Column: She always helped us find the right books. Now Chevalier’s and its patrons mourn her death
Elizabeth Clare Newstat was the manager of Chevalier’s Books on Larchmont Boulevard, a little haven of bookishness in Windsor Square.
For 15 years, I spoke to her once and sometimes twice a week at the store. I knew her taste in literature. I knew her sense of humor, what she’d read lately, what she was recommending.
But when she died last week at age 72, after complications from an aneurysm in February, I realized I didn’t even know her last name. She was just Liz to me.
Liz had short cropped hair. She dressed in black. She seemed never to have a day off. When she went out for coffee or to smoke, which she did about a thousand times a day, she favored a long, floor-sweeping black pea coat.
She exuded a kind of dark, rebellious vibe — the skull necklace, the black outfits, the obsession with intense and often brutal Scandinavian mysteries and with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoirs of family secrets and fears in Norway. I can only assume she frightened some customers off with the discouraging black T-shirt she often wore, quoting Herman Melville’s Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.”
Of course Liz had an outside life and a past. She had a son, Orson. But for me she was the living embodiment of the bookstore itself. She was eclectic, engaged, both amused and amusing, irreverent. You can’t get that at Amazon.
We all know the problems that have battered independent bookstores in recent years; Liz lived them. First there was the existential threat from Barnes & Noble and the other superstores. There was the 2008 recession, during which hundreds of small bookstores disappeared. There were rising rents, more competition from e-books and audio books, from video games and streaming TV. And above all, there was Amazon, which is estimated to account for as much as half of all print book sales in the country.
Chevalier’s was on its last legs when it was bought six years ago by attorney Bert Deixler and businessman-musician-historian Darryl Holter. It was remodeled, expanded and improved.
Liz kept the store going during some of its darkest hours, including a period before the change of ownership when the number of books for sale dwindled to the point that they had to be turned flat with their covers out to keep the shelves from looking bare.
Liz soldiered on, offering sage advice.
“Ignore the bad reviews. See for yourself,” she’d say.
Or: “Read it before the film comes out.”
Or: “Everybody loved it, but I thought it was awful.”
Deixler says he once saw her essentially refuse to sell a customer a trashy airport-style novel, “semi-forcing” him to upgrade his selection to something more literary.
She wrote at least one poem about the bookstore. It read, in part:
At work I get attached to strangers …
Who forget the author
Who forget the title
‘Begins with moon’
‘Begins with The’
‘Author is John’
‘Author is Jane’
Who buy a book by the cover
Who buy a book by the weight.
Since Liz died, her admirers have been sharing their memories, and it seems we all knew different pieces of her. According to her colleague Theresa Phung, when Liz started at Chevalier’s after leaving a career in the film business, she had a secret plan to make a documentary about the last days of a small bookstore. Instead, she became involved in saving it.
Dan Goor, a frequent customer, said she read books about physics and Weimar Berlin, as well as Japanese crime novels and books of poetry. Rob Faucette, another customer, said she told him she couldn’t bear Los Angeles when she moved here until she had learned to understand it by reading Raymond Chandler.
Amazon may sell every book there is, but it can’t do for readers what Liz and her colleagues can do at a small, well-curated store. All the “if you liked that book, you’ll like this book” algorithms in the world are not the same as browsing aimlessly through the shelves, perusing jacket copy, admiring cover designs, flipping through the pages of a new release and taking recommendations from a person who loves books as much as you do.
I get scared when I hear that Pasadena bookseller Vroman’s has warned that it will go out of business after 126 years if it does not increase sales significantly. Or that Chevalier’s — founded in 1940 — has seen sales fall 40% during the pandemic. The American Booksellers Assn. says 20% of independent bookstores are in danger of closing as a result of the pandemic.
Chevalier’s landlord has decided not to renew its lease, but the store is not giving up. It is moving across the street to 133 N. Larchmont, where the rent will be higher, but Deixler and Holter hope to make a go of it.
Liz Newstat did her part to keep the store alive, relevant and dynamic. “She had an anarchist streak,” said Holter. “She was like a sister and a comrade.”
When Doug Dutton closed his revered bookstore in Brentwood in 2008 after more than two decades, he summed it up this way: “It’s a crummy business but a wonderful life.”
I hope Liz felt that same sense of wonder in her life’s work, and that her memory lives on in a thriving bookstore in its new location across the street for many years to come.
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