Books and Vows

11 Feb

Highlights:

  • Find a rare novel and get married, all in uptown Morro Bay
  • Coalesce has a bookstore, garden and chapel
  • The property and buildings have a fascinating history

Coalesce is on Main Street in Morro Bay.

Some people stop into Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay to pick up a last minute gift, snag the latest bestseller, or search the shelves for a rare first-edition novel. Others head out back to the stores’s quaint garden chapel and get hitched. It’s all in a day’s work for shop owner Linna Thomas.

Beginnings

After graduating from the University of Washington, Thomas joined some friends as they sailed down the coast from Oregon, eventually finding port in Morro Bay. Charmed by the area, they all decided to move to Morro Bay in 1973 and started the bookstore “absolutely by the seat of our pants,” Thomas admitted. “We had no idea what we were doing.”

With $1,600 in savings, Thomas brought a carload of books into the store’s original location by what is now the Blue Sail Inn. “Those were nip and tuck days,” Thomas said, adding that her original partner dropped out in 1978 due to family issues, and that she has been operating the bookstore solo since then.

Coalesce owner Linna Thomas with clerk Joanne Hand

After nine years, Thomas realized that she was going to have to make some changes to keep her business viable. As fate would have it, “a little old lady named Marjorie Smith” was selling the property where the store sits today on Main Street. Smith was a church of Religious Sciences Minister and had built and presided in the garden chapel for years before deciding to retire. Out of the blue, Thomas called her up and asked to rent the building.

“I accept the fact that it’s taken a lot of hard work and many years of shoulder-to-the-grindstone to keep the bookstore going, and I’m proud of that,” she said, “but there has also been a lot of luck involved.” Somehow, things worked out; Thomas was able to rent the property and bought it a year later.

Foundations

The front brick building is an unreinforced masonry structure built in 1928 that had been both a bike store and a dentist’s office. The chapel, located out back in a quiet, shady garden, was constructed by a group of local fishermen in 1973 from plans developed for a Cal Poly senior project. “They built it, literally, for beer and pizza,” Thomas said, explaining how Smith and her husband kept the boys motivated and fueled as they put up the chapel.

“It’s a simple building but it’s so lovely. So many happy and meaningful, spiritual, inspirational things have happened in this room, and I feel like it just has that atmosphere about it,” Thomas said. Many locals eat their lunches, read, or meditate in the chapel, and Thomas said that as long as the building is unoccupied, anyone is welcome to enjoy the space.

The interior of Coalesce

“We sort of meet people at a lot of important junctures in their lives; when they’re fallen in love and they’re getting married, when they bring their babies in for christenings, and then when they move on,” Thomas said of the chapel’s many uses, which also include:

  • Monthly poetry readings
  • Guitar Society meetings
  • Yoga
  • Astrology
  • Classes
  • Book signings (24-25 per year)
  • Parties

Though the last few years have brought a dip in weddings, Thomas noted that numbers are on the rise again. “In a way, the economy has helped us because we’re the small, inexpensive wedding,” Thomas said. Those weddings, which occur at a rate of two or three per week, help keep the whole operation afloat.

Detail of the chapel wall.

“We have a comfortable business here,” she explained, “but it’s never going to be a money-maker. It’s a labor of love.” The other half of the love, and the most obvious to those passing by, are the shelves of books filling the bright store from floor to ceiling.

“We’ve always been new and used.” she said. “I think it’s a nice mix, because with used books you have a better bargain, and you have things you’re not going to find in a new store.” Coalesce carries around 60% used books, Thomas estimates, while the rest are new. She stocks bestsellers as well as more “fringey” literature, and frequently orders books not in stock for customers.

“I believe in the power of books to influence and change lives, to comfort people, entertain them, take them traveling to places all over the world.” -Linna Thomas

A critic of big-box booksellers, Thomas noted that she’s happy with her offerings and size. “This whole business of ‘gigantic’ has never been the goal,” she said. She prefers a more tailored experience, something that Monterey resident and past Coalesce customer Kristina Allen appreciates.

“The unique atmosphere at Coalesce cannot be found at any mainstream bookstore,” she said, explaining how she loves the worn and friendly feel of the shop. “I immediately knew that this wasn’t any old bookstore which excited me more. I could wander those shelves for days and find something different and unique every time.”

Principles

With a a steady stream of pleased customers, it seems that something about this odd pairing is working just right. Joanne Hand, who has worked at Coalesce for 24 years, commented on why the bookstore has succeed in Morro Bay. “I think the people that live in this area are generally well-read people,” she said. “We have a lot of people coming in here that are tourists that want to get books to read. We have a lot of retired people that have time on their hands that are part of book clubs…”

More than just books wait inside!

In Thomas’ perspective, the value lies in having a business driven by and created for the community. “The world is fast, it’s very busy,” Thomas said, adding that people truly appreciate supporting independent businesses. There’s something to be said about entering a place where the owners and workers know customers by name, and Thomas said she especially enjoys that sort of interaction.

“We share so much joy with people, and tears,” she said. “We’re not just exchanging a product for money. That would be really old really fast.”

Decades of dedication, a little luck, and an enduring passion for this business have brought Thomas to the present day. In her own words, “things have Coalesced beautifully from the very beginning.”

Check out Coalesce at 845 Main Street, Morro Bay, or call (805)772-2880.

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9 Responses to “Books and Vows”

  1. Devon Swanson February 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    Really interesting article. After reading it, I want to visit this place so badly. I love used book shops and never knew about this place. Great pictures as well.

    • kkenney90 February 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

      Thanks! You should definitely check it out! It’s quite eclectic ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Devon September 12, 2012 at 5:14 am #

    If you don’t know of this place, you will want to. I have followed the history of this bookstore since I knew of it back in the early 80s when I lived in the area. Linna has a beautiful spirit and Coalesce is refreshing to the soul.

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