A trunk full of treasures

Pink Cadillac is Chico’s new used-books store

The Pink Cadillac Bookstore is located on Salem Street, across from the brick parking structure and next to the Chamber of Commerce. The place is medium-sized, but the small door that opens to the street belies the roominess of the store inside.

As I walk in, the comfortingly musty smell of used books hits me, mixed with the smell of—can it be?—cider. The owner, Del Williams, is sitting at the counter, absorbed in a book. He jumps up as I come in and asks me if he can help me find anything. Funny, I think: I can’t remember the last time I entered a used-books store and was asked that question. Usually a used-books store’s motto is something like, “Fend for yourself amidst the wild paper jungle.” But something was different here.

“One thing I realized about opening a bookstore,” says Williams, settling down for the interview, “is that you immediately have to throw your own tastes out the window. Books that you’ve loved your whole life might not sell worth beans, but books you would never dream of reading sell like wildfire. It’s a compromise.”

To open a new bookstore in a town that seems to take new businesses, chew them up, and spit them out like gum takes a little faith and a lot of perseverance. The bookselling industry is difficult to break into, especially now that Barnes & Noble, Borders, Costco and Amazon.com are offering books at prices most small-town bookstores pay wholesale for. But still, bookstores like the Pink Cadillac seem undaunted by the influx of corporate-owned booksellers.

“We can’t compete with Costco in terms of prices,” says Williams, “so the alternative is to offer better service and a friendlier approach.”

The thing that mystified me most about the Pink Cadillac was its name. “It’s a gag,” says Williams. “In the sense that used-car salesmen sell ‘slightly used’ cars, and we sell ‘slightly used’ books. Our original name in Chester was Preowned Books and Pink Cadillacs.”

Williams and his wife, Phyllis, who are both retired teachers, own the store. He formerly taught psychology at Boise State and the University of Utah, and she taught English for a while at Chico High. After focusing on clinical psychology for nine years, Williams realized the field was no longer for him. The couple decided to retire and open a bookstore in Chester. Now, eight years later, and with its move to Chico, the Pink Cadillac seems to be going strong.

BOOK WORM Del Williams opened the Pink Cadillac Bookstore with his wife, Phyllis, after running a similar shop in Chester. He’s learning not to be surprised when readers’ tastes differ from his.

Photo by Tom Angel

“We are much bigger than we appear.” Williams says. He’s right. The place is packed with books, from Douglas Adams to J. R. R. Tolkien, Sendak, Seuss and Silverstein and everything in between. “We keep just one copy of each book on the shelf, to save space,” Williams says, “but we usually have a lot more in the back.”

I finger my favorite Kurt Vonnegut book, Sirens of Titan, as we talk. I ask Williams what attracted him to books. “Books,” he says, “are the cheapest form of entertainment.” He gives me a grin. “You can go anywhere in the world from your armchair. They allow you to use your imagination. When you read a book, you always have a picture of the characters in your head, as well as the places and situations. When I read a book that gets turned into a movie, I usually don’t want to go see the movie.”

He is thinking about going to see The Lord of the Rings, though. “I’ve heard it’s pretty good,” he says, stroking his beard. “I just never pictured hobbits as … people, you know? Something different altogether.” He pauses and smiles. “We’ll see.”

The Pink Cadillac also runs an open mic on Monday nights starting at 7. “My wife is actually in charge of it,” Williams explains. “It’s open to poets and musicians who want to show their work.” The turnout so far has been pretty good, with eight to 10 artists coming every week.

The Pink Cadillac also offers space for local authors to sell their own books, using the consignment system. “We sell a lot more than I thought we would,” Williams says. (So any aspiring authors out there, now you actually have a venue to sell your work. You can take the sign down off of the highway.)

So what is the world like from a bookseller’s point of view? “It’s a fun life,” Williams says. “You run into a lot of nice people—people who like to read. From the moment they walk in, I know we share an interest.” The Cadillac offers free cider (yes, that’s what I smelled), cookies and tea for customers to enjoy while they browse.

“You’re welcome to come in, find a book, sit down and read for a while, put in a bookmark where you left off and put it back on the shelf. The only danger is that the book might get sold,” Williams says.

The Pink Cadillac also special orders books, and can usually get a book in faster than the corporate bookstores. “If you order a book from us Monday morning, it will usually be in by Tuesday afternoon. Since my wife and I are the only employees, we don’t really have a the bureaucracy the large bookstores do.” The couple cooperates with a large network of used-books stores via the Internet.

After the couple’s move to Chico six months ago, Williams says, "All we really had to do was build the shelves and unpack the books. It was nice." As for ambitions during the next few years, he says, "We want to be a part of Chico and just provide our service. … We love it here."