“Are books the new vinyl? I think they are,” Jen Hitchcock says. A 20-year veteran of the music industry, she had seen vinyl records disappear and then return as a viable form. When she was laid off from her job in music publishing, she took that lesson and applied it to something else she loved whose death was predicted: books.
“It just popped in my head: I’m going to open a book shop.” Book Show, the store Hitchcock opened in the Elysian Valley, sells an eclectic combination of used books, zines and new books from tiny independent presses. It will celebrate its first birthday Saturday with a party at 7p.m. with live bands.
Located in the Nomad art compound, the shop is tucked into just 500 square feet. It has a bonus upstairs room with low eaves painted with red and white stripes, like a big top.
Hitchcock’s sensibility saturates the store’s offerings: She adores P.T. Barnum, sideshows and carnivals. There are things from her youth, including photos of the stars of the ’70s and the pink-and-green pamphlet she got in sex ed class.
Ignoring most retail conventions, she organizes the shelves like a cabinet of curiosities, designed for exploration and discovery. A browser might find an oversize vintage book about train travel between a photo zine from a train-hopping artist who once lived at the Nomad space and the 1966 paperback “How to Retire in Mexico on $2.47 a Day.”
“I like people to try to figure out why things are together,” Hitchcock says. “Also, the way I arrange things, it’s like a treasure hunt.”
She likes inscribed books because they tell unique stories; she’s selling books with gorgeous Art Deco covers, ignoring the Bible-focused text inside. In new books, she gravitates toward thoughtful design, unique visuals and an independent spirit.
“People ultimately like things and objects,” she says. “Not that objects define them, but people want to communicate who we are, and part of that is a bookshelf.”
Hitchcock, 44, grew up in the small town of Guilford, Conn. She moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to attend the film program Columbia College of Hollywood on La Brea but never finished. Instead she went on to work in the music industry, leaving 20 years later with a severance package.
To open Book Show, she relied on that severance package and launched a $5,000 crowdfunding campaign. She raised another $1,000 with a benefit concert.
She gets her used books at estate sales and from customers who make donations. Although the nearby used bookstore Brand Books, known for its huge stock, is closing after 29 years, Hitchcock thinks her store is set apart by her selection. “It’s very curated,” she says. “I carefully curate books and donate whatever I don’t want. I preserve them, clean 'em up, make them presentable again.”
She’s operating on a modest scale. The books in her store sell from $7 to $20; zines are less. The most expensive book she’s ever sold was a 1920s guide to modern elocution that went for $30. “Small potatoes for most book stores, but for mine ... big potatoes!” she jokes.
When she comes across a more collectible book, she passes it along to Iliad Bookshop. The store is one of her favorites, so much so that she wrote up its citation in the LA Weekly’s Best of L.A. during a stint of freelance writing.
Hitchcock leads writing workshops at the store, held in its upstairs space. Affordable – one costs $5 per session, or writers can bring a snack – and supportive, they offer the kind of writing experience she was never able to find on her own. She’s grown one workshop into two; recently, for the first time, her writers participated in an open mike night at Nomad.
“The space is essential, being at Nomad,” she says, because the art compound is a creative space dedicated to a DIY aesthetic. “The good thing is that this neighborhood is starting to boom. I’m starting to see, literally in the last couple months, an increase of people coming in.”
The store is next to the L.A. River -- it took her six months to realize that the walkway on its southern bank is where Book Show gets its foot traffic. “I started doing these little chalk drawings down on the river path, telling them there’s a bookstore a block away,” Hitchcock says. “And people started coming up!”
“I’ve always wanted a roadside attraction, always,” she says.
Books in L.A. and more; I'm @paperhaus on Twitter.