Op-Ed: Great bookstores? In L.A.? You bet.
If anyone had told me before I moved to Los Angeles that it was a city of great bookstores, I would have said they were nuts. I grew up haunting the bookstores along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Moe’s. Cody’s. Shakespeare & Company, all within spitting distance of one another. I thought the only true advantages of living in Los Angeles were the abundance of parking spaces and the 24-hour grocery stores. Bookstores? C’mon.
But that was then. Now I know better. I started to wise up on my morning commute from Mid-Wilshire to Beverly Hills in the 1980s. There was a small used bookstore on 3rd Street called Pik-A-Book. The proprietor, Harry Bierman, bought books from estates. You’d open a book and find Charles Laughton’s bookplate in it. What’s more, Bierman was an early riser, so he’d have the store open at 8 a.m.
Pik-A-Book was a light into the idiosyncratic world of used bookstores, which, upon further investigation, I discovered proliferated in Los Angeles. But like most things here, these literary arks were scattered hither and yon. You had to search them out during trips to Long Beach, North Hollywood and all points in between. There was an untold wealth of great independent bookstores in the city, providing you knew where to look.
The one commonality among these bookstores seemed to be that they were owned and operated by militant nonconformists. Smokers. Cat owners. Curmudgeons. Every stripe of eccentricity. And their domains ran the gamut from fastidious collections of glass-cased first editions to questionably perfumed, ill-lighted rooms of disarray.
Regardless of the environs, browsing in these places was nothing less than an adventure. Red, the proprietor of Baroque Books in Hollywood, once asked me whether I was going to buy anything. When I said, “I don’t know,” he told me, “Then get out.” I left, but the eviction didn’t stop me from going back.
As a business, the book trade seems precarious at best, especially the used-book business. It hinges on the idea that people want to own a book and then have time to read it. Today these ideas seem quaint. It’s not that people are reading less but that reading seems more “information”-driven. Tweets. Emails. Online ratings.
Also, the way we buy books is different. It’s so convenient to buy online. Even with the cost of mailing, books are cheap on the Internet, and you can find everything. And with e-books your entire library can be available on a single device.
My problem with buying online or downloading an e-book is that I miss the chance discoveries one makes in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Yes, we are constantly reminded while shopping online that people who bought Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel” might also enjoy A.J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science.” Helpful. We can even read first chapters of books on our e-readers.
But what about the experience of looking in a bookstore for Chekhov stories and finding that some prior patron has left Don Carpenter’s “Hard Rain Falling” open on a shelf? You skim it. 1929 to 1960. Street kids in Portland. Pool hustlers. San Quentin. An ex-con in San Francisco. Do gifts like that happen online as well?
So I’m sorry to report that Brand Bookshop in Glendale, opposite the Alex Theatre on Brand Boulevard, is closing its doors this fall after 29 years in business. Its proprietor, Jerome Joseph, and his adopted son, Noriaki Nakano, created one of the true gems of the Los Angeles bookstore scene. Huge (100,000 books), clean, well-ordered, open 12 hours a day, staffed by bibliophiles, classical music playing on the sound system, Brand Bookshop was the Los Angeles used bookstore at its best. It had an usually deep collection. At one time it had the largest selection of books on bullfighting I’d ever seen. But that said, Joseph is in his 80s, has had health problems and can no longer commute from his home in Mt. Washington, and so, by the end of September, the store will be no more. And Los Angeles will lose another great independent bookstore.
Will Brand Bookshop be missed? Sorely. Is the independent bookstore in Los Angeles finally going the way of all flesh? Not so fast. There’s something very heartening about walking into the Last Bookstore, a converted bank at 5th and Spring streets downtown. It’s crammed with both old and new books. Shelves upon shelves of volumes, commingled with chairs and couches where one can sprawl and read unperturbed until closing. And it gets better. On the second floor, there is a labyrinth of titles on every subject imaginable, and their unifying principle is that they each cost $1. I’ve found Robert Benchley up there, as well as Penelope Fitzgerald and Lion Feuchtwanger. Divine revelations can and do happen there.
On a recent visit, I asked the clerk, “How are you doing?” And he said, “Do you mean me or the bookstore?” That’s a good sign: The spirit of the indie bookseller is still alive and biting in Los Angeles.
John McCormick is a Los Angeles writer.
Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.