Remembering the Literary Guillotine

David Watson closes shop

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David S. Watson flipped the sign in the doorway of The Literary Guillotine on Dec. 31, 2019, notifying passersby and customers that the bookstore was closing, this time for good. 

Once filled floor to ceiling with books, all that remains at 204 Locust St. are two shelves lying on the floor and the muffled sounds from beyond the glass windows.

“It used to be like a salon in here,” Watson said. “I would come to work and never know who was going to show up on a particular day, but someone eventually did, […] and before you knew it, there was a dialogue taking place, basically overtop of the books. That’s how it became more of a community place.”

The First Chapter

Thirty-two years ago, Watson, a UC Santa Cruz alumnus, started selling books out of an apartment on Seabright Avenue. For two years, he ran the mail-order business, making sales via a printed catalog sent to customers. Then, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit.

Bookshelves toppled over, scattering books across the floor and creating a scene of paperback pandemonium and hardcover chaos. It became clear the stability the store needed required a permanent property. 

With the change of location came a change of name. The mail-order catalog had featured the cover of a book titled “The Literary Guillotine,” a collection of literary criticism. Customers who phoned Watson often asked if they had reached The Literary Guillotine, mistaking the book’s title for the store’s.

“The image was so striking that it drowned out the actual information on the cover,” Watson said. “After I’d heard that for about the dozenth time, I thought, ‘You know what? Yeah, that’s gonna be the name of the store.’”

Thus, The Literary Guillotine was born. It flourished in its new home on Locust Street, where it would remain for the next 30 years, fulfilling Watson’s original goal of providing the city with scholarly literature.

“There were a lot of bookstores in Santa Cruz at that time, but no one who was really serving the academic market,” Watson said. “There was a very substantial intellectual marketplace, and Santa Cruz has always had a very substantial cultural life for its size.”

As time passed, the amount of books in the store grew, spilling off tables and piling up in stacks.

Eventually, Watson acquired the small storefront next door. In 2019, there were 15,000 volumes of books held within its 1,200 square feet — an average of 12 books per square foot.

These books covered topics from across the humanities and social sciences — anthropology, literature, sociology and philosophy. They came from university presses and wound up in the hands of students whose courses required them and those whose curious minds wanted more than their syllabi offered. 

“Sometime in the mid-’90s, faculty that were coming here as customers started talking to me about carrying books for their classes,” Watson said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, sounds like a good idea.’ It started with a couple people in anthropology and a couple people in the philosophy department, […] and then it just started to evolve.”

As more faculty members turned to The Literary Guillotine, either as an escape from the university’s own bookstore or as a way of supporting local businesses, the little shop became stronger than ever.

Financial Tremors

But then, 20 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake forced Watson to move his business, tremors of another variety shook the shop’s foundations. The stock market crash of 2008 affected businesses across the nation, but independent bookstores were hit especially hard, Watson said.

“From ‘88 to 2008, our business was on a steady incline. We were doing a lot of business those last couple of years before [the market crash] happened,” Watson said. “The combination of the economic crash and the media change made it so that the book industry took it a lot — it’s like a double whammy.”

As the price of books rose, students transitioned to digital media for their course materials. Without warning, The Literary Guillotine found its neck on the proverbial chopping block. Still, Watson continued to serve those who sought the niche books The Literary Guillotine offered. 

“Business was good enough to keep us alive but any traditional capitalist would have given up a long time ago,” Watson said.

Time has caught up to the store, though, and Watson finally decided to retire. He has spent the past month finding new homes for the stock that remained at the store’s closing. A number of books will go to Soledad State Prison to start a small library there, while many others have been donated to other bookshops around town.

“We’ve had an absolutely wonderful response to my deciding to retire and close the shop down,” Watson said. “People have been very sad but happy for me to retire. A lot of folks sticking their heads in to say thanks.”

Now, as The Literary Guillotine’s final chapter comes to an end, its door shuts like the cover of a well-read book, one that will be talked about for years to come and remembered by everyone who had the pleasure of reading it.