When I first moved here, the only bookstore in town, Coastside Books, was owned by Diane Gates.
The following interview with Half Moon Bay bookstore owner Diane Gates, written by Anne Gawronksy appeared in Transitions, Montara to Pescadero, an oral history (1977), inspired and edited by Canada College teacher Aida Hinajosa.
“I always wanted to have a bookstore. I think there must be hundreds of people around that have this dream in their minds.”
Diane Gates, petite, dark-haired, dark-eyed owner of the only bookstore in Half Moon Bay, Coastside Books, speaks quietly and gently of how it came about that she owns a store, how she feels about books and people, and how she feels about living in Half Moon Bay. Carefully feeling out for the right words to express her thoughts, she continues:
“I think the people that are book lovers are more interesting all the way around.” And adding an explanation of her opinion, says, “That seems sort of an uninspired thing to say, but it just seems sort of natural to me.”
Being surrounded by books, and not just any books, but well and carefully chosen books, Diane seems to be in her natural environment. She has her own definite feel for the specialness of books stemming from her library training which sharpens book-selection skills. Also, she has experience from working with books for several years.
“I worked four years as a librarian for the County. I studied library science at Berkeley, and started out on the San Mateo Bookmobile, and that was really fun. They had at the time two small Bookmobiles and one large one. It was a really interesting job.
“They also had a permanent library then in Half Moon Bay and I worked there, too. This old library was in a building on Main Street. The library itself wasn’t even on Main Street; it was part of that house in the back of the building, so none of the major traffic could see us, so nobody knew it was there! And it was small than my bookstore!”
Diane gestures toward the cozy space of the shop with its walls stacked high with books. (This interview was held in the wonderful, small, old house that was the first location of Diane’s store.”
“The old library was really teeny-tiny, so if you had more than four patrons at once, you were bumping into each other!” she smiles. “But it was fun.”
However much Diane enjoyed her library work–and she was very happy being children’s librarian in Half Moon Bay–the dream of owning her own store was always with her; four years ago, to her delight, this dream became a reality and she explains how she and her husband began on their enterprising venture:
“A combination of circumstances worked out in my favor. Just about the time I was looking for a new kind of job, this building came up for lease. That was in 1973. I was working at the library at the time and driving by here every day and I saw the sign and called right away and got the building. My husband had gained some valuable experience working for a Berkeley book wholesaler at the time and we had saved our money ’cause we knew we wanted to do something like that some day. We started out really small, and we’ve been putting just about everything back into it as we go, and it’s been growing quite a bit in the four years now.”
But as well as these necessary material pre-conditions for the existence of the shop, its life and success can be attributed both to what Diane is as a person, and to what she believes. She is very approachable, friendly and will give sound advice to the customer who requests help in making a selection. On the other hand, she will leave the customer to browse and look through the books, posters and cards on display.
Her interests as a shopkeeper do not lie in profits and expansion. On the contrary, she feels strongly about the importance of the small shop where the customer and his or her needs are all important. The shopkeeper and the customer can meet face-to-face and an exchange can take place, a sharing of ideas and, in this instance, a common love of books. The serving aspect of shopkeeping can be more than merely functional, and the shopkeeper can give the customer the personal attention and time that are sorely lacking in the more commercialized shops where the customer often times comes away feeling harassed and alienated.
“In the sharing aspects, in the personalization, lie one of the delightful things about having a store; and I think this is true of work with the public in general,” maintains Diane.
“I really love having the store,” she tell us, “and also I think this situation is ideal. I wouldn’t enjoy staying at home all the time, so this way I get both things; when I’m home, I’m home, and when I’m at work, I can devote my attention to that. And I enjoy this so much. It’s almost–well, I don’t want to be too misleading–sometimes it’s frustrating, and sometimes I’m tired, but most times it’s a very rewarding kind of thing, working for yourself.”
The depth of Diane’s interest in books is reflected in the excellent quality of the selections on display in the store, and the breadth of her own reading interests is mirrored in the diversity of the categories represented. Herein she hopes to cater to all the possible interests of the coastside reading public. “We try to have as wide a subject range as we can,” she says. “A lot of the time we may have only one copy of a book, but we do try to have as wide a range as we can.”
And while there is a demand for a varied range of subjects, according to Diane, “One of the main things we sell is books of local interest, local history. Our best selling book is called, The Last Whistle. That’s the one that is the story of the Ocean Shore Railroad that ran from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. The publishers of that book are a local company out at Berkeley and they do nothing but railroad books, but in our situation, The Last Whistle is the one we’re really interested in.
“On local history there are several books that have been written that touch on our area, but there’s no one book I know of right now that really gives a well-rounded history of Half Moon Bay, or even of this area of the Coastside.
“Combing the Coast comes closest to that, but it was intended to be a guide book, I think. It has a lot of history in it, and interesting tidbits, but it mainly tells you, if you are going on a drive, what to look for.
“But people often do ask me for a book about Half Moon Bay. Maybe they want to send it to their relatives back east, or even in Europe somewhere, to let them know where they are, and what’s happened in the past, and pictures of how the place looks right now.”
“I have found a book that comes close to fulfilling that need. I don’t know if you know about A Separate Place; it’s just about La Honda, San Gregorio and Pescadero. It interviews a lot of people, and has excellent back-and-white photos. Everything is recognizable, people, old barns.
“And then an interesting thing, too, when I was new here, I read South from San Francisco, which is an excellent history of San Mateo County. The author is Dr. Frank Stanger of the San Mateo County Historical Association. His writing is so much fun. He’s obviously a really lively person. He just has a lot of humor, and a really good way of putting together detail. So often history writing is dull, or emphasizes things that are very interesting to the historian, but not quite so much to the lay person who just wants to get the feeling for the area.
“It makes you feel in a way like you’ve found your roots because this is going to be your home.
“Then you suddenly see why–names, for example, like Pulgas Avenue, the fleas, or the names of the wealthy people which are now names of shopping centers or something in the landscape. You see why it’s there, and it’s really fascinating to figure out the backgrounds of people and what prompted them here, and what it was like in those days for them.
“History plays a really important part to a new individual in the area, and I think a history book is the nicest gift you could give someone new here. In particular, I like South from San Francisco. It isn’t in a very attractive cover, but it has the most information.
“We also have a really large collection of children’s books That’s because it was my interest before, and it still is. I still enjoy reading children’s books and keeping up with what is new.
“For myself, I don’t really make the division between children’s books and adults’ books. I approach children’s books pretty much the same as I approach any other book. It is something new I want to read.
“There is a tendency to look down on children’s books, and that is something everyone who works with children and in children’s books, either publishing or selling or working in libraries must avoid–condescension and thinking you have to talk down to children–because this is certainly not true.
“There was a teacher in just today who was talking about how we are afraid to choose a sophisticated book for a child. We’d rather just choose something familiar, that is easy, whereas the children are so ready. Sometimes, they will really be teaching you if you’re willing to meet the challenge to try something with them that’s more difficult. For example, there was an award-winning book last year called A Chinese Folktaleand a lot of people would be afraid to try that thinking, ‘Well, I’ll have to bone up on Chinese folklore, and don’t know what the kids are going to ask me,’ or whatever reason one might have to keep from trying it; whereas really, kids are just so up on very many things.”
Carefully evaluating her own children’s section, Diane says, “I’ve looked at other bookstores in San Mateo and around, and even in San Francisco, and I may only have one or two of a title, and I may only have books in paperback, but I know I have more selection than most bookstores offer for children. So far, I’ve been disappointed that the books in the children’s room don’t sell as well as I thought they would. I think it is a matter of getting parents to know that I’m here, and I have a really fine selection of books. I haven’t figured a good way to let people know that, but I’m starting to have more people come, and then word-of-mouth spreads, and I have to depend on that a lot.”
Currently popular books can also be found on Diane’s shelves. “I’m finding that books that are best sellers in New York, suddenly are best sellers here, too. I didn’t realize, for example, that Roots would sell. I thought, ‘Oh well, this looks interesting, and I’d really like to ready it, but I don’t know if it will sell in Half Moon Bay, and it costs $12.50’ So I got one or two copies and I never did catch up on that one! I couldn’t believe the demand. And then, of course, the T.V. serial came out and really pushed it over the edge. People here choose the same kinds of books as people in a more cosmopolitan area.
“And at least two-thirds of our business is derived from local people who live here, and they give us tremendous support, in emotional ways, too. We found that out for sure when the building was up for sale. There was a sign up, and all kinds of people came in and said they hoped we weren’t going to leave the area, and asked us what was going on.
“I just didn’t want to talk aboutit at the time because I just hated the thought of leaving.”
And fortunately for Half Moon Bay book lovers, when the ownership of the building did change hands, and the Gates lost their lease, this really special store did not leave the town but merely changed location.