Sonoma County’s oldest bookstore celebrates 47 years in business

If you go

What: Paperbacks Unlimited, Inc.

Where: 4625 Highway 12, Santa Rosa

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday

Info: 707-539-8102.

With an inventory of more than 100,000 used books and knowledgeable employees happy to assist customers, Paperbacks Unlimited is an oasis for North Bay readers.

Jill Brown and Howard Brown - then a couple, now 20 years divorced - founded the bookstore on a whim in 1972. Today Paperbacks Unlimited is Sonoma County’s oldest bookstore, a fixture along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley.

Books are meticulously shelved in sections by genre and in alphabetical order by author and title, a courtesy to shoppers searching for book club selections, favorite series, bestsellers or obscure works. Even the occasional reader who shows up asking about a recommended book - knowing a character or theme but not the author or title - still has a chance of scoring a copy. Clerks double as sleuths, asking questions, referencing information online and narrowing down options.

“That’s when we put our heads together,” said Jill, 72.

It’s the kind of personalized service customers appreciate, the owners say, and something not available from online competitors.

“A lot of people come in and say they’re looking for something to read,” said Howard, 73. “My first question is, ‘Tell me something you’ve liked.’” His suggestions start from there.

The staff also helps out by recommending titles, and Paperbacks Unlimited produces an informative monthly newsletter and blog. Customers can find in the store a large children’s section, teen titles, cookbooks, memoirs, westerns, romance and a small area for erotica, like “Fifty Shades of Grey.” There are religious and political titles, gay and lesbian topics, contemporary and historical fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and miscellaneous fiction and nonfiction.

“Gothic is gone, horror has shrunk and paranormal is growing,” Jill said. “Ten years ago we didn’t have a paranormal section.”

The mystery and suspense section is the most popular, and author Louise Penny “is gold right now,” Jill said. Danielle Steel also has made a comeback, while Agatha Christie and Rex Stout are always popular. Books by Lee Child, Janet Evanovich and Nora Roberts (and her pseudonym J.D. Robb) are among those in high demand. North Coast novelist Christine Feehan, a No. 1 New York Times bestselling romance-paranormal author, also has a following.

Paperbacks Unlimited specializes in pleasure reading - no textbook or antiquarian items to be found. The store encourages lighthearted risk-taking with its “Blind Date” offerings: a $1 book wrapped in brown craft paper, listed as fiction or nonfiction, and with a few hints about the story hidden within.

Members of Sonoma County’s numerous book clubs make up a considerable customer base, as do older readers.

Anne Delse, a retired middle school math and science teacher, visits the bookstore every few months. She enjoys the “friendly people” and how “well-shelved” the books are in the spacious, 4,000-square-foot store.

“When you’re looking for a specific author, that’s important,” said Delse, who left the bookstore on a recent morning with seven paperbacks. “Some people eat for comfort. I read for comfort.”

All books at Paperbacks Unlimited, including numerous audiobooks, are sourced from customers, who get a store credit for the quality paperbacks they bring to the trade-in window. A small percentage of hardcover books are accepted and sold, mostly current titles not yet out in paperback.

The Browns have rolled through numerous changes within the publishing industry since opening their bookstore nearly 47 years ago.

“Amazon and electronic books definitely have taken a toll on our business,” Jill said. “As a consequence, our sales have been trending downward. It was getting tight there for a while.”

Howard handles the accounting and maintenance for the store, with Jill managing most everything else. They’ve had to adjust policies and pricing a few times as sales trends changed. Most books are sold at half the publisher’s price: “It’s a good deal that works for the customers and works for us,” Jill said.

Even with considerable floor space, Howard and Jill say finding room for everything is their greatest challenge. Their store is spacious enough for customers to browse without feeling crowded, but they’ve blocked a few windows with bookshelves and utilize a back room for overstock, as well as space in an adjacent office they own. Keeping up with their ever-changing inventory is simply a result of their success.

The Browns didn’t plan to open a bookstore back when Richard Nixon was president and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was a New York Times bestseller.

Dick’s Books, a used bookstore they frequented in Mayette Village, was closing. Howard worked in data processing for Sonoma County at the time, and Jill had left her job as a social worker two years earlier, after the birth of their daughter. With little time to contemplate their actions, and no way to predict their future success, the Browns purchased the tiny bookstore and opened it just days later as ?Paperbacks Unlimited.

“We bought it on a Saturday night and opened on Monday,” Howard said. They’ve since moved a few times to larger spaces.

The Browns have no regrets. Jill, an avid reader who dreamed of becoming a librarian and hoped to someday run a bookstore, found Paperbacks Unlimited an ideal endeavor. She brought her daughter Heather to work with her, and eventually Heather was on staff, working at the family business before attending college. Now 48, Heather is a real estate agent but still helps with the store and is a part owner. The oldest of her three sons, Drake, 15, and Lance, 13, share rotating shifts there on Sundays.

As the business grew, the Browns opened a second Paperbacks Unlimited in 1978, in a Petaluma shopping center. Howard left his job with the county and ran the Petaluma bookstore for 25 years, until he tired of the commute and needed to fill a void at the Santa Rosa location after Heather had her first child.

Even though the Browns divorced in 1998, they made the bookstore a priority.

“It was just going to be a joint effort,” Jill said. “We were very motivated. We loved the bookstore. It was a little difficult at first, but we worked it out. We’re friends.”

Each credits the other for their talents and contributions to the bookstore’s success. “It wouldn’t work without the both of us,” Jill said.

Both now work part-time - Howard pursues model railroading, Jill likes outdoor activities - and rely on their seven employees (some former customers) to staff the bookstore seven days a week.

They’re grateful for the positive feedback they receive from customers, some come from as far away as Mendocino County and Crescent City. Many developed an affection for the bookstore cat, Booker, a scrawny tabby Heather rescued from Highway 12 as a kitten. He happily resided at Paperbacks Unlimited until the old age of 19. Many brought cards or flowers when Booker died.

Jill recently introduced a new pet to the bookstore, an 11-year-old mini poodle mix named Marvin she adopted from Muttville, a San Francisco senior dog rescue. He accompanies her whenever she’s at the bookstore. “He’s blind in one eye and missing a few teeth, but he’s sweet,” Jill said.

The friendly pooch already has fans at the bookstore.

If you go

What: Paperbacks Unlimited, Inc.

Where: 4625 Highway 12, Santa Rosa

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday

Info: 707-539-8102.

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