by Tom Sims
Tom Sims covers the Tower District, Downtown Fresno, and Old Town Clovis in his monthly column Strolling the Town.
We feel these are three areas in this Valley that are filled with history, culture and interesting stories. So join us each month as Tom goes Strolling!
“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.” ~Edward P. Morgan
In Old Towne Clovis there is a barn filled with books, ideas, energy, and community. Dan and Peggy Dunklee have been in the book business for 12-15 years. The numbers are a little fuzzy and they could find the exact dates if they wanted to and if I insisted, but that is not the point. They’ve been book people for a long, long time.
Dan has been interested in antiques since he was a kid and dug up his first bottle. He and Peggy have spent the last 25 years (or so) specializing in books. About 13 years ago, they opened their first bookstore in Clovis. But then, who’s counting? It’s not about the dates and the numbers. They do know that they opened the current location of the Book Barn two and a half years ago – more or less.
What they are absolutely sure of is what they love. Their love of books, the people who read them, and the communities in which they read them is evident. They want people to read.
“We want kids to read,” Dan said and Peggy echoed.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal listed the 10 most literate and 10 most illiterate cities in America. Fresno came in as the seventh least literate city in America. According to WSJ, the weekly circulation of the newspaper is 21.04% of the population, ranking 43 in the nation. We are seventh lowest in college degrees, 15th least in retail bookstores and 20 from the bottom in medium income.
It is ironic. “That happens in a community where there has been much literacy and many contributors to the arts and letters,” shares Dan.Dan began to list them. He knew or knows many of them. The list was so long that I moved it to the end of the article.
Dan and Peggy are combating illiteracy with literacy. Sometimes literacy puts on a costume and takes a name like “Mother Goose,” who comes twice a week to read to the children. Lynda Tatman is always a big hit in this role.
At another time, it is the Tail Wagging Tutors, dogs who patiently let the children read to them. Dan says, “They don’t laugh at you if you mispronounce a word.”
That is important because it is in reading that we learn to read. It is in making mistakes that we learn anything. If we are intimidated about making mistakes, we never learn.
“We have a writing and illustrating contest for kids each year where they not only get cash prizes, but the winners also get published.” It is in its third year and is judged by people in the community including published authors. Then, Linden Press publishes the book professionally.
In the Summer Reading contest, children are encouraged to read and are rewarded for reading. If they complete their goals, they receive tangible prizes and honor. Every year there is an interesting theme complete with costumes and imaginative propelling activities. Last year’s theme was pirates and pirate literature.
There is quality in the work of this couple and their staff. Quality is important, but quantity is on their side too with between 120,000 to 130,000 titles in the store and many more than that in two separate storage warehouses. They also list 100,000 books on Amazon which sell well there. Dan and Peggy try to place the books where their particular customers are.
Local customers get the first opportunity. “We know our customers and their wants and needs. We prefer our local customers get the first shot at books,” stated Dan.
One of the Book Barn’s consistent causes is Friends of the Library. There is always a sales area in the store that benefits the library, but there is also an annual fund raiser. The first year of the book drive, 120,000 books were donated at Sierra Vista Mall on the first day. The numbers grew each year from 180,000 to 200,000. 95% of those books, which have been donated by community members, are purchased by community members during the sale enabling the library to purchase new volumes. Then, there is a book bin outside with proceeds from those sales going to rotating local charities.
Dan and Peggy put together a library for the new Marjorie Mason Center location in Clovis. The Dunklee’s first big vision is a more literate community, a community of readers. All community events move toward this end.
The Book Barn collaborates with the Master of Fine Arts program at Fresno State to this end. As part of their own studies, graduate students mentor high school and junior high school students in writing skills. A new mentoring program is being kicked off now in cooperation with Channel 26 and the Soroptimist club. They have also participated in Stuff the Bus for homeless children.
“We’re all about the kids,” both Dan and Peggy say.
Dan and Peggy work together and go home together. All the while they are together, they are dreaming up ideas for doing what they do better, with more flair, and more imagination. They seem to be having loads of fun. “We come up with new ideas all the time.”
Book signings are common with local authors. Local author, networker, and entrepreneur, Beth Bridges raved about the help Dan and Peggy gave her when she launched her book. “They were incredibly generous in letting me have my book launch there, last October. It meant a lot to me because I love books and local businesses.”
So did author, Steven Hammond. “They have been very supportive of me and other local authors. Dan arranged for me to do an interview on channel 47 shortly after my first book was released. I am forever grateful for his efforts.”
“I’ve worked with few stores who put their hearts and resources into our community the way A Book Barn does,” says local mystery author Bonnie Hearn Hill.
Readings and “open mic” nights are often scheduled. This promotes literacy, but it also promotes the second vision which is drawing people together. “We just do it. We are also all about community,” says Dan.
Reading builds community.
“We read to know that we are not alone.” William Nicholson, Shadowlands: A Play (attributed to C.S. Lewis).
The community is the whole community of communities who are not alone, communities of readers, and communities of writers. Words and ideas gather people, inspire people, agitate, aggravate, and motivate. Great communities gather around great ideas found in great books. As this article is being read, there is a writer’s conference about to begin. Regular writers’ groups are constantly meeting.
“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ~Toni Morrison
After all, the Valley is home to Pulitzer Prize winners. William Saroyan, whom Dan knew personally, who rode his bicycle around the streets of the city. Poet Laureate, Phillip Levine still calls Fresno one of his homes. Doris Gates, a Fresno librarian, was a Newbery Honor book and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award winner. The list of famous writers, poets, artists, and musicians is impressive.
Both Dan and Peggy prize their adopted home. He has been here since 1968 and she, since 1969.
What about the future of printed books in a digital age? Dan and Peggy are optimistic and emphatic. Digital reading has its place, but it is no substitute for the tactile experience of touching, holding, even smelling, and tasting a book.
Dan says, “There are more independent bookstores and specialty bookstores opening than ever before.”
He cited Stephen King who was reported to have been the originator of the often quoted and altered observation that e-books will replace print the same way escalators replaced stairs.
He observed that sound was added to the turning of pages in e-readers because readers complained about its absence. Reading is a multi-sensory experience.
“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” ~Anna Quindlen, Enough Bookshelves, New York Times, 7 August 1991
Print books are so alive that Dan and Peggy have even thought of opening a store for new books. They are certainly out of space in their very large space. Dan and Peggy possess volumes of ideas and enough energy and passion to drive them for years to come.
“We are pretty transparent,” Peggy says, “Our passion is for the community and for reading and that propagates itself.”
It really does. There is an energy and air of expectancy when one walks in the Book Barn and it is evident to all. Dan and Peggy Dunklee set the tone and everyone tunes to it. It is a literate community of friends.
On the way out the door, Dan showed me some old, really, really old and rare books and I wished that I did not have somewhere else to be. I have a pretty extensive library. I even have a smaller version of a used bookstore, but I can’t get enough of books and bookstores, especially pre-loved bookstores. I feel at home at the Book Barn and I could linger for hours.
In the future, I shall do just that.
You can find the Book Barn at 640 Clovis Ave in Clovis, CA and contact them at clovisbookbarn@sbcglobal[dot]net and
559.297.9052. Learn more about them and their events on their website.
– Store Hours –
Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Check out this fun video:
Noteworthy Men and Women of Letters from the Fresno Area (Partial List):
Phil Austin – Writer; actor; The Firesign Theatre comedy troupe
Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. – Actor; singer; musician
Robert Beltran – Actor, Star Trek Voyager
Heidi Blickenstaff – Actress
Deborah Blum – Fresno Bee Pulitzer Prize winner
Gregory “Pappy” Boyington – World War II ace, retired in Fresno
William Everson – Poet
Christopher Gorham – Actor
Sid Haig – Actor
Victor Davis Hanson – Scholar; historian; author
Kirk Kerkorian – Billionaire businessman
Joanna Kerns – Actress from Growing Pains
Richard Kiel – Actor
Claude “Pop” Laval – Photographer; historian
Steven Anthony Lawrence – Actor
Philip Levine – Poet
Larry Levis – Poet
Brianna Love- Pornographic actress
J.P. Manoux – Actor
Audra McDonald – Actress; singer
Armen Nalbandian – Musician, Composer
Sam Peckinpah – writer; director
James Porteous – Inventor
Phil Roman – Animator, founder of Film Roman
Les Richter – NFL Hall of Fame inductee
Chester Harvey Rowell – Journalist, Lincoln-Roosevelt League co-founder
Aaron Ruell – Actor; Director
Johnny Russell – Singer; songwriter
William Saroyan – Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright; novelist
Gary Soto – Author; poet
Steve Yarbrough – Writer
Steve Zaillian – Screenwriter