Beloved L.A. book emporium the Iliad bounces back after a mysterious fire
The owner of the Iliad Bookshop showed up for work as usual in a ’60s-throwback tie-dye T-shirt that left no doubt of his status as a Deadhead.
Within a few minutes, Dan Weinstein had greeted half a dozen customers, some coming to show support and others still not aware of the mysterious fire that might have destroyed the bibliophiles’ haven in North Hollywood.
Business had returned to normal — maybe even a slightly supercharged normal — after a presumed arson attack left the Iliad’s gothic entry doors scorched and its revered owner mystified but also buoyed by his uncanny good fortune.
A passerby who saw the flames lapping at the building’s off-street entry around 11:20 p.m. Nov. 3 called 911.
“I don’t even know who that is,” Weinstein said. “I’d like to thank them.”
The call brought firefighters from a nearby station who quickly extinguished the flames, which by then had scorched the wooden floorboards behind the entry doors and the fascia boards above.
Weinstein said the firefighters told him the quick response prevented the fire from engulfing the building.
“A couple more minutes, my cats would have been dead,” he said. Those are Apollo and Zeus, the latest in a line of store mascots going back 35 years to the collie Jack, Iliad’s “first four-legged full-timer.”
Today, Apollo and Zeus were taking the day off, Weinstein said, while the doors were kept wide open to dissipate any latent smoke.
The reverence for a bookstore that has a gallery of four-legged mascots on its website and an owner who has dedicated his life to the Grateful Dead, along with books, manifested quickly when Weinstein set up a GoFundMe page asking for $5,000 to cover his insurance deductible. The response has topped $34,000, sparing him the need to file a claim at all, he said.
The cause of the blaze remains unknown. Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Erik Scott said it has been ruled undetermined.
Weinstein said he believes an arsonist started the fire. It appeared that books the store leaves outside for the community to browse were stacked in a pyramidal shape next to the entry door and lit, he said.
An inscrutable motive was suggested by 15 to 20 copies of a flyer Weinstein said he found taped to the sides of the building. It was a collage of conspiratorial references — the Irish and South African flags, a photo of the burned-out cabin where policeman-turned-killer Christopher Dorner died, an address of a nearby home, and a handwritten letter attributed to Alex Cox, a deceased figure in a complex family homicide case depicted in a Netflix documentary.
“It’s just all over the place,” Weinstein said. “It’s either the mind of a deranged person or just a false flag.”
He thinks the person responsible could have been one of those detained last month in a string of arsons in North Hollywood, or possibly someone evicted from the house in the flyer.
Despite early speculation of antisemitism, Weinstein has no reason to think the attack was directed at him.
“I don’t know anyone who would target us,” he said. “I don’t have any enemies except for the ex-wife. I try to run a clean business and don’t screw people over, and it shows after 35 years.”
From Lewis Carroll and his Cheshire Cat to forest nymphs cavorting near a guitar-wielding Jerry Garcia, the murals and 10-foot-high simulated books on the walls of the Iliad speak of a universalism that would not on its surface suggest a target of any ideology.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to burn down a bookstore other than just craziness,” he said.
Weinstein, 59, grew up amidst secondhand books, working in Hollywood Book City and Valley Book City, owned by his parents. He opened his own bookstore in 1987 at Vineland Avenue and Lankershim Boulevard next door to a video store called the Odyssey.
He said he couldn’t resist the idea of pairing the names of Homer’s two epics. Thus his store became the Iliad.
While his chain competitors were falling to competition from Amazon and cavernous secondhand stores were dying out, he thrived with a faithful customer base of buyers and sellers coming from all over the city.
With his stock growing, he moved to larger quarters in 2007, laid the floorboards and built the bookshelves that now hold about 150,000 volumes, with a reach of genre and subject to satisfy diverse tastes, and added furnishings that supply the ambiance of a Gertrude Stein salon.
In the reading area, Melody Strmel, who came with three friends to show their support, sat in a cushy chair digging into her two selections, a Middle-Eastern coming of age cyber-tech fantasy called “Alif the Unseen” and “Barn 8,” a satirical novel about corporate chicken farming which aligned with her environmental work in greenhouse gas emissions.
On the adjacent couch, Scott Silva perused a book on his lap while his friend Christiane Egbert, who had already picked out Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence,” was in a nearby aisle gathering an armful of Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries.
“Highbrow-lowbrow,” Silva mused.
“If you don’t have the big-L literature and the little-L literature, you only have half the alphabet,” Strmel added.
Matthew B. Tepper, a professorial figure relaxing, bookless, on the far couch, said he would probably pick a book before leaving but was fighting a bit of ennui.
“It’s just so much to choose from,” he said. “I often look for favorite authors, favorite subjects, stay connected to things I’ve already read and liked.
“For many years I was hunting down books by Isaac Asimov,” he continued. “Now I have them all, so what’s the point? Sometimes biographies. Criticism, I’m a musician by education. I look at the classical music books. Oh, and the Marx Brothers books.”
Like Tepper, Silva said he came to Iliad often. Not so his friend Egbert.
“This is my first time and I’m stoked that I found my favorite authors in bulk,” she said. “I like these bookstores, but you always go and never find what you’re looking for.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.