Palo Alto Bell’s Books continues decades-long mission to match the “right books with the right people”

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Browsing through the ceiling-length shelves of Bell’s Books feels like opening a box of historical treasures; the variety of books a customer encounters might include first edition Steinbeck or Twain novels, an early grimoire (book of spells) once considered effective in summoning angels or a collection of Pablo Picasso artwork signed by the renowned 20th-century artist. 

Throughout 86 years of operation, Bell’s Books has evolved from its beginnings as a college textbook shop to the new, used and rare bookstore it is today. Today, Faith Bell is Bell’s Books’ second generation owner. 

Faith Bell is pictured in front of a Bell’s Books display.

While the store orders new books from publishers in response to consumer demand, Bell said that she has always specialized in stocking used and rare collectibles.

“Our love is really with the antiquarian books,” she said. “We always like to find unusual or unique or rare material in unusual topics. The joy is in finding things that people haven’t seen before.”

Bell defines truly rare books as “ones that you simply find, almost never,” using the word “rare” sparingly and opting for “scarce” a majority of the time. Books can be truly rare, she said, for factors like their beauty or limited number.

Bell’s Books is also sometimes interested in provenance — the identity of a book’s previous owner — whether this is a notable individual or an interesting, anecdotal one; one example is the subject of English folk song “Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea.” 

“I have a book that belonged to the real Bobby Shafto with his bookplate in it,” Bell said. “I came across his bookplate and went ‘Oh my gosh! It is, it’s the real one!’ Because it has his manor house, and where it was and the time period’s right. So it’s funny, the little things like that.”

Two bookcases — where certain titles are kept for fragility or value — are pictured. 

The process of collecting and selling used books starts with a phone call, in which a Bell’s Books staff member questions the potential seller about their collection’s genres, size and condition. With this relative understanding, Bell’s Books staff arrive wherever the books are stored, curate a selection and make an offer.

“I have to figure out which [books] are likely to go quickly, in which case I can pay well for them, or which of them are still going to be sitting in my warehouse years from now,” Bell said. 

Many staff members are knowledgeable in their unique intellectual fields — whether something like philosophy or true crime — which assists Bell in book-buying. At any given time, thousands of boxed-up books in the employees-only back of the store are in the process of being cleaned, researched and priced after purchase. 

“One of the things that makes this area interesting is that there are more people per capita with multiple advanced degrees in this county than there are anywhere else in the world,” Bell said. “So, it means that people with very specialized interests have fascinating libraries and we’re able to access those.”

Despite the growing digitalization of books, Bell is firm in the opinion that print books hold great value to their readers. However, she noted that libraries of Stanford professors she used to visit were much more vast before the popularization of digital books.

“Call me a Luddite, but I think having access to information that doesn’t require electronic devices is important,” Bell said.

For Bell, her family and staff, the feeling of looking up at walls of books and knowing they are all “waiting for you whenever you want,” simply can’t be replaced by e-books.

“I very much enjoy the physical book,” Bell said. “The aspect of paper and binding, typography, ink. And that’s something I really love to share with people. Putting together … the right books with the right people, is a lifelong goal and joy, and I’d say that all my staff share that as the dominant force in their lives.”

Bell’s Books is open in downtown Palo Alto every day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 536 Emerson Street.

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