Milane Christiansen, founder and owner for 30 years of the Book Works in Del Mar, Calif., died on April 21 of complications of ALS. She was 70.
Kathryn Shevelow remembered:
Christiansen arrived in San Diego County in the late 1960s. "At that time," she said in a 2011 interview, "there didn't seem to be a lot of literary life going on. So I decided I would bring it here." She opened the Book Works in 1976. The store quickly gained national recognition, drawing large audiences to book signings by authors such as Oliver Sacks, Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Lily Tomlin, Simon Winchester and Paul Krugman, as well as local luminaries including Manny Farber, William Murray and Francis Crick. Chef-author appearances were perennially popular: Alice Waters, Jacques Pepin, David Tanis and Julia Child came to sign their new cookbooks; Child's last book signing before her death was at the Book Works.
Alongside its stock of literature, art books and cookery, the Book Works carried the latest works on India, one of Christiansen's lifelong interests. Born in Los Angeles, she spent most of her childhood in rural Minnesota and Minneapolis. After graduating from college, she joined the Peace Corps in 1965, two years after its establishment, and at age 22 was sent to India. She spent two years in Gujarat, where, on her own initiative, she moved into a house by herself in a remote village and set up a health care clinic to serve the poor. During her time there, Christiansen developed the deep love of the Indian people and culture that remained with her the rest of her life. "India gave me so much more than I could ever have given it," she would say. She subsequently returned to India several times.
Christiansen brought to her store her distinctive style, installing an old wood plank floor on which she arranged oak tables, chairs and her grandmother's upright piano; at the back was a carpeted children's "pit"; mid-century paintings decorated the walls; from the ceiling hung an antique carousel horse. She had an extraordinarily fine eye, finding old and new trends in jewelry, ceramics and textiles. Artifacts such as Bauer pottery, mid-century paintings, old Buddhas, vintage jewelry and garden statuary set off her diverse and thoughtfully-chosen selection of books, journals and unique greeting cards. The store's book bag bore an inscription from Cicero: "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."
For greater San Diego, the Book Works was much more than a store: it was a resource and a treasure; a unique, warm space to gather; and an education. Christiansen believed it to be her responsibility as a bookstore owner to support serious writers both established and new, and to expand readers' literary horizons. Many of her loyal customers regularly stopped by to ask, "Milane, what should I read?" She always prepared herself to have good answers to that question. The Book Works sponsored not only readings and lectures, but also jazz recitals, book discussion groups, and writing workshops. Most of all, it was a place to browse and linger--a community. One of her former employees, Adele Irwin, recalls, "I had customers bring their kids in and watch them play and browse in the store just as they had as a child." There were also several bookstore romances, Irwin says, "with two marriages that I know of!"
After selling the Book Works in 2006 [which closed in 2011], Christiansen also worked at Amba in Solana Beach, a gallery and boutique that sells and promotes the arts and textiles of India and directly supports their craftsmen. In 2011, she co-founded, with Nina MacConnel, a series called "Good Earth/Great Chefs," which hosted well- known chef-authors at the Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe for "pleine air" book signings and food tastings. This series, which will continue, has proved enormously popular: famous chefs such as Nancy Silverton, Alice Waters and Jonathan Waxman have sold an unprecedented amount of books at each of these events.
All those who were in contact with Christiansen during her illness were struck by the great courage and strength she showed as her disease progressed. Many younger people to whom she had been a friend and mentor over several decades wrote with deep feeling to express the profound impact she had had on their lives. She never lost her sense of humor, her pleasure in the company of her friends and her beloved cat Kali, and her love of relaxing in her garden with a well-made gin and tonic.
A memorial service for Milane Christiansen will be held at the San Diego Botanical Gardens in Encinitas on Tuesday, May 21, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. A scholarship at UCSD has been established to commemorate her love of literature: to donate, please search for the "Milane Christiansen Fund" (or #3872) at www-er.ucsd.edu/givetoucsd.