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Daily Pilot

Talking Shop: Newport history on a shelf

Martha's Bookstore on Balboa Island offers an array of local nonfiction — behind the cards and gumball machine.

By Michael Miller

5:24 PM PDT, July 3, 2013

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From even a few inches away, S.A. Meyer's "Fifty Golden Years: The Story of Newport Beach" looks like a crisp new release, stacked prominently on the shelf by the cash register.

But then the title sinks in: Newport Beach is far more than five decades old. And opening the mint-condition cover reveals typeface with a distinct mid-20th century look.

"Fifty Golden Years," issued by the Newport Harbor Publishing Co., is part of the historical Newport section at Martha's Bookstore on Balboa Island. Meyer's work, which co-owner Kathy Wales said had languished in a city storage unit for years, joins other volumes from the 1980s and 2000s along with titles on the city's most famous resident, John Wayne.

"We've had almost all of these authors here — other than, of course, that one's older than we are," Wales said Wednesday, gesturing to the Meyer book.

Independent bookstores, with their loyal clientele and idiosyncratic decor, have become increasingly rare in the age of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Still, Martha's has held fast to its island location since it opened in 1989. One possible reason? If ever there were a retailer that earned the title "neighborhood bookstore," this is it.

Then again, it's not far from a general store, either. Step inside the small confines at 308 1/2 Marine Ave. and you'll find greeting cards, toys, handbags, wine glasses, even a gumball machine. Every morning, the owners set out a slew of eclectic items on the long table outside the front door; Wednesday's assortment included a squirt gun, dog refrigerator magnets and a children's picture book about Ronald Reagan.

With all those wares competing for space, Martha's may not have a book inventory the size of a major retail chain, but it's not a bad place to go to pick out a rarity.

This year, inspired by residents who left used books outside, the store set aside shelves for vintage titles — some of them dating back decades. The racks by the door feature small-press releases by local authors along with classics and recent bestsellers.

Candi Sary, whose young-adult novel "Black Crow White Lie" won the 2013 Reader Views Literary Award for the West-Pacific region, signed her book at Martha's in November and plans to do so again when the store celebrates its 24th anniversary July 28. This month, her book was also the selection for the store's book club, which meets at Wales' home on Balboa Island.

Sary, a Costa Mesa resident, said Martha's had been instrumental in spreading word of mouth about her novel.

"Other bookstores have been great, but not as much as Martha's," she said. "They've definitely been the best."

Wales, who owns the store with her sister, Stephanie Thomas, comes from literary blood — her mother, store namesake Martha Smock, was a religious columnist and wrote six inspirational books. None of them are for sale at the store, though; according to Wales, they've gone out of print.

Still, that doesn't mean one won't show up. It's always a gamble what a resident may leave on the doorstep overnight.

Martha's Bookstore

Where: 308 1/2 Marine Ave., Newport Beach

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Information: (949) 673-7185