialties. They also carry a lot of western and California historical books, and a lot of military history. Rare and antiquarian books are kept mostly upstairs in a room that is accessible by appointment.
Treehorn looks like a used bookstore should look. The bookcases are tall. Browsers share the aisles with rolling library ladders. Books are shelved in the alcoves based on topic, and it always seems like I’m going to turn a corner and find a secret passage, or meet a strange traveler, or stumble over the book with the map to the hidden Shakespeare play glued behind the end papers.
I asked Keith what got him into the business. He has a teaching credential, but realized he didn’t want to teach. He worked for the library system as a driver for a while, making deliveries to libraries. (Michael has a master’s degree in library science, but he decided he didn’t want to work for the library system.) “I guess I like to read,” Keith said. I pointed out that this was not reason enough to buy and sell books. You can read off a computer screen or a tablet. “Oh, it’s something about the physical book, definitely,” he said. He thought a moment. “The smell. It’s the smell.”
The front of the store is devoted to heavily discounted new books and remainders. Treehorn will order books and do book searches for out-of-print titles. In November, Treehorn has the best calendars in town at the best prices. Keith said he was worried that they were running out of space, just as a man came in who was going to show him eight boxes of books. “Do you need a hand-truck?” Keith said.
Treehorn Books does not carry computer books, or romance novels, just because they had to draw the line somewhere. They have a huge section of used science fiction and fantasy, and the California history section includes some quirky books about the hippy movement and local communes. Men buy a lot of military history books, Keith said, and women buy most of the fiction. Keith sees all generations in his store. “Folks bring the kids to pick out a book,” he said, “and we also have the octogenarians.”