Mrs. Dalloway’s, Berkeley’s 17-year-old bookstore of ‘literary and garden arts,’ is for sale

The two owners are hoping to find buyers who love books and the community as much as they do.

The owners of  Mrs. Dalloway bookstore, at 2904 College Ave. in the Elmwood, have put it up for sale. Credit: Nancy Rubin

The owners of Mrs. Dalloway’s, the charming bookstore of “literary and garden arts” that has hosted thousands of authors and events in the past 17 years, are putting the business up for sale.

Ann Leyhe and Marion Abbott sent out an email Thursday announcing they wanted to sell the business they started in 2004. They expressed hope that they could find a new owner as dedicated to books and the community as they are.

This was not a “fire sale,” or sudden decision prompted by a tough year coping with COVID-19, the partners said on the store website. Leyhe and Abbott are in their late 60s and think it is time to move on.

“In the time we’ve owned the bookstore we’ve lived through several life phases, as one does in middle age: the deaths of parents, the births of grandchildren, and everything in between. We’ve also lived through several less personal yet greatly affecting events: wildfires, the rise of Amazon, political unrest, a pandemic. Each of these has caused us, together and separately, to take stock of our lives and our roles in the bookstore. We’ve decided it’s time to pass the torch and begin to think about what might be next for each of us.”


The store, set in the center of the Elmwood shopping district on College Avenue, takes its name from Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, which recounts a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society London woman who is getting ready to host a dinner party. The book’s opening line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” is painted on the store’s green walls and sets the tone for a place that celebrates plants as well as gardens and books.

The store is accepting proposals and hopes to complete the sale in the fall.

Mrs. Dalloway’s employs 11 people, two of them full-time. It has about $200,000 in book inventory, $23,000 in other inventory, such as gardening tools, seeds, plants, home decor objects, games and other items, and a lease that runs through the end of 2022 with an option to renew for five years, according to the website. The children’s books section is the fastest growing part of the store and accounts for one-third of the store’s sales. Sales have increased steadily from 2004-2019.

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Mrs. Dalloway’s hosts about 100 author events a year. Here, NYT critic A.O. Scott at a book talk. Credit: Mrs. Dalloway’s

“Mrs. Dalloway’s has considerable intangible assets, including a strong local and national reputation for curation, events, and connections with schools which result in significant annual sales,” the owners put on the website. “We’re in the heart of Berkeley which some regard as a somewhat quirky country unto itself.

As news of the sale leaked out, customers expressed appreciation on social media.

“You created a remarkable refuge for booklovers in the Bay Area, truly the most beautiful bookstore,” one customer wrote on Facebook. “I will miss seeing you at book events but hope there will be many occasions in the future for us to get together and laugh about many ridiculous things. Love to you both!!”

“My baby, like yours, was also born in 2004 and has grown up with your beautiful store,” wrote another customer. “Long-ago poring over books in the children’s room, giving way to the YA shelves, now browsing along with me in the adult fiction. My sadness…is mingled with appreciation for the lovely, well-stocked refuge that you have made — I have loved it so much. Enjoy whatever new vistas this transition gives you, and I hope so much that new book people with great ideas take the helm.”

Leyhe and Abbott opened Mrs. Dalloway’s in 2004. They had met in the summer of 1975 at the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course in Cambridge, MA. Each went on to become involved in publishing — Abbott at Sierra Club Books, Little, Brown & Co. and Alfred A. Knopf, and Leyhe at Dell Publishing and then Horticulture magazine. Both moved back to Berkeley’s Elmwood district (where they have now lived for 40 years) and opened Mrs. Dalloway’s after another bookstore in that location, Avenue Books, shuttered. The store expanded in 2009 when the Elmwood Pharmacy and Ozzie’s Soda Fountain, both iconic Berkeley businesses situated next door to the bookstore, closed. Mrs. Dalloways hosts about 100 author events a year (pre-pandemic) and has a close relationship with East Bay schools, regularly organizing fundraising for them.

“It has been deeply satisfying for two longtime friends to build a business together and watch it take off,” the partners wrote on the store’s website.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.