As a teenager, Maureen was beset by restlessness. She wanted to get out of Fort Bragg, experience the world, and seek adventure. After graduating from high school, she seized the opportunity to go to Venezuela. The problem was that this ticket out of town meant becoming an exchange student—a uniform-wearing Catholic school student.
“It wasn’t the freedom I expected,” she said. “I lived in Valencia, a dangerous city, and couldn’t go anywhere unchaperoned.” (I imagine schoolgirls in two straight lines, ala “Madeline,” under the watchful eyes of a nun as they walk from place to place.)
After that lackluster adventure, she returned to California in 1997, and attended Mills College in Oakland. This wasn’t enough to satisfy her restlessness. “My boyfriend and I wrote the names of cities on scraps of paper and put them in a hat. We pulled out Madison, Wisconsin. At the end of the school year, we packed up and moved.”
In Madison, she started what would become a career in book selling. “I worked for Canterbury Books, a sweet little independent.” After a year, she and the boyfriend split and she “decided to get in my car and drive around the country until I found somewhere to live.” She landed in North Hampton, Massachusetts, taking another bookstore job. “It felt like home. I loved the beauty of the East Coast and all of the culture Northampton manages to smash into one little town. After a while it felt too far away from home and family.”
In 2002, Maureen moved to the Bay Area where she worked in bookstores in Berkeley. At Half Price Books she meet fellow co-worker Tony Koller, who would eventually become her husband. They enjoyed living in Oakland for nearly a decade. During this time, she returned to Mills and finished a degree in English Literature.
Her love of the Berkeley/Oakland area shifted when she became pregnant. “I could deal with the high crime rate—the muggings and burglaries—but I couldn’t stand the thought of bringing up a child in that environment.” She was drawn back to her place of birth, to the hub of family.
Like Tom and Karl of Re-Find, Maureen and Tony didn’t have a plan for what they would do once they landed in Fort Bragg.
Shortly after baby Carolyn was born in late 2010, they learned that Jennifer Wolfman, the owner of a used bookstore on Redwood Avenue, wanted to retire. “She had liquidated inventory, and by the time we bought it, there wasn’t much left. We scouted estate and library sales to build it back up.”
Six months later, they relocated the store to Franklin Street. In May 2016, they moved to their current location on Laurel. “Fifteen volunteers helped us on a Sunday and we were open for business on Monday.”
Tony works for Thanksgiving Coffee during the day, but enjoys late afternoons and Saturdays at the store. “It’s his passion,” Maureen said. “He loves being surrounded by books and touching everything. It’s his time to relax and ‘play.’ He also likes cleaning, which is good because I’m a slob.”
Maureen doesn’t have any employees, but allows selected people to work in exchange for store credit. “After Margot was born [eight months ago], my mother started mysteriously showing up every day. She works on Sundays so Tony and I can have a family day.”
Maureen has been a voracious reader all her life, reading two to three books a week. Owning the bookstore is a perfect fit. “I tend to be autocratic, and like not having to answer to a boss. I can control what comes in and what goes out. There’s a certain amount of pride that comes with owning a store—it reflects who I am.”
Now that she has two children, she doesn’t have time to scout estate and library sales for inventory and must depend upon what people bring to her. “I’m very picky about the condition of what I buy. I feel bad whenever I have to tell someone I won’t take their books because of poor condition or a musty smell. I try to stock the store with the best that can fit into the space I have.”
After Maureen says this, I notice a lack of basement storage room odor that I associate with used bookstores. The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee entices people to pour a cup and browse the store.
Some of her inventory is new, like North Coast guide books and children’s books. She makes special orders for people who don’t have internet access. Her clientele is mostly tourists, many of whom visit year after year. However, a handful of locals visit the store often.
“I came back to Fort Bragg because I no longer cared about living a glamorous life. I didn’t want to raise my kids in a big city. We could buy a house here—something we couldn’t do in Oakland—and be near family.” A bonus was being able to buy the bookstore and make a go of it. “At the time, Kindle was growing in popularity. Because of this, I thought the store would fail after two or three years. But I’ve never experienced a decline in sales—things just keep getting better.”
Maureen’s youthful restlessness is reminiscent of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She left this small town and had her adventures. Substitute the ruby slippers with a new baby, supportive family and a slower pace of life, and you’ll understand how she came to realize “There’s no place like home.”