The back wall at the Blue Bottle Coffee in downtown Los Angeles is lined from top to bottom with books.
The airy coffee destination fills the corner of the historic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. Behind plate-glass windows, patrons can be seen drifting to the counter for personalized service at the newest Los Angeles outpost of the Oakland-based chain. Some settle down at shared tables; others sit on high stools. A few are drawn to the tall, book-filled wall.
“If you can reach it, you can have it,” says Rose Bridges, the company's local spokesperson.
This literary wall is Blue Bottle’s first “library” — a partnership with the nearby Library Foundation of Los Angeles, whose used books line the majority of the cafe’s reachable shelves. Titles range from “The Hunger Games” to “Hamlet” and are free for reading in-store or available for purchase at $7 each, with proceeds benefiting the foundation.
Though visitors to Blue Bottle are more likely to seek out Shakeratos (a shaken espresso and cream drink, also $7) than Shakespeare, the store sold about 40 books in its first month after opening Dec. 31.
In cafes and bars, skate shops and co-working spaces, books are popping up everywhere in Los Angeles — and as more than just decor.
“Instead of going to a coffee shop and reading, I could just come here,” says Kat Bronstroup, a film production manager, admiring a copy of the literary vampire thriller “The Passage” by Justin Cronin at Catcher in the Rye, a bar in Toluca Lake.
When Eric Hodgkins opened Catcher in 2014, he bought a couple hundred used books to complement his literary-themed craft cocktails (the bar’s namesake is made with rye whiskey, his favorite spirit; other drinks include the Big Bukowski and Tequila Mockingbird). Stacked in a back corner next to a couch, the colorful texts give the space a “Friends” meets “How I Met Your Mother” vibe.
Unexpectedly, “the books have become a bigger animal than just the alcohol itself,” says Hodgkins. The shelves have drawn visitors from other areas to the neighborhood joint; Harry Potter nights, a semi-regular occurrence, are always well-attended. A frequent customer once donated a hardcover copy of the bar’s namesake, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, which Hodgkins keeps behind the counter “so people won’t take it.” The bar is considering implementing a more formal check out and cataloging system, given the books’ popularity and propensity to disappear.
The Wellesbourne in West L.A., a bar fashioned to look like a 19th century English country house, has seldom had issues with book theft. This is fortunate, because some of the books on its shelves are first edition classics.
Immediately visible after walking in are two dark wood bookcases situated opposite each other, filled with vintage hardcover books (the oldest is dated 1875, according to owner Sophie Huterstein). Next to the books is a set of wooden pew booths. Couples flock to these during the early evening hours; manager May Lee has seen many chuckling over a copy of “The New Book of Etiquette” — from 1936.
“Our Economic Organization,” published in 1921, caught my eye. The introductory textbook was surprisingly readable under the bar’s dim lighting after switching on the booth’s library lamp. The 500-page tome was readable in other ways, too. An American perspective on political theory as well as economics, its final chapter contains the line, “In our country, power to make changes rests, at the last, with its citizens.”
Books are not the main attraction at the Quiet Life in Highland Park, the flagship store for Andy Mueller's skate-inspired clothing brand, which boasts Justin Bieber, Spike Jonze and local amateur skateboarder Chris Chann as its customers. But a small display of around 30 volumes sits on a thin shelf in the corner.
This “book nook” currently features seven titles from Hat & Beard Press, an L.A.-based publisher, including “Slash: A Punk Magazine from Los Angeles, 1977-80.”
In addition to carrying books, the Quiet Life also hosts after-hours book release parties. It has been a fruitful partnership, according to J.C. Gabel, Hat & Beard’s co-founder and an old friend of Mueller’s. “We've sold more books there than [at] most of the local bookshops,” Gabel explains.
Babylon is another fixture of the local skate scene. An unassuming white house on Highland Avenue, the space is a storefront for skater apparel and gear with a backyard bowl.
Inside, a small bookshelf shares the side wall with three skateboards carrying the Babylon logo. Flipping through dozens of zines and picture books, I came across “Legal Issues” by Adam Rossiter, 17 printed pages of the legal troubles of various pop culture icons, sourced from Wikipedia.
The ever-changing selection of zines comes from a mix of authors: by artists like Rossiter, a friend of Babylon co-founders Garrett Stevenson and Lee Spielman (from the punk band Trash Talk); from the band’s fans from around the world; and some are even by the kids who hang out in the back of the shop, who sometimes make their own zines when they’re not skating the bowl.
“It’s one of the sickest things in the store,” said Shawn Weaver, 22, a frequent visitor.
The Feminist Library on Wheels (FLOW) is the brainchild of bicyclists, not skaters, but the desire to create a community is a shared goal. Dawn Finley and Jenn Witte started FLOW as a mobile library in 2014, distributing an eclectic assortment of feminist books, including Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” and Carrie Fisher’s “The Best Awful.” They can be seen riding around town with their specially outfitted, three-wheel “bookcycle.”
In mid-2015, FLOW moved into the Women’s Center for Creative Work, a feminist co-working and art space in Frogtown. The center, a fiscal sponsor of the library, provides a room to house the thousands of donated books that form the library’s growing collection.
FLOW’s modest beginnings will sound familiar to readers who have paid attention to the more unlikely bookstore origin stories in Southern California's recent history.
In the 1990s, Rueben Martinez started selling books by Latino authors in his barbershop and went on to be awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for his efforts. Martinez's store became one of the nation's largest Latino-themed bookshops (the collection is now at Chapman University).
In East L.A. in 2010, Adam Bernales and Denice Diaz set up Seite Books in Diaz's mother's shop, books initially on a single shelf among dresses and makeup. They took over more space (and have expanded into a traditional bookstore) stocking their shelves with literature, poetry, art books and politics. The offerings are partly driven by their customers — customers who hadn’t had any local bookstore at all.
For Elise ZeBrack and her son David, selling books goes hand-in-hand with washing cars. At the Sepulveda West Car Wash on Sawtelle Boulevard, which ZeBrack and her late husband opened in 1991, customers can browse a sophisticated selection of books and greeting cards in the adjoining shop while they wait for their cars to be cleaned. The books are displayed on a wide wall and span art, cooking, self-help, decorating and children's literature.
I spent the afternoon inside the boutique, enjoying free coffee and Wi-Fi as cars went through the automated wash to my left and a hundred or so books sat on shelves to my right (I left with a picture book of the works of artist Yves Klein). It felt a bit surreal, but at the same time uniquely L.A.
“Everybody says it's real California," Elise ZeBrack said in a 1999 television interview.
Almost two decades later, book lovers in L.A. are still sourcing their reading lists from the least expected places.
Christine Zhang is a OpenNews Fellow on the Times Data Desk.