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Death Sentences book club reaches readers via Instagram and a streetwear store

Death Sentences book club reaches readers via Instagram and a streetwear store
The inaugural in-person meet-up of Death Sentences Reading Club at streetwear store The Hundreds. (Agatha French / Los Angeles Times)

In a storefront on Rosewood Avenue, a group of 15 people, most in their teens and early 20s, sit in a circle of folding chairs to talk about a book, racks of merchandise branded with the logo for the evening's venture as their backdrop. Rows of black T-shirts, baseball caps and hoodies proclaim in Gothic font the reason that they've gathered there — it's time for "Death Sentences Reading Club." Subheading? "Bound for Life."

Bobby Kim, better known as Bobby Hundreds, co-founder of cult L.A. streetwear brand and media platform The Hundreds, began his book club more than a year ago. It flourished online; Tuesday marked its first IRL meeting.

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"This is totally unlike any other event we throw," says Hundreds.

The crossover between the streetwear audience and books was something that took Hundreds himself by surprise. Hundreds, a taste-maker who often posts about skating, street wear, and travel on social media, noticed a particular level of audience engagement when posting about another one of his interests — books.

The Hundreds brand account has 375,000 Instagram followers and his personal account tops 169,000; Hundreds decided to share his reading recommendations.

"They trust me," he said of his followers and of the customers he connects with. Still, "the idea of doing a book club is so nerdy and foreign to my community," he said, that he gave it a hard-core (and pun-loving) name: Death Sentences. "It's like a gnarly band or something," he said.

Death Sentences Reading Club swag.
Death Sentences Reading Club swag. (Agatha French / Los Angeles Times)

Death Sentences Reading Club selections have included Patti Smith's "Just Kids" and Emma Cline's "The Girls," and The Hundreds brick-and-mortar shop stocks not only each month's book, but other recommended titles. (In a corner of the store devoted entirely to books, Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" and Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" share shelf space with "Back in the Days," a hip-hop fashion coloring book.

On the docket for the evening: Davy Rothbart's "My Heart Is an Idiot," with Rothbart himself in tow. How did Hundreds choose this title for the group's first in-person meeting? "Honestly, I just wanted to hang out with Davy," he said.

Rothbart, publisher of Found Magazine, contributor to "This American Life," Emmy-award winning filmmaker, and, yes, author, pulled cans of warm Rolling Rock from a backpack and shared them. Wearing a flat cap, "Crime Pays" tee and a pair of green high-top Dunks, he also handed out nips of whisky. As if in a Rothbart story, one of Rothbart's fingers was in a splint (he recently broke up a fistfight at Coles, he said) and he immediately set the group at ease by learning everyone's name like a party trick.

Rothbart read a short essay as well as a few submissions from Found Magazine, which is now also a podcast. (Rothbart will launch the second season at SXSW this week.) "Erica, the boys want to know, why are you going out with Nathan?" read one note found in a schoolyard, and Rothbart's obvious delight at found ephemera — specifically the raw, unaffected prose — was infectious. Of The Hundreds, Rothbart said, "I realized how similar it was to Found Magazine's beginnings … you're surprised that all these people are into it."

There was a casual harmony between the curated, subculture clothing and book club tropes like a carton of Trader Joe's Dunkers. There was also whiskey; Hundreds took a sip, wincing. "I'm awake now," he said.

Photo-copies from Rothbart's Found Magazine.
Photo-copies from Rothbart's Found Magazine. (Agatha French / Los Angeles Times)

When one reader asked how the digital revolution has affected the content of Found Magazine, Rothbart replied that a found item now might include an email sent to the wrong address or a text sent to the the wrong phone number. "As technology evolves, the way that you can find stuff evolves," he said.

At the Death Sentences Reading Club, the same lesson applied: Far-flung, absentee members left questions for Rothbart in Death Sentences' Instagram and Facebook comments; his answers were filmed via iPhone to post in response.

Some readers like Natasha Lopez de Arenosa chose to attend in person. "I'm really bad at [book clubs] because I'm a bit of an introvert," she said. "This was nice because it started off online. It made me a little more comfortable with coming here tonight."

Like Internet dating, Death Sentences offers a digital connection to test the waters before taking the plunge — ideal for cool-conscious introverts.

"Thanks to Bobby for being such a literary-minded dude," said Rothbart, as I heard the whir and clatter of skateboards just outside.

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Hundreds, who had a photographer there to document ("make sure you get a shot from across the street" he directed) offered attendees free Death Sentences branded clothing. (At first Lopez de Arenosa turned the swag down — she felt guilty taking free stuff — but a Hundreds employee cheerfully insisted.) By the time everyone had left, the shelves were bare, Rothbart left books for the store to sell and Hundreds seemed pleased with how the evening had unfolded. "I feel like I had a bond with people," said Hundreds. "Book people are really cool."

Davy Rothbart, left, and Bobby Hundreds pose in front of empty shelves after Death Sentences Reading Club merch was given away.
Davy Rothbart, left, and Bobby Hundreds pose in front of empty shelves after Death Sentences Reading Club merch was given away. (Agatha French / Los Angeles Times)
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