Hunter Lee | Daily 49er
Gatsby Books aims to be more than a one-time destination
The used books store acts as a community for readers in Long Beach.
A cowbell’s clink and friendly hello are the first signs of entry at Gatsby Books, a small but extensive used bookstore that has resided within a strip mall on Spring Street in Long Beach since August 2010.
Because owner Sean Moor dislikes the way online retailers such as Amazon promote certain titles and would prefer readers to explore shelves themselves, Gatsby Books stopped selling online. Now, its books can only be reached by walking into the store and browsing its intimately close but heavily stacked shelves as classical music roars from a record player.
“We have a real store because we want to communicate with someone face-to-face, not put something in an envelope and mail it to them,” Moor said.
Though confined to a small space, the store’s shelves contain a wide span of genres that are labeled to be as specific as possible, aiming to connect readers with exactly what they’re seeking. Jeri Westerson, an author who held a book launch party at Gatsby Books, found the store’s labeling system more helpful than those used at chain retailers such as Barnes and Noble because of its specificity.
“When you see the handwritten genre notes on the shelves, that’s when you know you can find just about exactly what you need,” Westerson said. “Sometimes there’s subgenres of the genre that don’t necessarily work under the umbrella [retailers] put up. I like the detail here.”
Subjects such as history, philosophy and religion are categorized by important figures, time periods and ideologies, while the fictional literature can be found in alphabetical order near the front entrance.
“This place is overwhelming,” Moor said. “It’s the collected knowledge of our society.”
Before opening, Moor collected books from garage sales, library sales and other used bookstores. Today, Gatsby Books largely acquires titles from customers selling or giving titles to the store on what Moor describes as a daily basis.
At the store’s 10 a.m. opening time, Moor can be found refilling the complimentary coffee and water pots, restocking shelves and feeding the store cat, Ruby.
“Ruby is the number one marketing tool of Gatsby Books,” employee Kellee Cullingham said. “She is quite literally by definition a bookstore cat.”
Often found purring at customers and laying near the works of Charles Dickens, the grey and white cat has been a resident of Gatsby Books throughout the majority of the store’s existence. Moor said that Ruby has spent her whole life around books, originally living in a different book store for seven years.
“[Her previous owners] moved to Fresno, but when they moved they couldn’t take the cat with them,” Moor said. “So they asked if we would keep Ruby.”
Now Ruby has been with Gatsby Books for almost seven years as well.
“So she’s getting to be a senior citizen cat and has lived in bookstores her entire life,” Moor said.
Customers are allowed to pet Ruby and sip on water or coffee as they browse books, the latter of which Moor says he and the store’s employees are not allowed to do while working.
“The worst thing would be for a customer to walk in and not be acknowledged or feel like they can’t disturb you because you’re reading,” Moor said.
Instead, Moor and his staff engage in conversation with as many customers as possible to find out their reading interests and help connect them with a book they’ll enjoy. The people browsing Gatsby Books’ shelves range from neighbors on their morning walks to students from nearby high schools and colleges.
Though originally he was the store’s sole employee, Moor said he began hiring customers he knew two years ago.
“Although my tastes in books are pretty good, they’re not everyone’s tastes,” Moor said. “I try to make this store the favorite store of as many people as possible.”
Moor credits his staff with helping him make this a reality by bringing knowledge of different genres that he himself doesn’t consume, such as science-fiction and fantasy. This helps make the store’s offerings more diverse.
“I’m the sci-fi, fantasy and drama sections person,” Cullingham said. “[Moor] knows that those are the books I read so if he’s not 100 percent sure on certain authors he’ll check with me, or vice versa.”
Gatsby Books sometimes holds public events for the community between its black bookshelves, including book clubs, launch parties, open mic nights and readings.
For the most part, the employees allow the author to run the show when they host readings and take the opportunity to focus on tasks that need to be done within the store. But sometimes they get to witness unexpected yet meaningful moments, such as when the host of a recent poetry reading held her wedding ceremony in-store at the poetry event’s ending. Those in attendance became guests to an unannounced finale.
“It was kind of a hit-and-run wedding,” Moor said. “If you came to our poetry reading, you got to be at the wedding.”
Though Moor states that selling books is always a challenge in today’s world, he believes that the best is yet to come for Gatsby Books.