Debi Echlin, founder and owner of A Great Good Place for Books, died suddenly on Nov. 25. She was 52 years old.
This is not going to be an obituary. It is the story of a place, a community and the vision and energy of the unique woman who created it. Her inspiration was a quote from Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist who writes about communities: “Great civilizations, like great cities, share a common feature. Evolving within them and crucial to their growth and refinement are distinctive informal gathering places. In cities blessed with their own characteristic form of these Great Good Places, the stranger feels at home—nay, is at home.”
In founding the store eight years ago, Echlin created a community of people who love books, who read books, who talk about books and about the issues that concern them. In her bookstore on LaSalle Avenue in Montclair people do more than buy books, they feel at home. They gather and form friendships, and they became her friends. In the memorial book placed near the front desk people are writing tributes to her, recalling her warmth and her smile and her humor and above all the love she gave so freely.
Hut Landon, staff person at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA), reflected that what was unique “about Debi and her store was that she had managed to make her store a community gathering place that was really unlike any bookstore that I had been in.”
He described how “she connected with her customers. I hear from people they’ve really lost a friend, not just a retail person who everybody likes in the community, this is much deeper than that.”
Echlin had been a member of the NCIBA Board of Directors for the last two years and there too, Landon affirmed, she will be sorely missed.
Kathleen Caldwell, Echlin’s close friend and associate, has taken over the store. She affirms her continuing dedication to the community of book lovers. Talking about Echlin she said, “She believed that this was a community, she made it her community and she really instilled that in all of us.... She treated the customers as if they were our best friends”
And she regarded the staff not as employees but as members of a team. Caldwell reiterated, “We are a team with a single purpose, we were meant to be a community.”
Like many bookstores, there is a book club that meets monthly at the store. Echlin also supported other book clubs by stocking their selections and providing them to the members at discount prices. One of the display tables in the store is piled with stacks of book selections for more than a dozen book clubs, each topped by a clever little card holder identifying the club. Echlin’s community encompassed all people in all the clubs. In the back of the store there is a children’s book section where kids can curl up in a beanbag or on the floor and read or be read to.
Ron Berrol and his wife are frequent visitors. She belongs to the book club there. He told me that what he appreciates about the store “is that they always have books about local history.... Oakland neighborhood books—kind of a little specialty niche that’s nice.”
People in the neighborhood and other business owners on the street were shocked to hear that Echlin was gone. I talked with Joseph Sullivan who has owned The Book Tree directly across the street for twenty years. His is a small store that carries different genres of books from A Great Good Place so he and Debi have coexisted amicably all these years. Further up the street is a clothing store called Hula owned by Andrea Lockyer and her daughter Naomi.
“My mom had a really close friendship with Debi and I loved her,” Naomi said. “She just had this amazing personality, that anyone who met her felt touched by her sincerity, her genuineness. She added so much to the village.... She was just one of those special people.”
As Naomi was telling me this, Alice Butler, a customer in her store chimed in with a touching story about Echlin.
“I walked in very timidly one day because I had been writing to my nephew who is in a detention center in another state and I wanted to do something more than just write to him, wanted to start sending him books to read and magazines,” she said.
Butler had tried sending him books but they were returned because convicts are not allowed to receive packages from private persons. Echlin reassured her, saying, “We have plenty of customers who have family members who are convicts and we have a program,” Butler said. “So she just took that over for me.”
Together they selected a book each month and Echlin would send it enclosing “a nice letter saying ‘Here is another book from your aunt. Hope you enjoy it,’” Butler said.
Everyone who knew her agrees that in the eight years since Echlin started A Great Good Place for Books she created something that reached far beyond the four walls of the store. Caldwell and her team are determined to carry on her legacy.
“We are all committed to keeping this store alive,” she said. “We are a family.”
Photograph by Lydia Gans
A Great Good Place For Books staff members Marianne Sheehan and Kathleen Caldwell stand next to a poster of store founder Debi Echlin.