Serving Up Little Slices of L.A., With a Dash of Cowboy Poetry


Between the comfy chairs, cozy nooks and adjacent cafes, bookstores these days look more like private libraries than places of commerce. But where many see a haven perfect for browsing and drowsing, Paddy Calistro sees potential destruction--leafed-through books with ripped pages, big smudges and broken bindings; books too damaged for the store to sell; books the store then boxes up and sends, unpaid for, back to the publishers; books the publisher then has to eat.

For the big publishers, the Random Houses, the Knopfs, the houses that can afford large press runs, a few hundred ruined books isn’t that big a deal, and if it cuts into profits, they’ll just add a buck or two to the next hardback price. For the smaller presses, it’s different. For the smaller presses, 100 wrecked books can represent 5% of a total printing, 10% or more of sales.

Calistro is the president of Angel City Press, a small Los Angeles publishing house that specializes in an eclectic mix of gift books, many paying homage to old Hollywood. Hers is a self-described mom-and-pop establishment, run with her husband Scott McAuley out of their Brentwood home, and she speaks of each of her books as one does of a dear friend.


So when she sees a cappuccino-swilling hipster browsing through the new-release table, she has to take a deep breath. “All I can think of is how many of our books have come back with coffee stains on them,” she says, laughing only slightly.

Established in 1992, the press has produced 24 books that cover a rather unusual array of topics. Six of them have the word “Hollywood” in the title, and two begin with “Star,” but there’s also a collection of cowboy love poetry, “The Volkswagen Bug Book,” the “El Cholo Cookbook,” a quotable tribute to marriage, a photographic paean to the Monterey Jazz Festival and a history of Muscle Beach.

“I only do books that I would like to read,” says Calistro, “so it’s sort of eclectic. I’d like to think of ourselves as being about nostalgia, American culture and Los Angeles culture.”

The three titles due out in January and February are decidedly local: “The 101 Best Bars in Los Angeles,” by architectural designer and former bartender Frank Mulvey; “For the People: Inside the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office,” by former Times editor Michael Parrish working with the District Attorney’s Crime Prevention Foundation; and “The Los Angeles Menu Guide,” by former book publicist Betty Shaipian and Chuck Morrell, a former book sales representative.

And Calistro herself currently has a book out--”The Hollywood Archive: The Hidden History of Hollywood in the Golden Age,” co-written with Fred E. Basten and published by Universe, a division of Rizzoli based in New York. “They told us, ‘We want an Angel City book, only bigger, something definitive,’ ” she says. “I told them you can’t do anything definitive on Hollywood. At least not in one volume. So we came up with ideas that we thought would be interesting and new.”

At 350 pages, it is indeed an archive, full of fabulously obscure photos of just about everyone in old Hollywood--a Nancy Davis screen test, Rudolph Valentino making pasta, Bogie kissing his young son goodbye--as well as tales and remembrances from a wide range of Golden Age experts including Richard de Mille, son of Cecil; director Roger Corman, Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker, actress Fay Wray and Lassie star Jon Provost. The project took Calistro and Basten two years, and may be the last book Calistro authors.


“I’m done,” she says. “I love this book, but I’m done.”

“The Hollywood Archive” debuted right about the time “Vanity Fair’s Hollywood” came out, creating a little holiday-sales competition. And although Calistro says she wishes the timing had been a bit different, it proves the point she has been making for almost 10 years--Hollywood, in all its disparate glory, sells books.

“You would be amazed at the small-mindedness of publishers and bookstores,” she says. “Even in places like San Francisco. They’ll tell you Hollywood books don’t sell, then ask if you’ve got anything about Marilyn or Elvis, or James Dean. This is their idea of Hollywood. Those three people.”

Angel City Press was, in fact, born in defiance of such attitudes. Ten years ago, Calistro, a former fashion writer who worked at The Times among other places, and colleague Betty Goodwin co-wrote “L.A. Inside Out” (Viking, 1992). While shopping it around in New York, they were shocked at the disdain most publishers had for any project about or involving Los Angeles. And although Viking higher-ups said they were pleased with the book, Calistro says, the salespeople had no idea how to market it. “It sold about 5,000 copies,” she says. “We were devastated.”

Back in L.A., she and a few publishing friends convinced each other that they should start their own publishing house. Each ponied up about five grand and a year later published Goodwin’s “Hollywood Du Jour,” a collection of recipes from famous but defunct L.A. eateries including the Brown Derby, Cyrano’s and Romanoff’s.

“We knew the first book would focus on Hollywood and food,” Calistro says. “They were markets we had experience in, and we knew it would sell.”

They printed 2,500 copies and took them around, one box at a time, to local independent bookstores, who snapped the book up. “Book Soup put us in the window, Brentano’s put us in the window, and having a window in Brentano’s is the best you can do.”


An article in a local gift guide caught the eye of the cookbook purchaser for Waldenbooks, who happened to be in town, and soon the fledgling Angel City was shipping all over the country.

The success of “Hollywood Du Jour,” which has sold about 25,000 copies, took the creators of Angel City completely off guard. “We were selling copies out of the trunks of our cars,” Calistro says. “When we started dealing with the chains, reality set in.”

Reality included the fact that, for a small press, it is prohibitively expensive to print in the United States--Angel City books are printed in Hong Kong. And that most chain bookstores order books on a returnable basis--that is, what doesn’t sell, they simply return to the publisher, often a year later. Which makes tabulating real sales, and profits, a bit difficult.

But Angel City never had pretensions of being anything but what it is--a small press putting out interesting gift books. In fact, the book that followed “Hollywood du Jour” was “Cowboy Poetry,” and you don’t get much more non-blockbuster than that. “I had been at a storytelling festival,” Calistro says, “and the fact that this genre existed just fascinated me. So we went with it.”

In the ensuing years, several of the original partners allowed themselves to be bought out by Calistro and her husband. And as the press has gained some notoriety, writers have begun pitching her ideas. “I feel very committed to using local writers,” she says. “I want people who really understand Los Angeles and what we’re trying to do.”

Ideally, she says, she’d like to be putting out six or seven titles a year, and she may come close to doing that this year. Running a business out of one’s home has its advantages, she says, but it also means every call is potentially business and the workday is never officially over.


“But,” she says, “here I am eight years later with no end in sight. Unless,” she says with that lightest of laughs, “someone wonderful wants to buy us.”

Someone who believes in Los Angeles and the glamour of old Hollywood, who can quote a few lines of cowboy poetry, and who never, ever, ever spills coffee on a book they haven’t yet bought.