In a glass case at the front of Bookfellows used bookstore in Glendale, a plush kitten once owned by Ray Bradbury is displayed beside a bottle of dandelion wine, and an autographed photo of Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen and Forrest J. Ackerman all together on the same stage. Next to that is a brick — one recovered from the ruins of the late author’s house after it was demolished.
One has to wonder if anyone will save a brick from Bookfellows when it no longer exists. The staircase in the back is a treasure trove of autographs from famous authors who’ve dropped by, from Mickey Spillane to Alan Young. Bradbury, disappointed that Harryhausen hadn’t drawn a dinosaur when he signed, drew a rough doodle of one next to the legendary animator’s name to put things right.
Soon it will be painted over, or even removed. At the end of July, Bookfellows is closing.
The customers who enter now to buy out the last remaining inventory at 70% off are often tearful, reminiscing about their memories of in-store events. One recalls playing the theremin here, in celebration of Ackerman’s birthday. Others talk about how they achieved their doctorate buying used textbooks from the store.
There aren’t as many of them as there used to be, says owner Malcolm Bell. “A lot of the regulars move out of the area, because a lot of them come from the film industry, and they see opportunities or they have to go to cheaper places to live. So we’ve lost a lot, but we still have quite a few. We get new customers; just not enough of them.”
Bookfellows opened in 1999, the culmination of Bell’s longtime goal to run a full-fledged store, as opposed to some of the smaller places and mail-order businesses he’d had before. Initially, the place thrived. Bradbury became such a huge fan that he actually petitioned Bell to change the name to the Ray Bradbury Bookstore. In the end, the author settled for having over 20 events there in his honor. Guillermo del Toro would frequently put on events there every time he heard the Bells weren’t doing well.
But times change. “The biggest downturn was the Americana [at Brand] coming in, because it killed all this side of the boulevard,” Bell says. “You just don’t have the traffic like we used to have — the walk-by traffic and things. When we first opened here, we were open 12 hours a day. At the height of it, our experience here, we had 10 employees at one time, and we were open 12 hours a day. And we’ve just seen that, as employees left, we just didn’t replace them. Now it’s really only two of us running the shop” — his wife Christine is the other one — “and we’ve been doing it for too long. It’s too much, it’s too much.”
He also allows that people don’t read as much as they used to, but unlike so many other pundits, he doesn’t blame the TV. “They don’t have the time,” he says, knowing of what he speaks. “They have to work the long hours, you know...I find that after putting in a day, I read about three pages and I’m out.” In an email, Bell’s wife Christine suggests we’re losing more than just bookstores as a result: “It is my belief that if people of the world regularly read fiction — there would be no wars — due to the empathy gained by reading inner thoughts in novels. I have noticed over the years that all of our regular customers are more considerate and accepting of differences.”
The Bells put a lot of care into every book they sell, adding to their labor hours but never increasing the prices as a result. “Basically the first thing that you want to do is remove the dust and dirt and anything internal — bookmarks, or anything like that,” he explains. “You use an eraser — a good, solid, quality eraser to remove old prices. But the biggest process is you clean the dust jacket, which you can use. We use just Simple Green or something. You wash it, dry it, and then you just put one of these Brodarts [covers] on there, which really protects it — the Brodart company. We Brodart every book, and we clean every book, which is very time consuming, but it made a difference, I think.”
Now, he says, “both of us are getting a little older, and I think we need more free time...we haven’t had a vacation in 25 years. We’re looking forward to that.”
Neither Bell has any intention of retiring fully; they will switch the book business to online-only, at mysteryandimagination.com. “It’s woefully out of date right now, but now I’ll have some time to bring it up to date,” says Bell. And asked if he’ll take any books on vacation with him, Malcolm laughs and exclaims, “Of course!”
He’s hopeful that the bookstore industry will not go completely extinct after he’s out of it, and offers this advice to anybody who would follow in his footsteps: “I think more and more people are going to discover used bookstores as a valuable community cultural center, but it can’t support too many right now. The ones that are surviving, most of them own their buildings.”
What: Bookfellows Fine & Rare Books closing sale
Where: 238 N Brand Blvd, Glendale
When: Through July.
More info: (818) 545-0121
LUKE Y. THOMPSON is a writer based in Toluca Lake.