Newsletter: The indie bookstores are far from all right

Two women in masks browse bookstore aisles
Friends Abigail Boydston, left, and Robyn Kiyomi shop at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena this week. The bookstore has been in business since 1894 but may not make it through the year because of the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Oct. 9, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

It’s been an existentially challenging year for small businesses of nearly every stripe, and the independent bookstores of Los Angeles have been far from spared.

My colleague Dorany Pineda has been reporting on the travails of indie booksellers since the early days of the pandemic. She chronicled the hope and anxiety bookstores faced in the late spring, as the loosening of the shutdown order allowed them to reopen for curbside pickup, followed by the eventual return of modified indoor shopping. She’s also written about the lifeline that — an online bookseller whose goal is to offer financial support to independent bookstores — has provided for some local shops.

[See also: “Want to support an L.A. bookstore? Here are 24 to order from” in the Los Angeles Times]


The pandemic struck at a time when indie booksellers had begun to regain their stability after years of closures. “Before 2009, the number of indie bookstores was steadily declining in the wake of Amazon‘s explosive growth. But 14 years after the online retailer’s founding, the tide began to turn. Between 2009 and 2018, the American Booksellers Assn. reported a nearly 50% increase in the number of indie bookstores in the United States,” as Dorany explained in a recent story.

In recent weeks, Dorany has been writing about the pleas for support that a few well-known L.A. bookstores have issued, sometimes in the form of online fundraisers to keep their doors open. Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood and Angel City Books and Records in Santa Monica both started GoFundMe pages in the spring. Diesel, a small retail chain with locations in Brentwood and Del Mar that both face potential closures, started its own GoFundMe page last month.

[Read the story: “Brentwood’s Diesel bookstore launches a GoFundMe as more stores struggle through pandemic” in the Los Angeles Times]

“We hate, hate, hate the idea” of asking for donations, Diesel co-owner John Evans told Dorany, “so we resisted doing it.” But eventually they were left with no other choice. “We pushed ourselves into the position where we either have to do it or we have to close and go bankrupt.”

This week, Dorany has a new story about two more beloved indie bookstores asking their communities for support. Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village and Vroman’s in Pasadena don’t have online fundraisers, but they’ve both issued pleas that explain the precarity of their situations and outline the best ways for customers to help.

[Read the story: “Two more beloved L.A. indie bookstores reach an existential crossroads” in the Los Angeles Times]


In social media posts and letters to their mailing lists, Vroman’s and Chevalier’s urged customers to shop now if they’d like to be able to continue doing so in the future. Both stores emphasized the importance of the coming holiday season, with Vroman’s urging customers to shop in October and November before the December rush, particularly because they expect to see shipping and book printing delays as the year progresses. With distancing protocols in mind, they also urged in-person customers to shop “on weekday mornings, rather than busy weekends or afternoons.” Chevalier’s also offered a multiple concrete means of support for customers, including preordering forthcoming books, purchasing gift certificates and joining their membership program.

Joel Sheldon, Vroman’s chairman and a co-owner, told Dorany that the store had seen a tremendous spike in foot traffic and online sales since the store raised the emergency flare. But they are far from out of the woods. The Pasadena institution’s survival will hinge on the holiday season, a month that accounts for at least 20% of annual sales and contributes almost all the annual profit, according to its proprietor.

[See also: “Op-Ed: Buy from your independent bookstore now — or you may never be able to again” in the Los Angeles Times]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Further presidential debates this fall were uncertain Thursday after President Trump rejected a virtual format next week to protect people from his COVID-19 illness and former Vice President Joe Biden refused to postpone the third debate until days before the election. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco is facing its worst fiscal crisis in decades. Here’s the city’s broad-ranging 41-point plan for recovery, as put forth by its economic recovery task force. San Francisco Chronicle


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Take the ultimate L.A. road trip with Ed Ruscha: The Getty Research Institute launched an interactive database of more than 65,000 Ruscha photographs taken along Sunset Boulevard during 12 road trips between 1965 and 2007. Users can languidly “drive” along a Google-like map of Sunset, with panoramic imagery on both sides of the street or search for locations or objects, such as “Chateau Marmont” or “palm trees.” Los Angeles Times

A Sukkah transformed into a movie theater is screening the life stories of Jewish elders in an L.A. park. The filmmaker had been documenting oral histories from Jewish seniors before the pandemic hit, “but her project took on a new resonance in light of the dangers and loneliness that the coronavirus posed for them.” Hyperallergic

Did Anaheim get a fair price for the Angel Stadium property? A city-commissioned appraisal valued the property at up to $500 million. The sale price was $150 million in cash and another $170 million in credits. Los Angeles Times

Watts high school cuts association with promoter of eugenics but keeps partial name: Jordan High, a school that has graduated generations of Black and Latino students, will drop its association with David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford. Los Angeles Times


The Dodgers defeated the San Diego Padres to advance to the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. Los Angeles Times

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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden refused Thursday to say whether he supported increasing the size of the Supreme Court, staying mum on an idea gaining currency among Democrats who believe court vacancies have been unfairly filled by President Trump to solidify a conservative majority. Los Angeles Times

California school districts spurn Trump’s “back-patting” food box letter: The Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts both removed the letter, with L.A. citing possible Hatch Act violations and San Diego pulling the letter due to its soft mask-wearing advice. Sacramento City Unified issued its own letter alongside Trump’s in the food boxes, distancing itself from the president. Politico

The vice presidential debate drew more than 50.7 million viewers on Wednesday, a significant jump over the last meeting of running mates in 2016. Los Angeles Times

A quadrant of photos
The stars of Wednesday’s highly-rated show, clockwise from left: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Vice President Mike Pence, moderator Susan Page of USA Today and the fly that rested on Pence’s hair for more than two minutes during the vice presidential debate.
(Associated Press)

California expats are helping turn Texas into a battleground state: Pushed by the soaring cost of living, more than 700,000 Californians have moved to the Lone Star state since 2008. CalMatters


A plot to storm the Michigan state capital, kidnap the governor and put her on trial for “uncontrolled power” revealed Thursday how brazen far-right armed extremists groups have become in recent years at striking out against the government and those they hold in contempt for perceived threats against their liberties. Los Angeles Times


A skilled nursing home in Santa Cruz County is suffering a severe outbreak of COVID-19, with 61 people having tested positive and nine dead, a county health spokeswoman said Thursday. Los Angeles Times


California Pizza Kitchen “canceled an auction to sell itself after no buyers bid for the company, making its bankers the likely new owners.” Amid pandemic uncertainty (and a much longer slump for casual dining chains), lenders are having a hard time unloading distressed and bankrupt restaurants. Bloomberg

Rescuing a derelict cruise ship isn’t a project for everyone. But dreamers, dropouts and other unconventional sorts have long found their way to the California delta’s watery frontier. San Francisco Chronicle

“Micro weddings” sweep the California desert: Palm Springs hotels that were once packed with hundreds of guests for weekend destination weddings are putting together new elopement and “micro wedding” packages for couples. Desert Sun


California Sunday Magazine, a home for long-form journalism focused on the West, is ceasing publication and will lay off much of its staff after its billionaire backer severed ties. Los Angeles Times

A poem to start your Friday: “The Red Poppy” by Louise Glück, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 75. San Diego: partly sunny, 73. San Francisco: partly sunny, 66. San Jose: partly sunny, 71. Fresno: sunny, 78. Sacramento: partly sunny, 75. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Kato Cooks:

In 1961, when I was 11 years old, I sold the Los Angeles Herald Express (later to become the Herald Examiner) on the corners of Florence and Main, Florence and Broadway, and Florence and Avalon. For a short period, I also sold the Los Angeles Mirror, but it could not break the stranglehold that the Herald product held on the afternoon-drive traffic. During the lulls in traffic, I found satisfaction in reading the paper, front to back, which helped me excel in my social studies classes at Muir Junior High.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)


Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.