This story is part of Lit City, our comprehensive guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles.
Bookstores are wide open again — the booksellers busy selling, the customers browsing and the house cats doing their thing. In March, staff writers Dorany Pineda and Christi Carras visited 10 shops around town with a photographer in tow — from a romance bookshop in Culver City and a Black-owned store at the Westfield mall to the Central Library and establishments serving cookbook obsessives, design geeks and others. In the gallery below, customers, employees and owners talk about their favorite shops, books and reading nooks and share what they love about bookish Los Angeles.
THE RIPPED BODICE
“Not all romance even has sex, but most of the books that we sell do, and we’re trying to promote a very positive environment where it’s something that’s talked about openly and without judgment, and where there’s a real variety represented — obviously with gender and sexuality,” said Leah Koch, co-owner of the Ripped Bodice. The Culver City bookstore specializing in romance literature celebrated its sixth anniversary in March.
“We also have a nonfiction sexual health and wellness section. ... If you’re going to read about it, some of those people might be interested in bringing various aspects into their real life. So we want to make sure people have resources for that.”
“I love the bathroom, weirdly enough,” said Katherine Zofrea, a 27-year-old sales associate at the Ripped Bodice, when asked about her favorite feature of the Culver City bookstore.
“We have sticky notes available, and so it’s absolutely covered in sticky notes that have ... words of encouragement, people talking about their favorite books, people being like, ‘Hi, from’ wherever they’re from. It’s really interesting.”
A guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles: A comprehensive bookstore map, writers’ meetups, place histories, an author survey, essays and more.
DES PAIR BOOKS
”Des Pair started in New York with a friend of mine,” says Addison Richley, 28, the owner of the Echo Park shop. “We’d both transferred from the Beverly Hills Gagosian to the New York location, so we were new to the city and didn’t have many friends. ... We wanted to start a press where we could publish writers that weren’t getting attention.” They were “also selling beautiful copies of books on the weekends that we’d found on the streets of Brooklyn, just for fun. I eventually started thinking about Des Pair as an actual career, and it didn’t feel like there was much room for what I had in mind in New York — it was already pretty strong there. So I came home to L.A. and carved out a little corner for the shop here.”
“It’s got a good selection, a lot of smart books,” said Elliott Hostetter, 42, a browser from Altadena. “I like that it’s well curated. It seems like there are very specifically chosen books, like you can read any book and it’s going to be great.”
“We’ve got all these beautiful children’s books because children are 100% of our future. ... We can inspire the youth and the young to want to read and appreciate reading,” said Malik Muhammad, who co-owns Malik Books with his wife, April Muhammad.
“We know that the first thing a person does when they look at a picture, they look for themselves. Why? Because self matters. ... So we want people to love themselves, but more important: They gotta see themselves.”
Of their decision to open a Culver City branch of their 32-year-old Baldwin Hills bookshop during the COVID-19 pandemic, April Muhammad said, “It was time. We wanted to focus on more of the children for their self-esteem. So we said, ‘Well, what are we waiting on? We can’t have the pandemic put a stop sign. ... Let’s do it.’ And we did it.”
“I will really read anywhere,” said Imani-Kelai Sumter, a 22-year-old barista from Inglewood who frequents Malik Books. She gravitates toward the young adult corner of the shop, having graduated from the children’s section — which kick-started her love for reading. “I read on my lunch break at work. I read in my car. ... If I decide to sit down in the mall, I’ll just sit down in no particular spot. I like to sit in the sun, though. So, if I can find sun, I’ll read in the sun.”
White-owned stores like Small World seek ways of promoting new voices, while Black-owned shops like Reparations Club tackle increased demand.
“When we first opened in 2017, I had this idea that if just the chefs and the cooks and the restaurant industry bought into what we were doing, that was going to be enough,” said Now Serving co-owner Ken Concepcion, 48. “But the pleasant surprise has been that people who love books, especially cookbooks, are just excited about any new bookstore. ... When people come in now, after being online-only, they’re really excited to come into the physical space. They’ll say, ‘I ordered a few books during the lockdown, and I’m so glad to come and visit.’ That’s great encouragement.
“We’re really looking for a mix of titles that speak to the L.A. community but also bringing in books that will be relevant on people’s shelves at home or at work five, 10, 15 years from now. While we definitely acknowledge trends, and because the shop is so small, we try to curate titles and authors and subject matter that will last and hopefully feel timeless.”
VILLAGE WELL BOOKS & COFFEE
“When I go back to D.C. and visit stores, I’m always surprised at how all these nerdy political books are right up front in a way that you don’t see in L.A. bookstores,” said Jennifer Caspar, owner of Village Well Books & Coffee, who moved from Washington, D.C., to L.A. in 1997. Village Well opened its doors at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic after launching as a website in May 2020.
“When I moved here, I thought, ‘Oh, the East Coast is all about the brain, and the West Coast is all about looks.’ But, obviously, you spend time here and you realize that you have both in both places. They’re just showcased differently.”
“When I read and not at home, I’m at the beach or I am actually at Starbucks,” said Maribel Haines on a weekday afternoon in Culver City, where her kids go to school. The 43-year-old human resources professional from Baldwin Hills had been working remotely at Village Well since 8 a.m.
“When I’m doing work, I don’t go to Starbucks. I like places like this — local mom and pop places.”
Village Well Books & Coffee opened in L.A.’s worst pandemic month, on a famously doomed corner. For owner Jennifer Caspar, it was all a lucky break.
LOS ANGELES CENTRAL LIBRARY
“First of all, they have a real children’s section versus a corner in a regular library where everyone is shushing your children all day,” said Unique Mills, 38, visiting the Los Angeles Central Library with her daughter from West Adams. “I love this library. It’s huge, and I’m a bibliophile so I like sitting around books all day. ... It’s got seven floors, a bibliophile’s dream. It’s an architect’s dream as well. You feel like you’re standing in the Sistine Chapel before you come into the children’s section.”
“I really like the size and diversity of the collection,” said Aubrey Stark-Miller, 35. “I’ve also been noticing who uses the space, and I really love libraries as a community space — spaces that are open and accessible to anyone and everyone. ... I really like the central atrium area. I’m a huge history nerd, so I very much like the lowest level with the history books.”
HENNESSEY + INGALLS
“The selection they have here, the staff, the people — I like coming and checking out the books here,” said David Dickinson, 42, of Culver City about Hennessey + Ingalls. “There’s not many bookstores that have an extensive art selection like this, especially with bookstores declining. It’s harder to find material like this. I just started getting into generative artificial intelligence art, so I’m looking for stuff that I haven’t seen before.”
“I went to this bookstore when it was in Santa Monica, and it’s very interesting,” said Fortunato Revilla, 75, during a visit from Seal Beach. “They cover a lot of subjects, especially art, and I find a lot of interesting things. I can spend a lot of time here and find reference books that I use for my hobbies — drawing, painting. I’m retired, I was a construction inspector for the city of Los Angeles. I like to draw people, so I’m looking at pictures of people that I can draw. ... Life is not easy, but this hobby helps me through these different times in life.”
SMALL WORLD BOOKS
“Eastside is definitely a little more stuck-up,” said Cody Lee, an employee at Venice Beach’s Small World Books, when asked about literary culture in L.A. “But it seems like they are stuck-up for a reason. It seems like they have some bit of info that Westsiders don’t. But they’re also — and I’m generalizing here, super generalizing — but it seems like they lack the ... beachy mentality. It’s like they’re living in New York, but in California.”
While sharing a laugh with his co-workers, Lee later added, “I feel like all people that read are pretentious. Like, literature itself is a very pretentious thing. Just wanted to clarify.”
Malcolm the cat, official mascot of Small World Books, declined to comment on the literary culture of Los Angeles.
“I live right by the biggest national park in Denmark ... so I like to go there to read,” said Sander Karabagega Svenningsen, who is currently into Frank Herbert’s “Dune” after finishing Sally Rooney‘s “Normal People.” “It’s right by the ocean, so it’s very nice.”
The 21-year-old sports science student from Thy, Denmark, visited Small World on a road trip across the United States that included stops in Massachusetts, Florida, North Carolina and New York.
ANGEL CITY BOOKS & RECORDS
“I’ve had people coming in here with their parents when they were 10 years old, and now they’re still coming in after college,” said Rocco Ingala, who has owned Angel City Books & Records for 24 years. “That’s exciting that I’ve been here long enough to see that much history happen before my eyes.”
STORIES BOOKS & CAFE
“I started coming to Stories because of the pandemic,” said Emilia Shaffer-Del Valle, 28, visiting from East Hollywood. “They have Wi-Fi and books, and everyone is very chill, and I felt like I could stay and focus and do my work. ... On a super basic level, it has coffee and food, which is super nice, and this big, beautiful outdoor space — and I’ve only felt comfortable being outside in the past two years. I also feel like their awareness of their place in a community that’s been gentrifying rapidly — that awareness and attempt to support communities that have been here much longer than a lot of other folks is something that I value.”
“I started coming here about seven years ago,” said Taylor Wentworth, 31. “This has been my go-to coffee spot, and this week I started coming back here, and people were, well, doing this [smoking weed in the back]. I find it’s a good place to unwind and paint. Bob Ross painted happy little trees, and I’m painting depressing little monsters.
“This place also has $5 beer, which, for Sunset Boulevard, that alone is pretty great. For those of us who aren’t cocktail people, having a place that has $5 beer and that also has coffee and chamomile tea, it’s a good place if you’re trying to wean yourself off of something. ... [It] has good books, good coffee, good vibes, an environment of acceptance, as far as I can tell. That’s why I keep coming back.”
After a brutal year of economic uncertainty, booksellers in L.A. are expecting a full recovery. But the June 15 reopening is reigniting safety concerns.
Sign up for our Book Club newsletter
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.