Martha’s Bookstore: Balboa Island, CA

What would you do if you won the lottery?

Open a bookstore? Perhaps.


Kathy Wales and her sister, Stephanie Thomas, didn’t have that elusive lottery ticket, but they have lived their lives as if they did.

The two sisters from Kansas City followed their dreams 22 years ago- quite literally.

As Kathy tells the story: “We were riding our bikes on the peninsula when I told Stephanie, ‘I had a dream last night that we opened a bookstore.'”

Moments later, Stephanie shared that she’d had the identical dream that same night.



Together, the sisters mustered their financial resources, their mutual spirit of adventure, and set out to live their “lottery ticket” life. They opened Martha’s Bookstore, named for their mother who was an accomplished writer. 



Every day since then, Wales and Thomas have unlocked the front door of their quaint and cozy shop, filled with best-sellers and Balboa Island collectibles. 

Over the years, the sisters have become valuable members of the small business community on Balboa Island. Their commitment to all things local can be seen in their extensive collection of local history books.


“We’ve found books that are no longer in print and have them available for sale,” Wales explains. “You can’t find these books anywhere else.”



Book lovers who venture down the little pathway to Martha’s Bookstore will be welcomed by the sisters who treat shoppers like guests in their home. 

“Would you like a cup of tea or some Chardonnay while you browse for books?” they offer happily.

After all, it’s easy to be happy when your dreams come true.

Martha’s Bookstore

308 1/2 Marine Avenue Balboa Island, CA 92662 (949) 673-7185










San Juan Capistrano: Los Rios Historic District

this piece was first published in Orange County Register Travel  

San Juan Capistrano is the birthplace of Orange County history. Just ask any fourth grader who has visited the Mission on a school field trip. Since the city is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, it’s the perfect time for a day trip to this classic California icon. But if you limit your visit to a brief tour of the Mission grounds or a rare swallow sighting, you’ll miss out on another treasure that’s hidden nearby: The Los Rios Historic District.



Located just across Camino Capistrano, near the old Santa Fe Depot, you’ll find the sleepy, shaded neighborhood that has quietly existed for over 200 years. A walk down Los Rios Street is a walk back in time, to an era where Spanish soldiers and families of the Acjachemen Tribe settled and built adobe dwellings in 1794. Originally called “Calle Occidental” because of its location west of the Mission, the Los Rios District is the oldest neighborhood in California. Visitors to Los Rios don’t find a preserved museum of dusty relics. Instead, they walk through a living, breathing community that exemplifies the small town character of San Juan Capistrano at the turn of the 20th century.


The first home you find, after crossing the railroad tracks, is the Rios Adobe. The house was built in 1794 by Feliciano Rios, a Spanish soldier who came to Capistrano with orders to protect the Mission. His descendents still live in the home, making it the oldest house continually occupied by one family in the state. Next door is the single wall, board and batten home of Delfina Olivares. A matriarch of the city in the late 1800’s, Olivares was famous for her hospitality and her home was known as a popular neighborhood gathering place. It seems only fitting that the old Olivares house is now the Hidden House Coffee Shop, which still offers friends a cozy place to meet.



Down the street is the Ramos House Cafe, the restaurant and residence of Chef John Humphreys. Legend has it that Juan Flores, a notorious bandit of the 1850’s, once hid in the root cellar under the bedroom floor. A meal at the Ramos House Cafe is a rare treat. The shady patio that offers the intimacy of a private garden party where guests enjoy such inventive treats as duck confit hash and warm, apple cinnamon beignets.


There’s no better way to work off a decadent lunch than with a long, slow walk through the Los Rios neighborhood, strolling under the shade of ancient pepper trees. There is no hurry here. The easy pace is perfect for an afternoon of wandering through the eclectic collection of antique and gift shops, many in restored historic buildings. If you walk all the way up to Ramos Street, you’ll find yourself among vintage homes where locals still enjoy the idyllic feel of this neighborhood that seems frozen in time. In fast-paced Orange County, where change is constant and every year brings new development, it’s nice to slow down for a few hours and breathe in the history of a place that has escaped progress and has managed to stay the same.

Directions to Los Rios Historic District:

Exit 5 freeway at Ortega Highway exit. Continue for two blocks to Camino Capistrano. Turn left, then turn right on Del Obispo Street. Public parking is available in the structure on the left.


Hidden House Coffee Shop

31791 Los Rios Street

San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

(949) 240-0200

Open daily, 7am – 5pm


Ramos House Cafe

31752 Los Rios Street, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

(949) 443-1342

Open Tues.-Sun. 8:30am – 3pm





Katie Wheeler Library Book Signing, November 5, 2011

It’s kind of a scary thing…writing a book.

You spend a lot of time on your own, rifling through books, old newspaper clippings and grainy, black and white photos. You write down what your learning and fill note cards full of  historical tidbits and interesting anecdotes. You spend hours scanning old pictures until your eyes blur. And you wonder if anyone else in the world will find this as interesting as you do.

Then your brand new book arrives…and it gets really scary. Now people will actually read what you’ve written.

On Saturday, at the Katie Wheeler Library in Irvine, I was fortunate to share what I’ve learned with a very friendly audience. I will never again take good, supportive friends for granted.


I was blessed to sit and sign books for a variety of friends who represent different times in my life. People who took time out of their busy Saturday afternoons to stop by and encourage a friend.

I felt a little like George Bailey when Clarence the Angel told him,  “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

Thank you all, for lifting me up….




Irvine-The Katie Wheeler Library

The last time you were shopping at the Irvine Marketplace, you probably didn’t even know it was there. If you were speeding down Jamboree westbound towards the 5 freeway, you might have missed it altogether.  But tucked away behind old eucalyptus and pine trees, on the corner of Irvine Blvd and Jamboree, sits the Irvine Ranch Historic Park, home of the Katie Wheeler Library.

A visit to the Katie Wheeler Library in Irvine is more than a trip to check out books. It’s a journey back in time, to a haven of local history. Even though the original building was destroyed by fire in 1965, it was painstakingly recreated in 2008, using photographs and drawings.  This was the private home of the Irvine family, completed in 1908. Katie Wheeler was the granddaughter of Irvine Company founder James H. Irvine, Sr.  She was born in the family house, and after her mother died in childbirth, she was raised by her grandfather.  There’s a picture of Katie Wheeler as a little girl displayed above the fireplace in the children’s reading room upstairs, pushing a doll’s baby carriage.


Visitors enter the library the way guests would have in the past, under the porte cochere and through the front door. Once inside, you are greeted by the grand staircase, a perfect replica of the original. To the right is the main fireplace where a portrait of Henry Rice hangs above the mantle. It’s fitting that Senator Rice’s picture is on the wall. Not only was he Katie Wheeler’s great, great grandfather, but he was also responsible for establishing public schools and libraries in Ohio. I learned this fact from the Self-Guided Tour pamphlet that I picked up at the front desk.   I spent the next half hour walking from room to room, reading facts about the Irvine family, lingering at the glass display cases filled with rare photographs.

It was nice spending time in a new place created to honor something old. Libraries seem to be a dying breed in this new era of internet research and Kindle e-readers. It was a joy to spend a quiet hour turning actual pages in the Irvine family parlor, descending their staircase and walking through their gardens. Their faces are everywhere. Family photographs remind you that real people once lived here, people that witnessed the transition from a pastoral Rancho San Joaquin to the blossoming metropolis of Irvine.


A trip to the Katie Wheeler library wouldn’t be complete without a walk around the Irvine Ranch Historic Park that surrounds it.  I followed the palm tree lined driveway from the ranch house to the old, wrought iron gate that use to welcome the Irvine family home.  Since it was Tuesday, a farmer’s market lined the road outside the gates.  There I joined others who were browsing for fresh local vegetables and flowers. I bought warm chicken empanadas and enjoyed a picnic lunch in the shade of an avocado tree. Afterwards, I walked past the old red barn and dormant ranch houses, long abandoned by the workers who once lived there.  This was once ground zero of one of the largest cultivated farms in the world. At one time, James Irvine II owed nearly a third of the land that is present day Orange County. Today, the quiet stillness of this place is a rare reminder that the busy, energetic lifestyle of Orange County once moved at a much slower pace.


Back at the library, I walked out onto the shaded back porch where Katie Wheeler’s Grandmother Frances once relaxed with her children. I wondered what she thought of as she looked out onto the ranch lands in front of her. I’m sure she never dreamed that one hundred years in the future the view from her porch would include a Target and an International House of Pancakes.  Today, the Katie Wheeler Library is an island of sorts; a little historical treasure surrounded on all sides by housing developments and chain stores. It stands as a precious souvenir from the past, a living monument to the family that once lived there and the people who shaped the history of Orange County.


If You Go…..

Be sure to check out the Friend’s of the Library Bookstore in the basement and Toddler’s Story time Thursdays at 10:30am.

Katie Wheeler Public Library: 13109 Old Myford Road. Irvine, CA 92602 (714) 669-8753

Hours: M-Th.  10am – 9pm, F-Sa 10am – 5pm, Sunday 12pm – 5pm.


After browsing for books at the library, enjoy fresh local produce and gourmet treats.

Irvine Farmer’s Market: At Irvine Ranch Historic Park, 13109 Old Myford Road. Every Tuesday.

9am – 1pm (rain or shine)


For more information on Irvine family history, contact the Irvine Historical Society

6 San Joaquin, Irvine, CA 92612. (949) 786-4112.

My Week with Vintage Men: Tuesday, Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

I didn’t plan it this way. The schedule just worked out naturally.

Each night this week, I attended a different event featuring a thought-provoking speaker. By Friday, I sensed a theme.

A Week with Vintage Men….

Tuesday: Beauty is in the Eye of The Beholder

On a balmy October Tuesday, I drove through Laguna Canyon towards the ocean. It would be a night of discovery, a lecture at the Laguna Art Museum during their week-long Plein Air Invitational Event. I know next to nothing about what makes art special. I can’t draw, sculpt or rattle off names of important American painters. I can’t tell a priceless piece of art from an amateur’s first efforts.

But I know what I like.

Edgar Payne

I love strolling through the Sawdust Festival every summer, breathing in the colors of the artwork around me.  Painters fascinate me, the way they can set up an easel at the shore and capture the light and the movement of the sea. It is a mystery to me, the way a painting can shine in a darkened gallery almost self-illuminated with the energy of color

Camille Przewordek

I just don’t get it, that’s all. 

So I met my friend Victoria, an accomplished artist and teacher, for an evening of art education. Our guide would be Jean Stern, Executive Director of The Irvine Museum. The subject for the evening would be a crash course in art appreciation: composition, perspective, color, with a focus on my favorite genre: Plein Air Painting.

I expected to find a stately gentleman, scholarly and stoic, dressed in a serious professorial suit and tie. But I was greeted at the door by a jolly man in a Reyn Spooner shirt, welcoming me with an easy smile and joking that he hoped I had brought my credit card so that I could pick up some new treasures. Then he suggested that I have a glass of the complimentary Chardonnay to improve the quality of his presentation. No stuffy art lecture here.

As I sat listening to the surprisingly jovial Mr. Stern discuss how to develop a critical eye for art, I began to realize why I am so attracted to the work of Plein Air artists. I didn’t realize how quickly they work, painting pieces in just a few hours. It’s all about capturing the moment, being present and awake to the beauty that’s before you, and then expressing a reaction to it through painting.  There’s no time to slowly assess the perspective or mull over possible combinations of composition. Plein air painting is immediate. Its artists must capture the light before it fades away, and reflect life as it it is right now, before the sun shifts and the moment disappears.

The more I listened to the lecture, the more I began to feel a kinship to the painters that sat in the room all around me. As artists, we are all striving for the same thing, to capture moments. I may not be able to express myself with a paint brush. But, as a writer, I try to share what I see; the moods and dimensions of life, stories from a fresh perspective, phrases filled with light and movement and just the right splash of color.

Mr. Stern helped me define what I was feeling when he clicked on a slide that said,

“The goal of an artist is not to reproduce reality, but to recreate a reality of the same intensity.”

Each artist has their own unique response to the world. What we create reveals who we are. It is our voice.

Thank you, Jean Stern, for an entertaining evening of self-discovery.

And a plastic glass of Chardonnay.

Irvine: Then and Now Blacksmith Shop; built 1909

The Blacksmith Shop, built 1909

In 1909, local farmer Frederick Culver asked James Irvine for permission to build a blacksmith shop on Central Avenue near the bean and grain warehouse. Culver’s brother, Willard, ran the operation, repairing farm machinery, making wagon wheels and fitting horseshoes. In 1928, the blacksmith shop was bought by Gene Thomas who also ran the garage next door. Thomas continued to run the shop for the next 50 years.

Knollwood Restaurant, 2011

Today, the old blacksmith shop is home to Knollwood Restaurant, home of “The World’s Best Hamburger,” and after personally sampling their specialty many times, I’d say they have a case. My favorite Knollwood treat, however, is their breakfast which has become a  local institution. Next door, Gene Thomas’ old garage is a Denny’s restaurant.

Fortunately for Irvine history buffs, the Knollwood chain embraces the historic flavor of each of their restaurants. Inside the Irvine restaurant you can still see the old blacksmith forge or have lunch in the old tool room.

The Knowlwood Restaurant on Sand Canyon and Burt in Old Town Irvine is one of the best preserved historic structures on the Irvine Ranch. Check it out when you hunger for a good juicy hamburger with a little bit of history on the side.

Looking for Fall at Lake Arrowhead

In Southern California, fall is hard to find. Check out my article in OC Travel about an easy day trip to Lake Arrowhead for Oktoberfest celebrations.

Friday Foto….Two days early: Village of Woodbridge, Sept. 1976

The Village of Woodbridge. September 1976. Only the North Lake has been completed. Barranca Parkway runs next to the right side of the lake. Culver Drive is at the bottom and Jeffery Road is at the top of the image. (Courtesy of The Irvine Company)



Friday Foto…Irvine Aerial Culver and Walnut

This image shows citrus groves before housing development along Walnut. The 5 Freeway is near the top of the photo and part of unpaved Culver Drive can be seen in the lower left corner. Today, this is the location of the El Camino neighborhood, Heritage Square Shopping Center and Irvine High School.

Who’s Who in Irvine:

This flamboyant ranchero once owned the land that is now Irvine and Newport Beach as well as parts of Tustin, Costa Mesa, and Laguna Beach. Do you know his name?

Don Jose Andres Sepulveda (1801-1875)

Sepulveda owned the Rancho San Joaquin, the 50,000 acres of land granted by the Mexican government in 1842. His legendary equestrian skills were only surpassed by his flair for fashionable clothing.

At one time, Don Jose Sepulveda was one of the richest men in California by selling beef to hungry miners during the Gold Rush. But when devastating drought and years of extravagance finally caught up with Sepulveda in 1864,  mounting debt forced him to sell his land to James Irvine and his partners.






  A new local history book from Arcadia Publishing available November 2011



For more information, click here.