A look at L.A.'s independent bookstore scene
When my first book was published, in 1990 by Milkweed Editions, I didn’t actually feel like a writer until I read at Dutton’s Bookstore in Brentwood. Opening the box of books, holding a copy up for my baby daughter to see while my then husband made fun of my author photo, I knew the whole time I wanted to go to Dutton’s.
I’d gone to hear Carolyn See read from a novel at the store, I’d driven 75 miles from Riverside, and in the palm-fringed courtyard surrounded by others who listened in reverence, I wanted to be that kind of writer. A literary writer who could capture a crowd of people who were already holding books, having prowled the shelves beforehand. I wandered the pathways between shelves after the reading, afraid to introduce myself to anyone who worked there because they seemed to know everything about books. I had never been in a bookstore like that before.
Then I was invited to read in 1990, and Doug Dutton not only shook my hand, he asked questions about my book, and Riverside, and how I’d come to write. He was there, hovering, a friendly face when I was so afraid of the people I’d always wanted to read to as they gathered in the narrow spaces where people gathered at Dutton’s.
Now I know why it felt like that. Independent bookstores are not just treasure troves for writers and readers because of the shelves filled with books that may be out of print or published by small presses, like Milkweed; they are the literary writer’s champion and hand-seller and friend. The independent bookstores around the nation where I go to read now on a book tour are oases of knowledge and goodwill, with owners and staff who know my work and the work of writers I admire. They are great places to give readings, because of their loyal customers and their quirky environments. (In fact, when I read at Elliott Bay in Seattle, many years ago, it was the first time I’d ever seen coffee in a bookstore, and look how that works now.)
Over the years, I’ve come to treasure our California independents for their beauty and individuality and their staffs. Skylight Books, where the audience always asks great questions and the crowd is cool and the bookstore cat seemed to be studying me (she passed away this year, sadly), where the magazine and journal selection is amazing. Vroman’s, which to me is like a many-roomed mansion of books where I can wander for a frightening amount of time, each section arranged so beautifully, and the staff picks are wonderful. Eso Won, where I was a white author reading in a black-owned bookstore and James Fugate merely smiled at the thought that this might be odd, where he introduced me to his Los Angeles readers who were passionate about local history and Bebe Moore Campbell waved at me, a major thrill. Libros Revolución, on a downtown street where passersby look curiously into the windows at the packed crowds of people listening to readings by writers who specialize in social protest.
But Dutton’s was the first independent bookstore I’d ever been in, and on that night when I read, I felt very L.A., even though I had to drive back to Riverside. I can’t believe we won’t be able to mingle in that courtyard and reach up to the top of those shelves and visit.
Here in Riverside, I have Imagine That!, which is our local independent, run by a mother and daughter who host readings for children and adults, who provide elegant cookies, and who fiercely promote the books they love through book clubs and that specialty of the independent -- the hand that reaches out, holding a novel, while someone says “You have to read this book.”
-- Susan Straight
I’ve been going to Skylight Books since before it was Skylight, since it was Chatterton’s and I lived around the corner. It’s a real neighborhood bookstore in that it’s a mirror of the neighborhood. You look at their bestselling fiction of last year, and there’s no “Kite Runner” on that list. There’s Miranda July’s story collection, Gina Nahai’s new book, and the 10th-anniversary edition of “Infinite Jest.” So the bookstore is a portrait of the neighborhood. I love that Skylight puts the ‘zines right up front, so you know I’m gonna buy some weird little hand-drawn thing for $3. I’ve gone there long enough to remember when Charles had long hair, or when Cecil hadn’t had anything in print. I love a bookstore that hires writers. They’re always pressing their favorites on you. They have fantastic readings there, very embracing of the full spectrum of literary life. Everything from James Ellroy -- where they must’ve had 300 people -- to MFA students. A tree grows right in the middle of the store, surrounded by a bench where you can triage armloads of books, only my favorite thing in the world. Of course, I adore their famous window displays, these odd themes, like “Everything that has a green cover.” It can lead to a really surprising juxtaposition of books.
-- Janet Fitch
What is it we love about a good bookstore? The selection? The intelligence of the sales people? The ambience? It’s those things, but I think it’s something else: I think a great bookstore is a place where you feel you can go to find your tribe, to be around people who make them feel, well, less alone.
They’re looking for their kin. The same is true with book lovers. We want to find our corner bar equivalent, a place where, if everyone doesn’t exactly know our name, at least they recognize and accept our particular obsession.
Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City might be vying for the title of smallest bookstore in the world, but what it lacks in space it makes up for with its passionate staff. Led by owner Julie von Zerneck, the team, including head buyer Lucia Silva, make thoughtful selections from the new and keep a strong collection of the old on hand, so that whenever you’re in need, there’s something there to grab your interest. It may not be the broadest selection in town, but the collection is wonderfully edited, and all the staff members love to talk books. The store is a little like the home library you wish you had filled with people who are as obsessed with books and reading as you are.
-- Marisa Silver
Eso Won Books: This small black bookstore, L.A.'s only one, is owned by James Fugate and Tom Hamilton. As a writer new to L.A. and at the time with mostly only poetry books published, I was greeted by name when I walked in. They recognized me from my author photo.
They knew every single title they had and could recommend L.A. writers to me such as Susan Straight and Steve Erickson along with Lisa Teasley and Wanda Coleman. The store, now in the heart of Leimert Park, has hosted readings by Amiri Baraka, Hugh Masekela, Walter Mosley, Johnnie Cochran, Bill Clinton and Patti LaBelle, among others.
You are likely to bump into Vanessa Williams, CCH Pounder or Forest Whitaker while browsing for books. James and Tom work really hard to reach out to often ignored young people, and the store is a favorite gathering place for the community.
Like Dutton’s, there are books everywhere -- shelves, piles on the floor, on tables, and like any independent store, it stocks famous and more obscure writers side by side and can tell you in an instant who they think you will like. It feels like home, like my childhood. It’s a book lover’s paradise. Go support them.
-- Chris Abani
Among several stores, I love Book Carnival in Orange. I’ve been signing there for 20 years. It’s a small, humble specialty store run by Ed and Pat Thomas, great readers and great folks. It’s a long, narrow store filled with posters, rare and collectible books, thousands of mysteries. It isn’t coiffed, but it’s got charm, and you can find what you’re looking for.
Last week I stumbled into Book Carnival half frozen from zero-degree days of touring in the Midwest, and there were a hundred people waiting to get “L.A. Outlaws” signed. They were lined up out the door. I recognized a lot of them, by face and name. My high school typing teacher -- who is very proud of having taught me to type -- always comes in and gets a book and heckles me a little. One time they ran out of books, so three or four of my fans piled into a car, zoomed up to Borders and bought a bunch of them there for those who didn’t get one. Some of my cop friends go there too. It’s a terrific place -- good will, good books, good people.
-- T. Jefferson Parker
I like the feel of Book Soup -- I like walking in and having this stop-frame avalanche of books. Somehow they manage to get 30,000 titles or whatever they have. It’s not endless aisles: It’s a manageable labyrinth. You can stop, pull a book down, read it, and hope someone doesn’t step on you. It lends itself to reading and browsing.
When you walk into a chain, you’re reminded that there are 100,000 books like yours published every year. When you walk into Book Soup, the party isn’t as crowded. For a moment you feel that there’s a manageable amount of books and that yours might have a chance among them.
They’re very good about putting out books you’ve thought about. When I go there I always see books I’ve never heard of, where I think, “Gee, I’d like to read that,” or in a few cases, I wish I’d had that idea. And when you go up to the counter, you can’t buy a book without a dozen worthy books in your line of sight saying, “Why aren’t you buying me?”
I always found the staff helpful, and when I had a book out they were always very kind to me -- they didn’t look at you with a fisheye. They said, “Here’s your book, and would you please sign stock?” and they put it in a nice place. Maybe they moved it five minutes later, but they were very nice to you when you were there.
-- Eric Lax
I received an informal PhD in literature at the IliadBookshop in the late 1990s. I remember the first day I walked off of Vineland Avenue into the shop in winter 1997: As soon as I saw the rugs, stuffed bookshelves, a shaggy dog, cats, dilapidated sofas, and the community of book freaks presided over by Bob and Dan, the last known book-druids living in Los Angeles, I knew I was at home. Wandering over to the “H’s” in “Fiction/Literature,” I found a beautifully scrofulous paperback of Hemingway’s collection “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” I opened it up, flipped through to “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Time passed; doors were opened; I was a different person when I finished the tale. I carried that paperback in my purse for the next six years and went back every weekend to the store to stock up on Faulkner, Woolf, Borges, Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Morrison, and many others. I have stood in the aisles of the Iliad and felt a happiness that is something like falling in love. Now the store has moved to 5400 Cahuenga Blvd. in North Hollywood. The shaggy dog has gone to Valhalla, but today there’s a crazy one-eyed cat that rules the realm and goes, I believe, by the name of Balzac. Give him a kiss for me when you see him. Bob too.
-- Yxta Maya Murray
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