Last Friday I took a walk downtown. I had been wanting a copy of Redwood City (Images of America) for my growing library of historical resources, and knew that they sold it in the gift shop of the San Mateo County History Museum (which of course is in our old county courthouse, on Redwood City’s main square). After verifying the museum’s hours online, I also checked the hours for the Local History Room at Redwood City’s main library: my wife wanted me to check out one photograph in particular that she had heard was on display there. It was only 1:30, and both the Local History Room and the History Museum closed at 4:00, so I prepped for the heat (sunglasses, sunscreen, hat, shorts, etc.) and headed out.
The walk downtown was routine—by now I’ve done it hundreds of times—and as I reached and then crossed El Camino I watched the cranes over Crossing 900 doing their aerial dance. Past the tracks I turned and followed Broadway, noting that a pair of restaurants near the corner of Broadway and Marshall were in the process of remodeling and changing ownership. I followed Broadway’s gentle curve away from the tracks, pausing briefly to admire some of the watches in the window of Golden Time Jewelers. Then two more blocks, and I was standing on Courthouse Square.
As I approached the steps of the courthouse, a sign to the left of the steps caught my eye. A banner proclaimed “Encore Books, on the Square” with a large arrow pointing down below the courthouse. Next to it, I then noticed a blue sandwich board that proclaimed “Entrance to Funders Bookstore & Wells Fargo Learning Center,” with a small arrow pointing down the handicap ramp that lead to Encore Books.
I had noticed signs like these before, but had figured that they must lead to a small room with old history books or something. They certainly hadn’t piqued my interest in the past, but on this day, with a couple of hours of free time on my hands, I thought “why not?” and took the ramp down for what I was sure would be a quick detour before heading upstairs to the History Museum.
You know the old saying “never judge a book by its cover”? Well, I quickly learned not to judge a used bookstore by its location. I was completely unprepared for what I found buried beneath the old County Courthouse.
At the bottom of the ramp you enter the building and immediately turn left into a small antechamber. Here you will find a couple of small rolling racks with popular hardbacks and video tapes (does anyone still have a VCR?). I pulled a couple of books from the racks and examined them: they appeared to be almost new! And then I saw the price: $2.00. For a basically brand-new hardback book…! I was starting to get the idea that this place is something special.
Passing through the antechamber you enter the first room of the store. It contains a large set of shelves with their hardback general fiction, a couple of display tables highlighting books on California history, a small rack of used DVDs, bookshelves containing various other categories of hardback books, and a desk where a volunteer sits, eager to help you find your way around and ready to take your cash (they only accept cash or checks: no credit cards). Again, I was amazed at the quality of many of the books on the general fiction shelves (like all used bookstores the quality of the stock varies, but this place seems to put a premium on “gently loved” books). I checked a couple of the authors I’ve been collecting and was surprised at how quickly I found a couple of books that I needed.
Continuing to browse, I looked through an open doorway into a very small room that contained much older, “collectable” books. I stepped inside, and then gasped. Not because of what the room contained, but because it led through yet another doorway to a another room equally as big as the first, again filled floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall with books. This room contained more specialized sections such as Children’s books, Science Fiction, Cookbooks (they have a lot), and Non-Fiction. By now I was getting really excited. And then I noticed another doorway that led to yet another room: the paperback room, in which every paperback costs only a dollar.
I was in heaven. I was overwhelmed. Why did no one tell me about this place?!? I mean, here was a huge used bookstore with incredible prices that is an easy walk from my front door. I just knew that I had to spread the word, although I must confess that I felt a teeny bit hesitant: I was feeling somewhat covetous and wanted the first chance at “the good stuff”. But I quickly came to my senses. This place is simply too good not to share with those of you who love books.
I had walked through the front door of Encore Books at around 2:15; it closes at 3:00. Knowing that there was no way I could do a proper examination of their stock in the time I had left, I made a quick pass through some of my favorite authors, easily finding three books that I knew I needed. I then just browsed until just before closing, when I presented my books for purchase. Grand total: three nearly-new hardbacks for less than seven dollars.
How do they do it? Easy. All of the books are donated, so the merchandise is free. All of the profits go to the History Museum upstairs, so they presumably don’t pay rent. And it appears to be entirely run by volunteers from the San Mateo County Historical Society. No rent, no labor costs, and no cost of merchandise means that they can charge low prices and still come out well ahead. Knowing that the money goes to the museum just makes for an easy decision when you are on the fence about a particular title: buy it! Oh, and if you have some good-condition books that you want to get rid of, consider donating them to Encore Books. They’ll even give you a receipt if you want to write off the value of your donation on your taxes…
I still had one hour until the History Museum closed, so I headed upstairs and was surprised by another sign: it seems that the History Museum doesn’t charge admission on Fridays! [Correction: admission is free on the first Friday of every month] That convinced me that I should take a quick tour of the museum. But first, I went to the gift shop and found the book I was looking for. And while I was at it, I naturally browsed through their entire stock, looking for other books of interest. They have a newly published large-format hardback on the history of San Mateo County; given that it was $80.00 I chose not to buy it at this time. I did find a book called Redwood City from Arcadia Publishing, which contains 150 black-and-white “then and now” photos of Redwood City. I just had to buy that one. They also had some other Images of America titles that looked intriguing, including one on San Carlos and one on the old theaters that used to exist up and down the peninsula. I chose not to buy those at this time, however.
Adding the two photo books into my bag, I then spent the rest of the hour wandering through the San Mateo County History Museum. It’s an interesting museum, although if anything the setting (the nicely restored old courthouse) is an even better draw. I spent some time sitting in the old “Courtroom A”, imagining what it must have been like when a real trial was going on with a judge up front and jurors in the jury box…
The one downside to my unexpected find was the fact that I had to lug my purchases all the way home. I had expected to be bringing back a single softcover volume. Instead, I had two such volumes and three standard-sized hardcover books. Fortunately, the volunteer workers at Encore Books will give you a (previously used) bag, at no charge. So I had a paper grocery sack, with handles, to make things easier.
Of course, having had so little time there, I just had to go back. Which I did, the very next day, along with my wife. We spent considerably more time there on Saturday, and left with two full grocery sacks full of books. The damage this time? Less that $60.00.
Encore Books unfortunately has very limited hours: they are open Tuesday through Saturday, 11:00am to 3:00pm, and are closed on Sunday and Monday. You can sign up at the cashier’s desk to be notified of their periodic half-off sales—as if their prices weren’t low enough! They take donations at any time, but only good quality books (and no former library books). Like any used bookstore their stock changes daily depending upon what gets donated.
Redwood City never fails to surprise and delight. On my walks I’ve discovered a number of hidden treasures. Aly’s on Main, the Buddhist Temple up in Emerald Hills, the hiking trails through Stulsaft Park… and now Encore Books. Its little places like these that make a city special. But Encore Books been there for quite a while, and I just now found it. Which makes me wonder: what else have I missed? If you know of any other places around Redwood City that you consider to be “buried treasure,” click “leave a reply,” below, and let all of us know!