This is the second in a two part series. You can find the first part here.
This Is Not A Book Town
by BARBARA GALLETLY
This is not a Book Town, and I’m not surprising you or anyone by saying so. L.A. is not a publishing town either, though there are a few interesting book publishers (semiotexte, Les Figues Press, Heyday, Siglio), more magazines, and plenty of (screen) writers about whom I know less than nothing. In my mother’s words, L.A. is as different from New York as Canada is. Nataurally they read different things here.
Another key difference: it’s hard to get around, hard to motivate anyone to leave their neighborhoods because it takes so much time to do so. However there are small bookstores sprinkled across in L.A., many of them really good. As in other cities, a lot have closed though as I read more and more about layoffs and cutbacks, closings of independent bookstores, I also read about more new booksellers and stores here. Curated sources of books in all their forms, old and new, are in demand here too. It seems like this is the best time in the world for a new bookstore in Los Angeles, the right time for me to come to Los Angeles to think about why and what to do next.
So I drove west on a well-thought-out whim, with faith in my personal literary decentralization. Interesting readers and writers are all over the place and moving and I wanted to see for myself. I had heard that L.A. is one of the best-read towns in the US, and that Los Angelenos buy a lot of books. To ruin any potential for suspense, I still believe this now, having been here for a few months, and only in part because half of everyone I know here is a PhD candidate.
The first task I undertook when I got here was obsessively visit a dozen independent bookstores (actually I just don’t know where the Barnes & Nobles are, though I imagine they exist). I’m new here so the neighborhoods all seem a little strange. I’ve kept it to myself when I am not sure I’m qualified to opine. Also I am sorry that this list doesn’t include much of the west side. Iliad Books, Deyermond, Alias and of course the ones I haven’t heard about yet won’t appear since, fortunately, I have been distracted by a few other things.
Skylight isn’t huge, but it’s light and airy and replete with tagged suggestions, personalized blurbs, a large and pretty helpful staff. Most impressive to me were the special shelf of selected translated books (“World Literature”), the impressively large California poetry section; the fact that such books would occupy the front of one of the city’s most vocal and visible book stores.
I found the smallest and weirdest book at Skylight — Dalkey Archive Press just published an English translation of Edouard Lévy’s Suicide, which is about a suicide. Immediately after delivering the book to the publisher the author killed himself. I didn’t hear about this from Skylight, but they had it in stock so I obviously had to buy it. A rather harrowing a read, very very good.
My second time in, I saw Michael Cera at the register, and he seemed to stay forever, just chatting, and then buying a bunch of novels. The thing about Los Angeles is that it’s almost impossible to hurry here, and most of the time the people are so polite that you just wouldn’t imagine interrupting a conversation just to make your next appointment on time. It’s not just Michael Cera either, it’s a mother looking for a particular Beverly Cleary book, or a tourist looking for the right hiking guide. Wait, browse a little more, be patient. Be more social. This is true all over Los Angeles.
The main store is fifteen years old, and there is a new-ish art book and graphic novel annex, which is great and in keeping with what people here seem to be buying (more on that in a bit). I imagine Skylight is so successful because of how well it understands its customers (interested in stories, in film, in their city) and what they’ll be looking for: something standard, something else really strange or small or graphic-heavy. On the other hand, I have a quiet complaint. The readings are not overwhelmingly impressive as you can’t see or hear or didn’t realize there was something going on at first.
This is quite a big store, offering as much attention to detail but a bigger and more “popular” (in the “L.A. Times best seller” sense of the word) selection than Skylight. Here are the big new books and lots of classics, and books by celebrities. It is, after all, on the Sunset Strip. It’s windy, but wide too, and it keeps going back, is much deeper than I’d have guessed it to be when I walked in. It even has a separate office with a reception desk.
There’s nothing especially new about Book Soup (it opened in 1975) but it’s really quite a role model (you find little flags with descriptions of books and recommendations all over the place here). Good, because it’s well known outside of the city as it is within, for selling books as well as for being the best place in L.A. to celebrate a book release — it attracts a crowd. For now at least it offers more events than any other bookstore in L.A.. If not one for every night, there are some nights of two separate readings. Next week they’ll have a woman who battled cancer and was American Idol judge and I assume it will be packed.
Vroman's is in Pasadena, but it’s the nearest big independent store to my East-side neighborhood. It’s actually ancient (1894), and it’s huge — two stories, replete with a seating area for readings, a café, a children’s zone where I sat on a gigantic mushroom and chatted with a lovely little kid about her doll, which you can also buy at Vroman’s (it was some kind of a kooky stuffed character from a story she liked). It’s famous within its community, all over Southern California, and to the book people of New York. And I think it makes a difference that it is convenient to the great writers of the east side of Los Angeles and the many students of the many local universities.
Also Vroman’s looks exactly like a Borders I knew in Bryn Mawr, PA (the man on the phone was like DUH we’re still in business). But it’s decidedly more local — bookstores in Southern California almost always feature sections that are new to me, Californiana and Screenplays.
Also outside the city limits, The Battery in South Pasadena seems to me to qualify as much as Vroman's does. It's closer, for one thing, and full of more intriguing books, for another. It was scattered enough that browsing was really fun, and I really enjoyed chatting with the owner.
I bought an old Culpepper's Herbal that offers me a few different options for "abortion cure," recipes for flea repellents, and cartoonish illustrations of the plants that hold the key ingredients. This is to say that the store has a cool collection of diet and nutrition books to go along with the fiction and nonfiction. If this is true, you can guess everything else will be extremely awesome.
Brand Bookshop is an old one. It's also just outside of L.A. in Glendale, and is full of beautiful and well-preserved books, the kind you won't be able to choose between (except that you will choose). Brand is an institution here and it doesn't even have a website. Absolutely not to miss.
Stories is a small and local bookstore that also reminds me of neighborhood-y New York bookstores, though it is very much of Echo Park. I'm not going to go so far as to say it has a really solid collection of books, but it does offer reasonable used books and peculiar new ones from small presses or by local authors, perhaps those with whom a buyer has a friendly connection. Honestly, I don't completely get it. Under the front counter is a curiously good selection of titles from independent publishers and in nice old editions that seems to change just once over the course of a couple of months, including formerly the excellent As a Friend by Forrest Gander.
Stories is next door to the 826LA tutoring center, so it's an easy meeting place for people who are interested in literary things, or else that's because it also houses a little café. They describe themselves as "Books n Coffee n Stuff." I'm going out on a limb here, but still guessing it's a good place to pick someone up. Especially if you are working on a screenplay, have only one dreadlock, or a need a place with a terrible Internet connection because you're on deadline and trying not to shop for bathing suits online instead. Lots of making out over coffee. In a place where coffee shops are far more popular than bars, this is quite important.
The Last Bookstore
I ventured to the newly renovated area of downtown L.A. to visit Metropolis Books, which looked so impressive online. I accidently walked into The Last Bookstore, which opened on the same block of Main Street as its older, better-known neighbor, about a year ago. Again with the friendliness. It is a wonderful store… can I say it gives off a good vibe? It will soon be moving over a block or so to a bigger space where they'll hold more events, I just learned, and I think this is very good news for the city.
There's a poetry chapbook section and the store hosts a poetry book club. The selection of used books (it's again mostly used, except for a smallish collection of new books and poetry chapbooks) is really refined — you have the feeling that everything was purposefully chosen as you browse the vintage-y stacks. And something that's not terribly common: they sell on eBay too.
This was actually a disappointing place, by comparison. I regret having to say so, I feel badly about it, and yet I doubt many would really disagree. Metropolis, don't get me wrong, has the things you'd expect from a little bookstore in a neglected downtown of a big city. But unless you have a crush on the owner, why would you buy a new bestseller from her store? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess, based on the store's own best-seller list, that it's a place for wandering tourists and convention attendees, but it's also a local place, with a small and diligent crew of fans who surely support it through the sadder times.
There is a particular trend here, and Skylight's annex is really just a participant. Family Books, I think, was the original L.A. bookstore-as-gallery. It would be more intimidating if it weren't called "Family" and if the people behind the counter were less friendly, or if they didn't seem to encourage people to visit their store for events so enthusiastically. Here is a place where the art of curation is not just exercised as good business practice, it's the whole point. Family offers books, graphic novels, art books (for lack of a better term), music — as well as zines and magazines. A lot of its success I think comes from events created to promote their merchandise, a lot of which is produced by the cool artists of Los Angeles.
I am tempted to identify places in New York that are comparable, but I think it's most helpful to point out that there are now more and more stores like this particularly out here. Ooga Booga in Chinatown is an example, a place one might find zines, small run and local as well as international publications. Also other art, objects that one might endearingly label bibelots. These aren't exactly the non-book stores that sell books, but they further the importance of the physical and personal nature of books. They demonstrate the desire on the part of a bunch of interesting and highly literate people to encourage the proximity of books to art.
Along these lines is an even younger bookstore, and I am probably not alone in saying Alias East is my favorite in the city. The selection of books, not just the contents, but the actual physical specimens are so delicately chosen and, for the most part, very good (if not a little boys clubby). "Erotica" is a bunch of old Evergreen and Grove titles. I bought a signed blue paperback copy of On Being Blue by William Gass my first time in, and I couldn't have made a better decision. Trust me, I know it was a choice I made with help.
A store like Alias serves primarily to make you want to own its beautiful things; it reminds you that they're valuable for complex reasons and that you don't need to buy everything you want to read, or at least that you don't need to keep it all. It demonstrates that you owe a good deal of respect to someone who is able to find the 100 books out of ten thousand that will matter to his customers for social or cultural or personal reasons. I don't even remember ever having stolen something before, but at Alias I feel like I need someone to follow me around and watch me and save me from myself.
Libros Schmibros is a bookstore that's completely different from all the rest. Or maybe not. Founded by the former head of The Big Read program, David Kipen, and now run by him and a former college professor and Joyce specialist, Colleen Jaurretche, it opened last July on the first Monday the local branch of the public library was forced by budget cuts to close. Now the library is open Mondays again, and the lending library/bookstore carries on. It's only open four days a week from noon to six, but it is worth planning around.
Libros offers a rich mix of classic literature in well-thumbed paperbacks, contemporary and forgotten crowd pleasers, and solid literary fiction and non-fiction. No schlock. You will not find cookbooks here, but you'll find a decent selection of Spanish-language books, poetry and theater, and young adult material. It consistently evolves to reflect the needs and taste of its neighborhood. And it is tremendously affordable — a true non-profit.
The first time I visited was in February, a few days after I arrived in L.A., I was delighted to find a talkative crowd of two high school teachers, a screenwriter, volunteers and a couple of teenagers. Kipen appeared to be in deep conversation with every person there. He had time to talk to me, too. So now I volunteer at Libros, and I love it. I sit at the desk, chat with teenagers who might just be coming in for a piece of candy or to say hello; I shelve books and make sure they're entered in the catalog. I realize I don't just love suggestions, I love to make them.
There's something terribly scary and motivating that happens when you realize the culture we know and think so highly of, hold so dear, is so tenuously encouraged and protected. Our libraries are closing and our librarians are out of work. As it is, aside from universities, which are largely more and more horrifying, and a few concerned institutions (not enough), we have to rely on a few self-taught or self-motivated scholars that take on this task in commercial or social contexts. They open bookstores or blog to uphold what has become our Rome.
Read Eagle Rock
Read Eagle Rock constitutes what looks to me like another labor of love, perhaps on its way to approximating Freebird in terms of its offerings. Read isn't a place I'd necessarily get in the car to visit (OK I hate to drive and you have to get on the highway to get there), but it's an important bookstore in that general area north of downtown L.A., ranging from Eagle Rock and Highland Park to Lincoln Heights, which I mentioned before is home to some really awesome writers.
There's a moment a bookseller can choose: to do what he or she wants regardless of the consequences, or to do what a community needs him or her to do. This is where I think Read is now. And I think long-term success demands it, as long as people continue to drive.
Small World Books
Today I went to the beach because it is May and a million degrees out, and I'm not used to this. I went swimming and got sunburned. I was walking down the weird Venice strip on my way home, avoiding eye contact, and I noticed a sign for a bookstore. Oh my god. I guess I read there was a great bookstore nearby. Small World Books is amazing.
Happily, and I assume successfully, right in the midst of head shops and tourists and sunburn victims and vendors selling eyewear that will make you look like you have boobs on your face, is a fantastic bookstore. Really excellent books from Archipelago and Europa, and Wave and Dalkey Archive, Harper Perennial and Penguin Classics and Modern Library. New Directions. I mean to say, a lot of books that I admire, recognize, want to read, that I definitely believe in. I bought There Is No Year because it seemed like the right place for it. I brought my parents who loved it as much as me. I realized I have a lot to look forward to.
L.A. is not my home, and I mean no offense at all to anyone when I say I don't want it to be. This isn't a place where the surface gives you much to go on, which is really hard to get used to if not challenging, rewarding. I believe I could live here all my life and still not have visited all of the neighborhoods squeezed between Pasadena and the Pacific. I could visit each neighborhood a dozen times and remain completely unaware of what's behind that one terrible bar, consistently miss the block with the bookstore. It would take me years to really understand the interactions of people and groups and movements. And anyway I'm going to graduate school in Texas before I can form too close a bond. I finally decided on the narrative I want to participate in. Can't you guess I'm going to study libraries and archives?
Real cities are so nearly invisible cities, they are not necessarily different from mythical Rome or Babel or even the internet: they aren't any more or less obvious, readily observable, or well-organized. But they are all concrete, necessarily limited.
Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find the first part of this post, examining New York bookstores, here.
Photographs of the author by Trent Wolbe.
"Down by the Water" - The Decemberists (mp3)
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