Early Book Seller Puts Imprint on L.A. Lore

Times Staff Writer

An old prospector walked into a bookstore on 2nd Street, the story goes, and told the owner he was heading up into the hills. He asked for the titles of a couple of best-sellers to take along.

“ ‘Ramona’ and ‘Ben Hur,’ ” John W. Fowler suggested.

“Wrap ‘em up,” the sourdough said.

It was 1888, a time when the dusty little pueblo of Los Angeles (population about 34,000) was known more for its boisterous, than bookish, ways.

Nevertheless, in the ensuing years, Fowler Brothers flourished, especially after abandoning the theme, “Church and Sunday School Supply House.”


Still on the Scene

And today, it’s still downtown, still at only one location (717 W. 7th Street), still the un-chain bookstore. In fact, Fowler’s is the oldest seller of books and stationery in Los Angeles. And it’s marking its centennial with a variety of ceremonies as well as the opening of a small museum on the premises.

Part of the museum will be devoted to the store’s tangential role in the celebrated 1922 murder case of film director William Desmond Taylor.

In “Cast of Killers,” author Sidney Kirkpatrick quotes director King Vidor as saying that, on the night before he was murdered, Taylor’s “last stop before going home was Fowler’s Bookstore, where he bought two copies (of ‘Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety’) by Sigmund Freud.”

“We were kind of tickled by the mention,” said proprietor Sieg Lindstrom, grandson of the founder.

Actress Mabel Normand, a friend of Taylor’s, and one-time suspect in the case, also visited the bookstore that night, Lindstrom said.

Peanuts on the Floor

“I heard that she was always eating peanuts and, because she was Mabel Normand, she was allowed to throw ‘em on the floor,” he added. “She liked to come into the store, sit down and be waited on.”


Taylor’s murder has never been solved.

What’s no mystery is why innumerable independent bookstores have been killed off over the years in Los Angeles.

“The Depression wiped out many of them,” Lindstrom said. “We just barely made it ourselves.”

And, in recent years, came the discount chain bookstores.

“I’ve seen a lot of good, small stores killed off when a Crown or Walden moved in nearby,” he said.

Formula for Survival

How has Fowler Brothers survived?

“The stationery business has always been a good safeguard,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of our sales are stationery.”

The smallish, cozy shop, which has moved five times, prides itself on offering “perennials,” in the words of Lindstrom, “like the poetry of (John Greenleaf) Whittier and paperback classics, not just Fitzgerald and Hemingway but (other) American authors such as (John) Dos Passos.”

Lindstrom, who began working in the store 45 years ago as a 15-year-old, said he was once told by a consultant “that for any business to be successful it has to have POO.”

“I said, ‘What do you mean? We’ve sold Winnie the Pooh for years.’ He said POO stood for ‘pride of ownership,’ which I believe we have. I still wait on trade (customers) at lunch time. I enjoy it.”

Author Ray Bradbury, a customer for more than 40 years,said:

“The thing that makes a great bookstore, like Fowler’s, is that the people who run it love books and really know them. I can remember when I first started going in there, they had a woman who was an expert in the modern novel, another who knew political works and another who was good on philosophy.”

He compared this to today’s popular discount chains, “where no one knows what in the hell they have and they’re just selling real estate.”

Famous Names

Bradbury is only one of many famous names associated with the store.

Its museum will display signatures of such famous guests as Mabel Normand, Zane Grey (“of Avalon, Calif.”) and John Philip Sousa, who scrawled a bar of music from “Stars and Stripes Forever” next to his name.

The bookstore’s had its share of unusual visitors too.

Lindstrom recalled a mysterious man, usually clad in an overcoat, and carrying a briefcase, who came into the store several times a week without ever buying a book. “Maggie McClure, one of our clerks, thought he was a potential shoplifter,” Lindstrom said.

It turned out he was just short on cash. One day, the book-browser asked McClure out for coffee. Later, they were married. And she became Mrs. Ray Bradbury.