Small Wonders: The fragrance that lasts forever

Editor's note: While Patrick Caneday takes some time off, we’re running some of his choices for re-publication. This column was first published Jan. 9, 2010.

I caught the wife in bed with another man last week. I can't really blame her, though. It was Ernest Hemingway. I mean, who wouldn't? What did freak me out was Steinbeck, Maugham and Fitzgerald stacked up at the foot of the bed waiting for their turn.

It might be time to box up some of these old used books I've collected over the years.

There's just something about a used book store that I can't resist; the musty, dry fragrance of aging tomes. I imagine the hands that have touched them, absorbed them and passed them on. There's life in a used book store, rooted and time-honoring, that can't be found elsewhere. And for the last 20 years, my sanctuary of the scroll has been Brand Bookshop.

When I tell this to Jerome Joseph, the 81-year-old, boyishly energetic owner, he's pointed in his smiling reply: “We've been here for 24 years. Where were you the first four?”

There are local characters who add texture and color to their little corner of our world, none more so than Jerome. A conversation with this bookmonger is a bumper-car ride; you can't really figure out which way the cars are going or how to steer, but you sure enjoy the ride.

Ask him about the store or his childhood and you get back a staccato stream of consciousness en route to his final answer. And almost always the answer has something to do with politics, baseball or his favorite topic, Japan.

From his shop on Brand Boulevard, a former jewelry store, the gems he peddles are used and out-of-print books. And opinions. Opinions on just about everything.

On movies: “I'm tired of American movies. Lot of blood squirting, exploding automobiles and using the F-word every sentence for no purpose.”

But he highly recommends “Departures,” the Japanese film that won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2008. “If you don't like it, I'll refund your rental fee. I'll call you when you can rent it at Video Journeys. As long as I can call you collect.”

On Cuba: “The government, I think, is going to end the embargo before too long. Both parties were afraid to lose the vote in Florida, controlled by the anti-Castro Cubans. We talk about not trading with Cuba, but yet we sell them $700 million worth of agricultural goods over the last two years. How hypocritical can you be?”

On Afghanistan: “I think it's a mistake to go in strongly with a surge. Russia had 150,000 troops there, plus 100,000 Afghani troops, and they quit after 10 years. Why do we think we could succeed there?”

On religion: “I'm an agnostic. I'm convinced when you die, it's like going to sleep. There's no hereafter.” But he adds, “People who are sincerely religious have something that the other person doesn't have. I think they're happier than the one who takes the view that I do.”

And most importantly, the designated hitter rule: “I think it's an abomination.”

Explaining that he was born near St. Louis, he says, “My father bought me stock in the St. Louis Browns. I used to attend stockholder meetings. Do you remember the time Bill Veeck hired a midget to bat named Eddie Gaedel? I was there that day.” He practiced law in Missouri before moving to California some 50 years ago. After failing the California bar exam three times, he says, “I'd been out of school so long; it's the toughest bar around.” He finally gave up on law as a career.

“That's all right, I didn't have the love to practice law.”

After some years working in other people's book stores, he eventually started his own. And in used books, he finally found his place.

“I love what I do. My work is my hobby.”

Used book shops are falling victim to higher rents, corporate chains and the ease of Internet shopping. But Jerome attributes his staying power to a shop that is well organized and a staff that is personable and knowledgeable. That, and a loyal clientele.

“I wouldn't like a book store in a train station where you never see [your customers] again. Here you learn a lot from people.”

And what does this frenetic used-book guru read?

“I don't like fiction myself. The time I spend reading, I want to read something that's really happening.” That, and anything on Japan.

During his brief overseas deployment during the Korean War, he regretted not really seeing Japan. A few years later he returned, and that's when he met his now adopted son, Noriaki Nakano.

Jerome was sitting in a small-town restaurant trying to figure out how to order lunch. A college-aged man sitting at the next table offered help, and a friendship was born.

“He said he'd never met Americans he liked before, and would I mind corresponding with him.”

A couple of years later Noriaki came to the U.S. on a student visa and got his master's degree at Pepperdine.

Noriaki is now the manager of the shop.

“When I die I think he'll sell the place.”

Let's hope not.

“I'll quote something for you,” Jerome said, sharply turning our bumper car yet again. “The man in charge of the kamikaze corps was Admiral Onishi. Here's his death poem:

'In blossom today, then scattered. Life is so like a delicate flower. How can one expect the fragrance to last forever.'"

But some fragrances do last forever, and you won't find them on the Internet or at the mega-chains. And that's what I can't resist about used book shops.

PATRICK CANEDAY is a Glendale native who lives and works in Burbank. Stay in touch with him on Facebook, at and

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