OCEAN PARK — Catherine O’Toole has a theory about books.
She believes every volume has a place where it belongs — and that’s been her approach to customer service at her Ocean Park bookstore.
“I like to get a book settled, where it is appreciated,” she said. “That makes me feel good.”
But at 76, after not quite two decades as the “Book Lady,” she is looking forward to a new chapter.
O’Toole has her property at 1310 Bay Ave. for sale and plans to move closer to be with one of her three children east of Seattle.
Catherine O’Toole Bookseller is still open most afternoons, especially weekends, but she’s doubtful any buyer will want to keep it as a treasure trove of the printed word. “I don’t think just anyone can come in and do this,” she said, waving an arm toward a pristine edition of Roget’s Thesaurus and the selected poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Customers who walk into the store past Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code” thriller and his subsequent best sellers, turn the corner and find the gamut.
The distinctive cover of “Munch” by David Loshak screams for potential buyers next to “Making Noah’s Ark Toys in Wood,” which has set sail from the children’s section, especially popular with homeschoolers.
Alongside that pile is “Anne Boleyn,” by Nora Lofts, one of many historical biographies (about King Henry VIII’s adulterous second wife) that form O’Toole’s favored genre. A back room features rows of tightly arrayed paperback mysteries by Stephen King, Anne Rice and others that have entertained visitors whose stormy trip to the beach kept them indoors.
Born in Coventry, England, during the early days of World War II to parents from Dublin, Ireland, O’Toole recalls blackouts, barrage balloons (airships designed for early warning against German aircraft) and air raid sirens. The factories in Britain’s largest car assembly city were converted to manufacture armaments, which made it a key target.
“One siren here sounds like an air raid,” she said, “it always gets me.”
Growing up as a minority Catholic of Irish heritage spurred a desire to emigrate. “I was not comfortable living and working in England after the war. I never really integrated.”
Her dream was New Zealand, then an appealing part of the British Commonwealth, but her husband, Peter Smith, an engineer, was recruited by Boeing. They arrived in Seattle in 1967.
She raised three children, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Washington, and worked as a juvenile probation officer in Seattle. Drawing on two associate degrees in landscape design and horticultural science, she supervised a crew of young offenders who planted trees. While rewarding, it took a toll.
“I always got ones that were almost in the ‘Big House,’” she said. “Some of them got shot, or shot other people. That was emotionally hard.”
‘Ocian in sight’
Divorced and after eight years doing an 80-hour a week job, she was ready for a change.
Friends brought her to the Long Beach Peninsula around 1999 or 2000, she saw the property and bought it one week later. The bookstore was on the 1906 site of the First Ocean Park Methodist Church and much later had been the Moose Lodge; her small home next door was the parson’s house and later called Clam Cottage.
“I came down here, saw the building and it looked like a bookstore,” she said. “It was just a big empty space. I had the shelves built.”
When her daughter studied for a Ph.D. in political philosophy, she had trolled thrift stores for literary bargains which she traded for research books.
That sparked her interest while developing a skill. “I started selling books — and a bookstore is the best way to learn,” she said. “I learned what people wanted and what they didn’t want — and what they should have left in the garbage.”
The timing coincided with the looming Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2005, although she noted that most visitors who started trekking west from the eastern end of the trail had stocked up on books long before they had “ocian in sight.”
In recent years, cancer has ravaged her face, cost her an eye and much of her upper palate. She is especially grateful to the community of staff and customers at Doc’s Tavern who have raised money and assisted during her treatment. “They have taken care of me,” she said, nodding over her shoulder toward the tavern one block away.
That, and the shift in worldwide publishing to online sales spearheaded by amazon.com and others, signaled a need for change.
“It’s got more and more difficult,” she said. “If I didn’t like books, I would not do it. I couldn’t do it to make money, it would be too upsetting and worrying.”
But she has been driven by her philosophy.
“I just like finding a book that belongs somewhere, finding the exact right place for it,” she said.
That is the cue for Al Betters to arrive. The 82-year-old, who has homes on Sandridge and in Portland, is researching a project that highlights American military nurses.
A broad grin crinkles O’Toole’s face as she hands him a volume of “All This Hell: U.S. Nurses Imprisoned by the Japanese.”
As she wanders out of earshot, he is effusive with his praise.
“She is an exceptional lady,” Betters said. “There is a vast array of books here and she knows where everything is.
“I have bought a lot of books and she is by far on the top of my list as far as a book person — and a wonderful lady.”
Catherine O’Toole Bookseller
1310 Bay Ave., Ocean Park
Fiction, nonfiction, children’s, hardback and paperback books; a room of mystery paperback novels