The Last Bookstore in California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea

Nestled in a small seaside city is Pilgrim’s Way, the last existing bookstore in the luxurious beach town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

“The word ‘pilgrim’ actually means way-shower or seeker of truth,” co-owner Cynthia Fernandes told NTD, a sister media of The Epoch Times.

The bookstore was founded in 1969 and now features a cozy secret garden that was originally leftover land between buildings. The garden has been decorated with water, plants, local crafted statues, candles, furniture, and more.

Visitors can read a book in the shade of plants, enjoying the serenity.

Epoch Times Photo
A corner of the Secret Garden next to Pilgrim’s Way Books in Carmel, Calif., on Oct. 18, 2022. (David Lam/NTD)

Fernandes and her husband, Paul Fridlund, are the fifth owner couple, and they both intend to keep the bookstore open for years to come.

“It’s rewarding,” Fridlund told NTD. “We’re so happy to be here and become part of the community, servicing the people the best way we can.”

All the books in Pilgrim’s Way are handpicked by Fernandes. They include fiction, local interests, music, and other categories.

While Fridlund does various tasks to keep the bookstore running, such as accounting, working the computer system, maintenance, and cleaning, Fernandes is in charge of the look and feel of the place.

“And she has got a magical touch,” Fridlund said. “I call it ‘laser fingers.’ … She tells me what to do, and we do it. It always turns out just incredible.”

“There’s really an interesting collection of things we’d like to invite people to explore and see what resonates,” Fernandes said. “We’ve really pared our space down to have only the things that have demonstrated to be of value for the people.”

According to Fernandes, she is an avid reader. She started working at Pilgrim’s Way over 20 years ago, and now she follows not only the books, but also podcasts, imperial interviews, and recommendations from customers. She uses this information to help her select the books to display in the bookstore.

Fernandes recalled that when she and her husband decided to take over the store, “what we were drawn to is that aspect of becoming part of the community, and a unique offering. … There are some cool people in Carmel, and we have really interesting visitors. … So it’s a nice place to physically be, with a mild temperature and climate, and then working with cutting-edge content, authors, events that are going on.”

Epoch Times Photo
Cynthia Fernandes, co-owner of Pilgrim’s Way Books and Secret Garden, in Carmel, Calif., on Oct. 18, 2022. (David Lam/NTD)

Fridlund said he has enjoyed numerous moments running the bookstore.

“I have so much great feeling; [I] just like to talk to people and get to meet people from all walks of life,” he said. “We just want to create a really nice, beautiful place [that just warms] your heart when you walk in the door, and you find things you’ve never known, you’ve never even [come] across.”

As electronic books become popular, bookstores like Pilgrim’s Way are facing extinction. But to Fernandes, the absence of a bookstore in town is equivalent to discriminating against those buyers who are still in need of a hardcopy book.

“Nowadays people are very careful what they buy,” she said. “We want to serve these people in a way that’s going to meet their needs for quality and content.”

She said that some people want books to be able to serve as decor on a coffee table, nightstand, or bookshelf.

Not long after the couple took over the bookstore, the housing bubble burst. Fernandes recalled that as a more difficult time than the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone lost so much money,” she said.

Later, during the pandemic lockdowns, Pilgrim’s Way had to close for about three months. With the community’s support and a government relief fund for small businesses, the couple was able to keep it running. In addition, with a local carpenter’s help, they were able to renovate the old geodesic dome and fix a leak.

“Things happen when you’re in business that you can’t predict or plan for,” Fernandes said. “And what we’ve decided to do is to use [these kinds] of situations as opportunities to develop our resilience, flexibility, and adaptation.”

Epoch Times Photo
Cynthia Fernandes works in the garden in Carmel, Calif., on Oct. 18, 2022. (David Lam/NTD)

Like many other businesses post-COVID, Pilgrim’s Way also suffers from supply chain issues.

What Fernandes feels is “a responsibility to really handle all those administration issues behind the scenes and make a space for people to come and experience a real bookstore.”

“Because there isn’t anything like a local bookstore wherever you live. If you lost one, then you’ll know what I am talking about,” Fernandes said.

She said Pilgrim’s Way is uniquely designed, not only in what it offers but also in the culture and philosophy of the business.

“I think it’s been an opportunity to demonstrate and to learn that business does not have to be all about money. Money is a necessary medium, but there is a place for capitalism to blend with humanitarianism,” she said.

They hope their story can inspire others to invest in such projects in their own hometowns.

“I’d like to think of reading as modern-day elders,” Fernandes said.

She compared it to how some people have been mentored one-on-one in person.

“I think our world has evolved; now the record-keeping and teaching are in books, and we adopt books, and we learn from it like we used to from our elders,” she said.

Lear Zhou

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Lear is a reporter based in San Francisco covering Northern California news.

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