It takes a community to run Four-Eyed Frog Books in Gualala, and they love it
At first glance, Four-Eyed Frog Books in Gualala is just like any other independent bookstore in this age of Amazon.
Shelves with hundreds of titles you can pick up, flip through and hold. Along with dozens of related items like jigsaw puzzles and greeting cards. There’s even a witty sign on the door that reads: “Books curated by a real person, not by a creepy algorithm that wants you to buy deodorant.”
The bookstore has become a Cypress Village hot spot and is an indefatigable community gathering place that is owned and operated by members of the local community themselves.
You read that right: The store is owned by 25 shareholders, most from Sea Ranch in Sonoma County.
Four-Eyed Frog Books is the brainchild of Joel Crockett, an 81-year-old dervish who still works the counter three days a week. The way he sees it, the store provides for the tiny coastal community what few other places can: a place to go.
“Whether they’re buying books or they want to spend time sitting and admiring the view, people love coming here,” he said. “We want everyone who walks out to tell a good story about our store.”
The community steps in
Crockett founded the bookstore way back in September 2003. At the time, Gualala had been without a bookstore for nearly a decade. For this reason alone, locals gravitated to the store immediately. Tourists took notice, too, as the store sits in a klatch of buildings that look out on the Pacific Ocean and comprise the economic heart of the town.
For nine years, the bookstore and its following grew.
Then, in 2012, tragedy struck. Crockett’s first wife was killed in a car crash on Highway 1 heading down to Jenner. And Crockett considered selling the bookstore.
“It was a very difficult time, and I had a community meeting to share with members of the community what I was thinking,” Crockett said. “That’s when people started writing checks.”
Over the course of the weeks that followed, 24 people in all stepped forward, forking over donations from $1,000 to $15,000. Each check was a one-time payment with no expectation of return. Each check was a testament to how much local community members didn’t want to lose their local bookstore, and how much they believed in Crockett’s vision.
Crockett himself became the 25th shareholder and the group formed a new corporation in 2016.
Between 2016 and 2019, a group of four shareholders emerged as the management quartet — the investors who would also invest time and energy in keeping the store open. Four-Eyed Frog Books was finally hitting its stride under the new setup. Then the global pandemic struck in early 2020.
Books found at the market
Like all small town businesses, Four-Eyed Frog Books shut down for a few weeks after March 2020. Then Crockett and the other managers devised a new approach — curbside pickups.
Orders came in online or by phone, and the bookstore would fulfill them at the door.
Then, a neighbor stepped up: The management team at Surf Market on the west side of Highway 1 offered some aisle space for Four-Eyed Frog Books to sell work there. The market negotiated a favorable margin for the bookstore, empowering Crockett and his team to keep profits and an additional percent.
The way Crockett tells it, the bookstore would not have been able to survive that first year of COVID-19 if it hadn’t been for Surf Market.
“That relationship really helped us,” he said. “They willed us to stay OK.”
Caroline Ducato, director of marketing for Surf Market, did not dispute that statement. Even now, two years later, her employer uses Four-Eyed Frog Books as the resource for approximately 95% of the books in this set-aside area — a terrible idea from the standpoint of dollars and cents, but a wonderful gesture at a time when booksellers across the country were struggling to pay rent and shopping patterns still weren’t entirely back to normal.
“This decision to use Four Eyed Frog as our ‘wholesaler’ was based solely on what was best for our community,” she said. “We wanted to make sure Four-Eyed Frog remained open, and we were willing to sacrifice profits and margin to make that happen. After all, what is a town without a local bookstore?”
Great selection, quirky touches
Today Four-Eyed Frog is flourishing. The store offers free Wi-Fi, and general manager Jill Blew said the top-selling section is the children’s area, which accounts for nearly one-third of all sales.
“It always seems like everybody has kids in their lives — whether they’re locals who’ve lived here their whole lives or they’re visitors and they’ve got grandkids back home,” said Blew, whose mother worked in a library when she was a child. “People are always pleasantly surprised when they come in and see our kids’ section. We’ve worked hard to make it special.”
Fiction and mysteries account for the second and third best-performing genres, respectively.
Other fan-favorite sections include a shelf with LGBTQ+ books, a shelf with books that work well for book clubs, a great section of local cookbooks, and the shelves with books about the flora, fauna, and geography of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
The store has become beloved for other attractions, too. Over the years Crockett has collected frog figurines from people in the community, and at last count there were more than 240 of these frogs hiding around the store. Four-Eyed Frog Books also is one of only three bookstores in the world to host a diorama from children's book author Maggie Rudy, who writes books based on the three-dimensional worlds with felt mouse characters.
Then, of course, there are the height charts on the door behind the register — the charts have been there a while, and patrons ask Crockett to record their heights against a backdrop of coast redwoods. For posterity.
What’s next for the bookstore
Crockett said the future of Four-Eyed Frog Books likely will look a lot like the present.
“I don’t look forward a whole lot,” he said. “We’re having so much fun the way it is!”
Still, change is inevitable. Crockett turns 82 in February 2023, and at some point, he’ll need to cut back on hours. He also wants to make sure he can devote all the requisite time to two separate radio shows on KTDE 100.5 FM, a tiny local radio station.
For the guy who came up with the name Four-Eyed Frog Books, at this point it’s all about fun.
“In a small community store like this one, everybody knows the store by the personality of the person behind the counter,” Crockett said, donning his Four-Eyed Frog Books T-shirt and hat. “I’ve been that guy all this time. I’ll continue to be that guy. I love what I do, and I love providing this place for our community. Books are important, but they’re most definitely not everything.”
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