Bookstores are important to me; for a writer like myself, they provide a place of refuge.
I’ve been an avid reader since the wee age of four. From Dr. Seuss to J.K. Rowling, books have given me countless hours of imagination and escape. When I was younger, around birthdays and holidays, I would always get a gift card to Barnes & Noble. I would find myself sitting in the aisles and reading all the books, before choosing the perfect story to take home with me.
Bookstores have been around hundreds of years [Ed: And the profession of bookselling can be traced as far back as 300 B.C. TIL, folks]. It’s an institution that society needs in daily life, but technology is threatening to put an end to it; who knows how long independent bookstores will linger in this digital age.
In Los Angeles – the land of creativity and paid parking lots – exist thriving institutions of bookstores, that are a staple of booklovers in the various quadrants of the city.
Here are a few that are keeping up with the rise of E-books and online commerce.
THE LAST BOOK STORE
Owner: Josh Spencer
Neighbourhood: Downtown Los Angeles
Address: 453 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90013
The Last Book Store is – quite literally – known around the world because of its beautiful design and love of preserving books. Walking inside is like taking a trip to a library that should’ve always existed near your house but never had. It’s a two-story building that is lined with books, filled with sculptures made from books, littered with secret passages that lead you through tiny hallways and up stairs.
The Last Book Store is also home to a an iconic image, a circle of books made famous by Instagrammers and reporters alike. The second floor houses a book tunnel reminiscent of something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a vault that houses the horror genre section. The store used to be a bank back in Los Angeles’s heyday.
What sets this store apart from others is the effort they spend interacting with their community. Every night, The Last Book Store hosts either a free author talk or an open mic night, enticing people to come into the store to marvel at all the books. Throughout the building there are comfy chairs and places to just sit and enjoy what the store has to offer. To make it relevant to the community it serves, there’s even a $1 book section on the second floor.
From an interview by KCRW’s Saul Gonzalez, the owner Josh Spencer states, “I’ve tried to create something that’s woven into the story of LA. I wanted to create a place that seemed a bit from another time. I wanted it to be an escape from their mundane lives on the street.So I’ve used it almost as a creative outlet as a work of art. If you want to compete with E-Books and Amazon, you have to create a place people want to come to regardless of what you’re selling.
We might not be here forever and that’s okay. I didn’t set out to create something that was supposed to be here forever, [but] I would like it to last as long as it can.”
Owner: Dan Weinstein
Neighbourhood: North Hollywood
Address: 5400 Cahuenga Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91601
Named after The Iliad by the Greek poet, Homer, this bookstore is known for having a wide variety of books, from current science fiction to small press independent magazines from years ago.
When you walk into the store you have to enter through these large heavy doors that keep unwelcomed visitors out and cats in.
Yes, this bookstore has two lovely cats that reside among the bookshelves and on top of tables. I sometimes feel like I’ve walked into a sub section of an older library, hidden and aloof. The shelves stretch to the 12 foot ceiling and off to the side of the store is a children’s section. It looks like an area children would sit and play toys in, but it also doubles up as an an area where people sit, relax and read a few books they have been meaning to get to. There’s also no “timely sitting” policy. People come and enjoy for as long as they want. The only policy they have is you can’t sell or drop off books after 6pm.
When asked how the shop stays relevant, Dan says confidently, “We came of age right when the internet happened. We were able to keep that in mind in our business plan developed a lot of the old booksellers didn’t want to change with the internet especially with the prices of books. Some things became very cheap and some things became very expensive. Supply and demand are the bottom line in the used market.”
Owner: Multiple owners
Neighbourhood: Los Feliz
Address: 1818 N Vermont Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Design-wise, one of the coolest elements of Skylight Books is the live tree in the middle of the store, beneath a glass skylight that gives the book store its name. Readers sit next to the tree and enjoy the light that’s always streaming into the building (because, as everyone knows, it’s never cloudy in Los Angeles…).
This bookshop stays relevant by hosting free author events nearly every evening, and also partners with conferences in Los Angeles. At AWP in 2016, Skylight was one of the book sellers invited to promote new and upcoming books, alongside various publishing houses.
Another fun way Skylight gets readers to be engaged is by having a membership program: Patrons geta discount on books and events throughout the year. It’s just another perk of being a Los Angeles local.
THE SECRET HEADQUARTERS
Owner: Dave Pifer
Opened: August 2005
Neighbourhood: Silver Lake
Address: 817 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026
The Secret Headquarters is nestled in a quadrant of the Sunset strip of Silver Lake, in the heart of Los Feliz, a suburb of artistic proportions. It shares the block with a renovated movie theater and other shops that have been there for decades.
To give you context, Silver Lake is in the low valley of Los Angeles. Full of small business owners like the Ragg Mopp Vintage store and Flore, an organic vegan restaurant and deli. Next to the Secret Headquarters is Vacation Vinyl, a record shop which houses vintage vinyl of all genres.
I asked Dave what makes people keep coming back to The Secret Headquarters, “Since we stock predominantly comics, that helps us because we have a niche for people. Also us being in Sunset junction brings in a lot of foot traffic. Plus, we stock a tight selection of everything, so we have [everything from] the big Marvel super hero stuff all the way to small press things. Somebody might’ve made 100 of a particular zine and people learn what’s in stock.”
Another way Secret Headquarters set itself apart is that they regularly host selected artists’ work, which are displayed on on the walls, and available for sale. This brings in a brilliant mesh of art lovers and comic fans.
For example, at the time of writing, Jay Howell’s art (http://jayhowellart.blogspot.com/) is on their wall. The art is illustrative and has a hand drawn feel with fun characters and out of this world backgrounds. Jay is one of the original character designer of the Belcher Family for the popular animated Fox TV show Bob’s Burgers.
Dave cares about his community and tries to keep up with what they need on their bookshelves.
How he keeps relevant is by “paying attention to what the neighborhood is reading, and keeping up on giving them what they are interested in.”
STORIES BOOKS & CAFÉ
Owner: Alex Maslansky, Claudia Colodro and Liz Garo
Opened: November 2008
Neighbourhood: Echo Park
Address: 1716 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026
In the world of books, Stories Books & Café is a unique blend of hip and casual that houses a coffee shop in the store. When you walk in, you’ll see rows of books, chairs and folks sipping their latte and eating burritos. If it’s too busy, there’s a quaint and colorfully painted back patio, where you can sit and enjoy the LA sun.
What sets Stories Books & Café apart is that they sell a variety of rare books on Ebay. For example, if you are looking for McSweeney’s Issue No. 4 – a box set from 2000 – they are selling it for $120 USD. Starting at 300 USD, you can bid for a signed Mary Ellen Mark photography book, from her collection of American Odyssey 1963-1999.
Co-owner of the store, Alex Maslanksky, believes that books are special, and remains optimistic that people will always come to stores in person for them. “Printed matter will remain relevant,” he tells me.
“Books are an irreplaceable object, an artform, and [a] practical medium for communication of ideas and info. Stocking titles that exemplify these qualities keep us a separate market, unaffected by digital substitutions.
Books are one of the few commercial objects with an intrinsic value that is completely separate from their retail value. This is what will keep them relevant, culturally and most likely commercially”
“Amazon is rather toxic to the entire ecosystem of publishing, squeezing life from a majority of publishers, writers, artists, and bookstores,” Alex opines of the e-commerce giant. “[We’re] offering a physical space that reflects the interests of the community that serves as a bulwark against online retail’s race to the bottom pricewise.”
I ask Alex what he loves about running his bookstore, and his answer reveals the passion he has for the endeavour. “Running a bookstore is an ideal existence. People, Art, Ideas are the daily trade. No two days are alike and theres always something new to discover.”
Another vital aspect of what brings people together at Stories Books & Café is community, which plays a huge factor in this neighborhood. “The community is essential,” Alex shares with me. “We try our best to serve the neighborhood we’re in. Without them we could not sustain ourselves.”
Whenever I drive by a bookstore, I wonder about the story behind what makes that shop thrive.
Los Angeles is eclectic, and this is not a comprehensive list of all the independent bookstores in town; the five bookstores featured in this story represent the spirit of creativity and the willingness to try new ways to stay alive, in the arid landscape of e-commerce and digital publishing.
What I learned interviewing the owners is that community is essential, both for the soul of independent bookshops, and their survival. Bookshops are more than just repositories of books: They represent place where Angelinos can hide away from the hustle and bustle of traffic and tourists; they are communities created from shop cats, small performances and good coffee.
Bookstores in LA are sacred, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.