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A Small Town Miracle

20th Anniversary Earthquake Memories
By Neal Coonerty

As you walk along Pacific Avenue today, you experience a vibrant, exciting downtown. It was different twenty years ago. The Pacific Garden Mall showed its age. Few stores were open at night. Restaurants did not spill out onto the sidewalk. The Del Mar was the only movie theater on Pacific Avenue and the United Artists chain had let it go to seed. A politically charged and tiresome debate about street people raged endlessly in the Sentinel. And then the Loma Prieta earthquake knocked it all down, including Bookshop Santa Cruz.

The earthquake severely damaged the 1895 brick building that housed Bookshop Santa Cruz. It was still standing after the big shake, but it was very dangerous. It looked like the building and its contents might have to be demolished in its place, destroying all that was left of the Bookshop.

While the Bookshop’s fate was still uncertain, the staff decided that our annual Bookshop birthday party should go on as scheduled on the first Saturday in November. With no bookshop to house the party, we decided to hold a block party on the street next to my house. We printed flyers and distributed them all over town. We asked everyone to bring five good used books to donate to the Bookshop so that we would have funds to start over again. My mom baked the Bookshop a big birthday cake. Tables were set up to lay out donated books to sell.
Thousands happily arrived to celebrate Bookshop Santa Cruz and to donate books. Some people brought many more than five books. Others brought their favorite five books, donated them, and then bought them right back. Finally, everyone gathered around and sang “Happy Birthday” to Bookshop Santa Cruz as little kids made wishes and blew out twenty-three candles on the cake.

During that same weekend, trade union members were volunteering their time and skills to erect the downtown pavilions. After three weeks of bad news, death, destruction and discouragement, everyone felt that the Bookshop party and erection of the pavilions was the first sign that Santa Cruz would recover and renew itself after the earthquake.
Soon after the party, we got news that the city would allow us two days to remove as many of the books and bookshelves as we could from the damaged store. We organized ourselves for the huge job scheduled for the next weekend. The city only allowed us forty people at any one time in the building. We went on KUSP and called for volunteers because the building was still dangerous  and the many aftershocks reminded everyone of ongoing danger. In fact, the city required everyone who went into the building to sign a waiver in case something happened which caused injury or death.

We arrived early on Saturday morning, not knowing if anyone would answer our calls for help. By 9 AM over 400 people were lined up to sign waivers, get hardhats and volunteer. It was a small town miracle. Teams of people went in the dark store and quickly filled boxes with books. Others wheeled them outside. In the parking lot, tables were set up and more volunteers dusted the books, packed them, and labeled the boxes. In the end, most of the Bookshop’s books and bookshelves were salvaged. The following Monday, wrecking crews pulled down the building. For the Bookshop, three years in the tent lay ahead.
During those three years more challenges imposed themselves on the downtown earthquake recovery. The rebuilding effort was being crippled by a national recession. Most banks shut down their commercial loan departments to stop their losses. Downtown property owners were trying to find rebuilding money and the future of downtown Santa Cruz hung in the balance. And Bookshop desperately needed to find a storefront.

Barry Swenson, owner of the St. George property, stepped up to the plate. He worked with his existing bank, put his company on the line, cajoled and persuaded the money people, and finally found rebuilding money in an impossible market. As he rebuilt the St. George, Bookshop Santa Cruz signed a lease and found a new storefront. Many other property owners partnered with merchants to fill Pacific Avenue with stores and customers. The careful community planning paid off with a successful civic space and retail center. Finally, we got our Main Street back and Santa Cruz, twenty years after the earthquake disaster, has found its downtown heart again.

For 42 years Bookshop Santa Cruz has been part of our vibrant downtown. We only survived because people in Santa Cruz cared. On the 20th anniversary of the earthquake, we understand the debt we owe this community and we remain grateful to everyone in Santa Cruz who helped their friends and neighbors during a tough time.