This story is part of Lit City, our comprehensive guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles.
Rows of Indian laurel fig trees line the streets of Los Feliz Village, home to a historic cluster of locally owned cafes, bars, restaurants, boutique clothing stores — and a flagship bookstore. Squeezed between a neighborhood movie theater and a children’s clothing shop, a giant sign reading “Books” stretches skyward.
Skylight Books opened Nov. 1, 1996, replacing beloved Chatterton’s Bookshop after the death of its owner-founder, William Koki Iwamoto. Ever since, Skylight has served as an anchor to a rapidly changing neighborhood, just as Chatterton’s did for 20 years, alongside its older next-door neighbor, the Los Feliz 3 theater.
Whereas indie bookstores in L.A. and beyond have been continually imperiled by blockbuster chains, Amazons, recessions and now a pandemic, Skylight is among those that have withstood the test of time. In a recent survey sent out by The Times asking writers about their preferred stores, Skylight was a popular favorite.
A guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles: A comprehensive bookstore map, writers’ meetups, place histories, an author survey, essays and more.
Their secret? Resilience and adaptability, for starters. “The bookstores that have made it have learned some really valuable lessons each time,” said Mary Williams, the bookstore’s co-owner and general manager. “The ones that are left are stronger than ever. … We’re constantly evolving to dodge the next threat.”
According to the American Booksellers Assn., 215 bookstores opened last year as the pandemic raged; 41 closed. And although 2021 was the biggest year in sales for many bookstores including Skylight, staying alive is a ceaseless struggle.
“Independent bookstores are still experiencing an increase in costs, labor shortages, supply chain issues and uncertainty in an industry notorious for its already-thin margins,” said Allison Hill, ABA’s chief executive officer. “The joke goes, ‘How do you make a small fortune in the book business? Start with a large fortune.’”
Family Books, the idiosyncratic bookseller on Fairfax Avenue, was among L.A.’s COVID-19 casualties last year. And after nearly five years in business, Santa Monica’s Book Monster closed for good this month.
For Kerry Slattery, Skylight’s retired co-founder and general manager, failure was never an option. “I never had any doubt that we would succeed,” she said. “... It was unconditional.”
It helps to start with ample funds and draw a lot of attention. In the mid-1990s, when Slattery’s former acting teacher approached her to help create and run a bookstore, she knew she had a big job ahead of her. She brought on board 10 investors (from actors Jeffrey Tambor and Tony Danza to a geologist and a retired English teacher), launched a fundraiser to raise $200,000 and began plotting a robust and public opening.
At the time, the looming threat was Barnes & Noble, which she feared might establish a Los Feliz beachhead. “So we have to make a name for ourselves fast,” she remembers thinking. “And that was the goal.”
Slattery assembled a staff of knowledgeable and committed book lovers, selected a mix of books for the eccentric artistic community residing in the Los Feliz Hills, picked the brains of local booksellers and established relationships with local businesses and the Los Feliz Branch Library.
Day and night, the small staff of about six unpacked, shelved and displayed books for opening day. Word spread fast of the new neighborhood bookstore, and much to their surprise, they had a respectable first day of sales.
For two years, the storefront on Vermont Avenue that housed Chatterton’s bookstore, beloved in Los Feliz for its vast collection of beat poetry and obscure books, lay fallow.
Having tested the waters, it was time to make a splash. Their grand-opening weekend later that November featured readings and performances from luminaries such as poet Wanda Coleman, novelist John Rechy and the bassist Flea.
Ever since, a rotating roster of heavy hitters has helped maintain Skylight’s momentum — including readings and book launches starring Patti Smith, Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers. Sprinkled among these names have been local authors who have become part of the store’s mutual support system.
In response to The Times’ survey, L.A. writers hailed Skylight for its events program and curated displays, for supporting local writers and small presses, for its unique selections and savvy staff.
“I love going into the Annex and asking the guy behind the counter, ‘What is something new and weird?’” wrote “Gangster Nation” author Tod Goldberg. “And then the guy slides onto the floor and hands me something like the zine ‘A Field Guide to the Aliens of Star Trek’ by Joshua Chapman, which then sits in my house for a decade, houseguests picking it up and disappearing for an hour.”
Lance Alspaugh, the owner of Vintage Cinemas group, which includes Los Feliz 3 theater, praises the store’s curatorial savvy. “They have what I would consider to be the more gourmet stuff,” he said. “They’re selective of what they offer to the community, which I think is what the audience is looking for.”
Williams, the co-owner, confirmed that the staff’s selection is frequently dictated by customer requests. “One area where we’ve tried to really grow is to bring in things you can’t find anywhere else.”
Among those local regulars is Chris Pine. Over the years, the “Wonder Woman” heartthrob has been spotted leaving Skylight with stacks of books. The paparazzi recently photographed him showing off his purchases, spines out, among them the lush photo collection “Los Angeles Standards” by architects Caroline and Cyril Desroche. Sales for the book went up, said Williams.
The Books: Curated display of “Newly Translated Literature” and an eclectic selection of books on Los Angeles and California history and culture. Check out the Arts Annex two doors down for limited-run comics, zines and more.
The Customers: Tourists, locals, writers, former locals who miss their neighborhood bookstore, North Vermont passersby.
Testimony: “I love checking out the Los Angeles history. They also have good philosophy, anarchy, weird psychedelic drug trip stuff that I’m always interested in.” — Erik Bartz, 36, Palm Springs, with a copy of “Native Intoxicants of North America” tucked under his arm
In the beginning Slattery didn’t take much of a salary, she said. “I was willing to do whatever it takes for the store to make it.” The business thrived, and in 2008 it opened the Arts Annex two doors down to house art books, many of them imported or limited-run.
For the first time, the store was caught flat-footed. The expansion was followed swiftly by the Great Recession.
“I feel like I used the same 25 paper clips for three years,” said Steven Salardino, who’s worked at Skylight since it opened. “I just kept recycling them. You had to pinch pennies no matter what.”
The next several years were challenging, but in retrospect, the expansion was one of the best decisions the shop could’ve made, said Slattery. “None of us were making big bucks, of course — all were committed to the long-term life of the store.”
The Annex has turned out to be a major asset — a treasure trove of odd, unexpected and serendipitous finds, from Iranian sports magazines to a booklet of Madonna fan art that was rescued from a landfill.
When Slattery retired in 2014, she passed the baton to Williams, who became the general manager and eventually took her share of the ownership.
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“We’ve gone this far, and we’ve done it in a way that we keep getting smarter,” said Salardino. In addition to steady ownership and savvy management, he also cited the location as “part of the magic of our success.” Chatterton’s was locally popular and Skylight stepped right into its shoes. As Los Feliz has mutated through the years, from a scruffy and diverse neighborhood into its more sleek and gentrified successor, one of its few reassuring constants is the bookstore around the corner.
“Sometimes it feels like everything changes around Skylight,” said Salardino. “There was a bookstore there for 20 years before we were there, and it feels like we’ve taken over an anchor or hub of that area … like everything circles out from us.”
Inside, the bookstore wears its maturity proudly. A large ficus tree, as old as the bookstore itself, stands in the middle, its branches reaching up to the ceiling. The bench surrounding it bears a sticker that reads “Franny’s Spot,” where Franny, the store’s stoic, elusive 13-year-old tortoiseshell cat, sometimes likes to sit.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Erik Bartz browsed through the “Los Angeles & California” shelves, among his favorites in the store.
The 36-year-old Palm Springs resident makes it a point to visit Skylight at least once a month when he’s in town visiting his girlfriend, Grace Hoffman. He’s a big fan of its book recommendations, citing its display of “Newly Translated Literature” as an example.
“I love checking out the Los Angeles history. They also have good philosophy, anarchy, weird psychedelic drug trip stuff that I’m always interested in,” he said, a copy of Sean Rafferty’s “Native Intoxicants of North America” tucked under his arm.
Nearby, Hoffman, 28, browsed the fiction section. A playwright, she’s always impressed by its selection of harder-to-find plays.
“This is our favorite bookstore in L.A.,” she said. “It’s one of our spots.”
Hill, ABA’s CEO, said being beloved certainly doesn’t hurt a bookstore’s fortunes, but “business acumen, innovation and creativity, persistence, a good lease and cash” are just as critical.
“And, of course, community support is key — not just loving your independent bookstore, but spending your money there,” she added. “That’s what keeps them in business.”
Fifteen years ago, Salardino couldn’t say with confidence that the bookstore would survive. Now he can. “Something about all those bricks and all that wood in there — the tree — there’s something there that makes Skylight seem almost permanent.”
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