Meet Matt, the book thief who saw the light – The people we met on the way

I met Matt Henriksen in October 2017, while researching a piece on the Californian town of Ojai, with photographer Myles Pritchard.

Ojai, a Mediterranean-style valley town a few hours north of Downtown Los Angeles, is a place ready-made for glossy magazine editorials, with its kombucha bars, safari-chic boutiques, Airstream hotels—and a hippie legacy stretching beyond John Lennon to yoga guru Jiddu Krishnamurti and the Chumash Indians, who named it the Valley of the Moon after its huge moons, visible all night long. The fact that the town survived the recent wildfires in California was, for many, evidence that it is a spiritual vortex—a blessed corner of America, a little like Sedona, Arizona, where the valley also runs from east to west.

But none of this makes a great deal of difference to Matt Henriksen, the defiantly normcore general manager of Bart’s Books, the town’s wonderful indoor-outdoor bookstore—a sprawling emporium of rickety shelves built around an old honeymoon cottage, with a grapefruit tree in the courtyard. There are even bookshelves lining the outside of the single-storey building, where you can buy tomes for 50 cents using Bart’s famous honesty box.

With all these words around, it doesn’t really matter that Channing Tatum recently moved to town (adding just one more beautiful person), or that Vogue and the New York Times have decreed it officially cool. “I’ve lived here all my life,” says Henriksen, wearing black trainers and a not-quite-lumberjack shirt. “So I’ve seen all sorts come to Ojai for all kinds of reasons: New Age-y people, who feels this connection to the mountains; the LA and Hollywood escapees, who are taking the air; the hippies, the rednecks, the young families. But I’m not that attuned to what’s trendy, and why. I’m more into books, which is either boring or interesting. I’m not sure.”

Bart’s Books began life in 1964, when Richard Bartinsdale (“Bart”, to everyone who knew him) opened the place based on the second-hand book stalls he’d seen in Paris during the War. Having left Los Angeles for a quieter life, he lived in the 1930s cottage as it became a kind of commune for literary idealists, with coffee cans on the bookshelves so that people could pay what they thought a book was worth. It became an institution, which survived when Bartinsdale moved back to his native Indiana in 1969 (he died in 1983).

Henriksen’s first brush with Bart’s Books was as a thief in middle school. “I’d quit school to steal books and read. Usually, the criterion was: anything about drugs and/or sex, but I managed to read some good stuff, whether it was The Stranger by Camus, Alive by Piers Paul Reed or anything by William Burroughs. I joke now that I’m paying off my karmic debt.”

I’d quit school to steal books and read. Usually, the criterion was: anything about drugs and/or sex.

Now, with a small team and an ageing, “sometimes ornery” cat called Pygmy, Henriksen is the general manager of this empire of up to 150,000 new and second-hand books, with about 50,000 individual titles, ranging in price from 35 cents to thousands of dollars. It’s a labyrinth of clapboard and corrugated iron, with so many little rooms and corridors of shelves that it’s easy to get lost. Lots of people have found quiet nooks to read books on a bewildering range of subjects.

Bart’s old garage, for example, is now the art, architecture, photography and design room. In a corner of shelves off the central courtyard, the subjects are Sport, California and Hobbies/Games, the latter perhaps a nod to Henriksen’s penchant for hosting games of Dungeons and Dragons at Bart’s.

Still, Henriksen—who has worked here for ten years, with seven as general manager—is an avowed literary omnivore. “I just love books,” he says, simply. “I will read books on absolutely anything and everything. And the slogan on the bookmarks here in the 80s was ‘everything under the sun’, which still rings true today.”

I will read books on absolutely anything and everything.

But where his expertise comes into its own is with the impressive range of rare books on offer at Bart’s: like a first edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, selling for $6,000, or an uncorrected proof of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, for $660. There are signed books by Auden and William F. Buckley, a first edition book of monographs by Robert Rauschenberg, and an 1883 promotional book on Oakland, featuring an essay on the San Gabriel Mountains by “Father of the National Parks” John Muir.

He’s had first editions of Harry Potter books, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with original illustrations by Ralph Steadman. Henriksen finds the books everywhere, and sells them at industry standard rates, though the $1,800 he recently charged for Fear and Loathing was a “touch higher”. Henriksen gets excited about it all, including a 1910 Norwegian tome about zeppelins and flying machines, with fold-out illustrations of machinery and parts.      

Business seems to be better than one might fear, even if Henriksen admits that the honesty boxes rarely draw more than 20 bucks a month. He says that 5-10,000 books come in and out every month, and that the first editions never last more than a year. “Like antiques, what’s changed is that the middle of the market has gone,” he says. “But the top is okay, and if anything cautiously thriving. And tourism definitely helps us—70 per cent of our sales are to tourists.”

Most people, of course, buy “normal” books—when we visit, Patti Smith’s latest book has been the big seller. And part of the reason they come is for the experience. “People can sit and read here, and just be surrounded by words,” says Henriksen. “A lot of what we’re selling here is the atmosphere of the place. We like customers to be comfortable, but encourage them to read something that might just be out of their comfort zone.”

The competition may be heating up in Ojai, a place of meditation mountains, secret hot springs and trendy new wineries. But, to Henriksen, Bart’s is still the best place in town to while away the time. “It just is.”