Coalesce Book Store in Morro Bay is celebrating 50 years in business. Photo by Neil Farrell
For over a half century, Coalesce Bookstore and its owner Linna Thomas have been a beloved part of Morro Bay’s business community and one of the anchors in the Downtown business district.
Thomas and long-time employees Sherri Hereford and Joanne Hand sat down with Estero Bay News to talk about the store’s beginnings, its past, present and future.
She started the business in 1973, Thomas says, opening around her birthday that July. The first store was in a little old house at 230 Harbor St., across from the Pleasant Inn.
“That old house,” Thomas recalls, “it’s amazing how many people who come in today remember that place. It was very funky.”
It was funky in that each room of the house had different genres of books, for example cookbooks were kept in the kitchen.
Coalesce’s origin story is as eclectic as the store’s extensive book collection. Thomas and husband Lance, a retired Caltrans engineer, once took down an old water tower made of beautiful redwood and used it for the store. They painted the outside of the old house to look like shingles, Thomas recalls, and used that water tower wood for shelving and decor.
One of the house’s back rooms was empty and over the next few years several people stayed in that space, including Thomas.
Hereford says that every room was filled with books and people would come in and open the fridge, “to see if there was anything to eat.”
Hereford recalls the old house’s roof “leaked like a sieve.”
In 1982, they moved the store to 845 Main St., into a little brick building where it remains today.
As for the old house, Thomas said the owners gave it to the city fire department for training, but when they tried to burn it, the old house had the last laugh.
Over the years, so much hot-mop tar had been splattered onto the roof to try and stop leaks that when the fire reached the roof, a thick black cloud of smoke engulfed the whole area. One woman, a neighbor of the house, was screaming out the window, “You’re ruining my curtains!” Thomas laughs. “I stood there watching and cried.”
Hereford adds, “People came out in their underwear [from the motels] because they thought it was a big fire.”
The current location was already a bookstore as well as a chapel. “It was a metaphysical bookstore,” Thomas says. The little chapel in back was the owner’s “church,” where they held services, astrological classes, and weddings.
Today no one really gives the idea of “metaphysical” teachings a second thought, but back in the 1970s, it was a pretty radical idea.
The owners had put the property up for sale and Thomas says she convinced them to let her lease it. “They agreed that if it didn’t sell in six months,” Thomas says, “they would rent it to me. Several others [bookstores] wanted it.”
Hereford says that she moved to Morro Bay in 1973 and started at the bookstore in 1976 and has been working there ever since. Used books were a novelty back then.
Once Hereford had left a note saying that people are resisting selling them their beautiful, art books “for a dime.” She says used books made sense, even though they were not very popular.
“We were the only new-used book store they’d ever heard of. It’s quite common now.”
Thomas says they did book signings and readings, story time for kids from the beginning of the store and carried that to new levels when they moved, a process that got all their friends in town to chip in with, carrying the inventory the two blocks from the old house on Harbor Street to the new store on Main.
Friends helped them remodel the interior and build the shelving that’s still in use today. It was kind of like an old fashioned barn-raising, with all their friends coming out to pitch in. The goal was never to be a “big” bookstore, Thomas says. “You want to be a good book store, not just big.”
Hand adds that the store, “Has a nice eclectic collection” of books.
Hereford says that the odyssey of e-books seems to be waning. “The last five or six years,” Hereford says, “we’re getting Millennials in who go crazy when they walk in.”
Hand says, “You’re not hearing about Kindles [E-book readers] anymore.”
Hereford says the young adults they see “Love to talk about the books. They will stay for hours.”
“They love the smell of the books,” Hand adds.
“Whatever blows through society,” Thomas says, “blows through the book store.”
She’s continued the Chapel and has hosted everything from book signings, to concerts, community meetings, yoga classes, and of course weddings. (Note: this reporter and wife Lorraine were married in the Coalesce Chapel over 10-years ago.)
Thomas is licensed to conduct weddings herself and has done many over the years. The chapel is a key part of the business.
“Coalesce would be very different if we didn’t have the chapel,” Thomas says. The chapel is located out the back door of the store and you walk through a beautiful garden to get there.
“The chapel is a special space,” Thomas says, “and we can do anything there.”
“The acoustics there,” Hereford says, “are to live for.”
Hand also has a long history at the bookstore. “I used to visit the first store when we moved here in 1981.” She started working at Coalesce in 1988. That kind of longevity for the core employees means there haven’t been a whole lot of employees that have come and gone over the years.
Hereford says a lot of people come in to drop off resumes but are discouraged. “We want consistency,” she says.
“People that come in like the consistency” with the employees, Hand says. There’s been consistency in the clientele too.
Thomas says, “The little kids that used to come to our story times are grandparents now. We’re bouncing their grandkids on our knees.”
The COVID-19 pandemic nearly did them in. “We were closed for three-and-a-half months,” Thomas says. “We’d never closed a day before that.”
But their loyal customers stepped up and bought gift certificates to help keep them going.
“I was so sad,” Hand says of having to close for the pandemic. “I cried when I locked the door.”
When they reopened in July 2020, Hereford says they had to limit the number of people that could be in the store at one time. She was working just 3-days a week. “It was really hard.”
But they adapted and managed to get through it. “Overnight,” Thomas says, “we morphed into an online book store.” They also made free deliveries to local people that used to come into the store.
“We always did home deliveries,” Thomas says, “but more so in the pandemic.”
Thomas bought the building in 1986. “That was a great move,” Hand says. And while she and Hereford are not officially partners “on paper,” Thomas says she feels like they are partners, and Hand, “is our in-house artist.”
Turning 50 isn’t going to slow them down. “I like to think we celebrated the ‘first’ 50 years,” Thomas says. “I don’t see any changes in the future.”
Hereford, who is nursing an injured foot, says the store is as busy as ever. “It’s busy right now,” she says. “I say, ‘Why couldn’t it have been this busy when we were young!’”
Coalesce could be called a survivor. Barnes & Noble was supposed to kill the independent bookstores, but it hasn’t done that to Coalesce.
Thomas says she is more concerned about online book selling giant, Amazon. “The most serious foe, I’ve thought, was Amazon,” Thomas says. For a time there, people would come into the store looking for a book, get told the price and offered to order it, but then turned around and said they’d get it from Amazon; but not so much anymore.
“I haven’t heard ‘Amazon’ for quite a while,” Hand says.
“People vote with their pocketbooks,” Hereford says. “They’ll support the businesses they want to survive. If we don’t support local businesses, they won’t be there.”
Hand says she enjoys the “hunt” for books that are out of print, or rare.
What’s the best thing about being in business over 50 years? For Thomas it’s “Most definitely the people and the interactions. We’re so grateful to everyone who has supported us.”
Hand says, “I agree with Linna on that.”
Hereford too loves the people she meets daily. “I am eternally grateful to be in touch with these kind, beautiful, spiritual people. I’m incredibly grateful. We’ve been blessed.”
Hand loves being “surrounded by all these literary figures. It’s always interesting to walk through the store when no one is there.”
As for the worst thing about it, Thomas says, “Having to leave it some day, to pass it on.”
Hand echoed that. “Yeah. Yeah,” she says. “We’re ever blessed by all the people that have come through the door.”
Hereford says, “Ditto. I can’t imagine life without it.”
As for the future, the immediate plans are to resume the concerts in the chapel, including bringing back the regular shows with SLO Folks, the San Luis Obispo Folk Music Society, with which they’ve partnered for decades.
So if you’re Downtown, maybe grabbing a bite to eat at one of the new eateries or just out for a stroll, stop in at the little independent book store, nestled in a quaint little brick building on Morro Bay’s Main Street; and say “Hello,” to a trio of survivors thriving in a little store in the middle of a quaint, little fishing village and keeping alive the magical world of books.