I spent all night at the Last Bookstore. Things got spooky

Bookshelves are illuminated inside a darkened store.
The main lights were shut off around midnight at the Last Bookstore, once everyone on a sleepover retreated to their respective air mattresses and sleeping bags.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

It was 1 a.m. and I was lying on an air mattress at the Last Bookstore in downtown L.A., listening to the muffled sounds of Pitbull playing from a bar inside the building and trying to ignore the enticing smell of “danger dogs” wafting through an open window.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up for one of the first ever sleepovers at California’s largest new and used bookstore. I had vague hopes of staying up until sunrise, reading and exchanging slumber party-esque gossip with strangers, all while surrounded by the highly-Instagrammed book tunnel and book sculptures that fill the former bank building.

The shop’s unmistakable decor and dedicated fans are part of why Josh Spencer, who created the bookstore in 2005 and later moved it to its current 22,000-square-foot-space on the corner of Spring and 5th streets, decided to host sleepovers there during the first half of April.


An interior view of a very large bookstore.
Hollie Hopf and Kendall Vanderhoof read downstairs as Reanna Cruz reads upstairs in the Last Bookstore’s art gallery.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

After spending a night with his family last year sleeping near the dinosaurs at the Field Museum in Chicago, Spencer realized that he could make some book lovers’ dreams come true.

“People are always mentioning wanting to sleep in the bookstore,” he recalled thinking. “Maybe we should try this there.”

To test it out, he launched “spring break sleepovers” as a 21-and-over experience. A standard spot was priced at $195 per person, but the most popular spots in the store, including the book tunnel, the horror vault, the classics vault and “the portal,” were $500 for two people.

“We started a little high this time just to see what the interest was basically,” Spencer said. “We’re definitely gonna have some lower price points, maybe for the family ones to try to get more kids or bigger groups.”


Over the course of two weeks, Spencer said that about two dozen people signed up. The night I slept over, nine people stayed at the bookstore: one couple in the horror vault; two friends in the tunnel; another couple in the comic book section; my partner, Reanna Cruz, and I; and Richard Powell, the store’s loss prevention manager and maintenance manager.

A stack of books next to a plant at a bookstore.
Reanna’s reading list included several books on aliens.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

‘A once-in-a-lifetime thing’

I arrived just after 8 p.m. with my partner, an air mattress, a pile of blankets and pillows, and a bag with Trader Joe’s wine in tow. The others had already arrived, and Powell was ready to kick off a casual tour.

“Self-help, memoirs, science, math, philosophy, poetry, writing,” he rattled off as we wove through the bookshelves.

“I’m going to pop an edible, read all the self-help books and leave here a new person,” my partner joked.


Soon enough, Powell was recalling the spookiest things he’d seen in his years at the store. He described coworkers who’d heard or glimpsed figures moving around the corners, and instances where people watched books fly off shelves for seemingly no reason.

“That corner is where books fall off sometimes, in sci-fi, for some reason,” he said.

As we passed the portal, a hidden nook where my partner and I had signed up to sleep, we realized it was both secluded in the back corner of the store with books on U.S. history and located closest to the “haunted” shelves that books fall off of. We quickly decided we wouldn’t be sleeping there.

For the first hour or so, everyone dispersed. Nelson Aguilar, an L.A. native who said he first fell in love with books when his dad took him to the L.A. Times Festival of Books, immediately raced to the rare book annex.

“I lived at the Row across the street for five, six years, so I used to come here all the time,” he said.

A person in pink relaxes on a couch, reading a book in a bookstore.
Reanna Cruz reads “The Book of Jose: A Memoir” by Fat Joe.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)


When he saw the bookstore’s post on Instagram, he ran to his wife, Marcelina Stardust. As they contemplated the $500 price tag, the choice became obvious.

“She was like, ‘Wait, it’s kind of like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This isn’t gonna happen again,’” he said. “I like to waste money on things, and she’s the reasonable part of my brain.”

Reading material

The books picked out that night

Nic Chatree Sridej: “Night Terror” by John Kenn Mortensen, “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut, “The Kindly Ones” by Melissa Scott, “Blackbirds” by Chuck Wendig and “The Body Scout” by Lincoln Michel

Jessica Gonzalez: “Three Dark Crowns” by Kendare Blake, “Strega: A Novel” by Johanne Lykke Holm

Nelson Aguilar: “By Any Means Necessary” by Malcolm X, “Opium: Diary of a Cure” by Jean Cocteau, “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath

Marcelina Stardust: “The World of Picasso” by Lael Wertenbaker, “Henry Miller: Watercolors / Drawings / and His Essay ‘The Angel Is My Watermark’” by Henry Miller

Reanna Cruz: “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base” by Annie Jacobsen,
“Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears” by Michael Schulman, “Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts!” by Lynne Margulies, “The Book of Jose: A Memoir” by Fat Joe,
“The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves” by Arik Kershenbaum

Aside from the private, peaceful shopping opportunity, the couple decided to lean into the fun of sleeping away from their place in Melrose Hill by bringing a tent and a projector, where they could play footage of a real campfire.

“We were supposed to bring camping chairs, but we figured that it’s a little bit too much,” Aguilar added. “We didn’t want to overdo it. We’re already overdoing it.”

And instead of taking photos for Instagram, Aguilar brought his dad’s old-school camcorder to document the night on tape.

“I’m bad at taking photos or shooting videos of myself, so when I look through my phone, it’s just a bunch of screenshots,” Aguilar said. “So I thought that this would be nice in case we have kids and we can pass it along to them.”

Nic Chatree Sridej and Jessica Gonzalez also booked their spot at the horror vault hoping it would be a night to remember.


A couple set up their air mattress amid shelves of books.
Nic Chatree Sridej and Jessica Gonzalez set up their air mattress in the horror vault at the Last Bookstore.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

“We’re big fans of the store,” Gonzalez said. “I have been for a very long time. I just saw it on their Instagram page and he was sitting next to me on the couch.”

“There were two seconds of ‘Is it too much money? No, it’s worth it,’” Sridej said. “Because we figured the money’s going to support the bookstore.”

“We were worried that it wasn’t going to make it through the pandemic,” Gonzalez added.

Sridej and Gonzalez, who are both horror writers based in Koreatown, thought the vault could even be a nice place to get some work done.

“We both have our laptops,” Gonzalez said. “Like I said, we’re both writers, so we might end up writing up there.”

A person reads on a couch in the center of a bookstore.
Relaxing in the center of the store.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

With an air mattress, laptops and a few card games in their rotation, both felt like they could roll with whatever the night had in store for them.

“He may not sleep,” Gonzalez said. “I’m definitely going to sleep at least a little. We didn’t really make a plan. We were gonna kind of come and see what the vibe is. Like, if people want to hang out, we’ll hang out. If they don’t, then I’m sure we can find something to do.”

Hollie Hopf and Kendall Vanderhoof had more abstract expectations.

“I saw it on Instagram,” Hopf said. “I called Kendall. I thought it sounded really weird. I don’t know, it was kind of a joke when I called her up. I was like, ‘Yo, look how weird this is.’ But then we’re kind of like, ‘What if we actually did it?’”

Hopf and Vanderhoof, who live in Venice and Santa Monica, respectively, decided to snag the tunnel spots.

“If we’re going to sleep in the bookstore, I want to sleep in the coolest spot in the bookstore, and I deem that this tunnel,” Hopf said. “We did discuss all the other spots, but I thought that some of them were too creepy.”


“The vault and the horror [spot] — I would cry,” Vanderhoof said. “I’d be like, ‘No, I’m moving my little sleeping bag.’”

As for the next 12 hours, both friends had no particular plan. As Vanderhoof put it: “We came in minds blank.”

Two people set up a tent inside a bookstore.
Nelson Aguilar and Marcelina Stardust set up a tent inside the comic book section at the Last Bookstore.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

The big decision: Where to sleep?

Though Powell was camped out by the door, watching TV, he gave us free rein to take over the store’s Spotify and meander around the vast space.

I looked through the memoirs and music books before grabbing Gabrielle Zevin’s “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” to add to my partner’s growing pile. Reanna had already finished a book called “Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts!,” and after making a lap around the horror vault, they had a hefty assortment of books on aliens.


By 10 p.m., everyone was starting to settle down. Hopf and Vanderhoof decided to read on the couches in the center of the store while Sridej and Gonzalez blew up their air mattress in the horror vault. Tied to the vault’s gate was a creepy little doll that cycled through phrases, including “I’m watching you” and “Come play with me.”

“We turned our mattress to face Stephen King instead of Charles Manson,” Sridej said when I poked my head inside.

Off in the comic book section, Stardust and Aguilar were pitching their tent to the smooth sounds of Spotify’s “This Is Sade” playlist.

Two people sit next to each other on a couch in a bookstore.
Reanna and I reading on one of the couches in the center of the store.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

A monitor with a list of songs inside a darkened store.
Smooth listening at the Last Bookstore after hours.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)


Once everyone claimed a sleeping spot, Powell began to shut off unnecessary lighting. One by one, each of us ducked into the store’s bathrooms to change into our sleepwear.

After making a trip to the relatively uncomfortable downstairs bathroom, I decided that next time, I’d try the employee bathroom Powell showed us that’s hidden behind a trick bookshelf.

By 11 p.m., Hopf and Vanderhoof had decided to head upstairs. Sridej and Gonzalez wandered around looking for more books as the bar nestled in an old bank vault was in full swing, blasting “Tipsy” by J-Kwon far louder than our soft rendition of Sade’s “Still in Love With You.”

Reanna and I, who settled on one of the couches in the center of the store, close to the bar, chuckled whenever a new song came on. Soon enough, Stardust and Aguilar wandered over with their books and claimed two of the other couches.

Aside from the booming bass seeping through the walls, the bookstore grew fairly quiet. When it was nearly midnight, my partner finished their second book: a graphic novel about Elvis. Just a few minutes later, they were nearly asleep on the couch.


The view through an open window: parked cars and a hotdog stand.
A delicious smelling “danger dog” stand outside the Last Bookstore.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

Bumps in the night

Once everyone retreated to their respective air mattresses and sleeping bags after midnight, Powell shut off the main overhead lights. Suddenly, the massive woolly mammoth hanging over thousands of books felt a bit ... ominous.

After deeming the portal too spooky, Reanna and I decided to sleep by the art galleries, where we found open space and some nice open windows. After we blew up our air mattress and setting up two stools as makeshift side tables, I brushed my teeth over a trash can to avoid walking alone through the dark bookstore to a bathroom.

But when I realized that my water bottle was nearly empty, I knew I had to make one last trip to the secret employee bathroom upstairs. I dragged my very sleepy partner along for protection.

We finally settled into the air mattress around 12:30 a.m., but as I tried to get comfortable, I began smelling sizzling meat. I looked longingly through the window at the hot dog vendor who was just feet away, yet inaccessible for those of us sleeping inside the bookstore. (While we weren’t trapped or anything, we were asked not to walk in and out of the shop during the night.)


As one might expect, I’ve had better nights of sleep. I woke up every hour or two, noticing silence after the bar closed and hoping that I would fall back asleep before anything spooky happened.

When the sun rose around 6:30 a.m., I tossed and turned yet again. I woke up nearly an hour later, when Powell turned on the store lights as a sort of gentle alarm.

As everyone deflated and disassembled their different sleeping apparatuses, it felt like a bit of a letdown. We played no card games, shared no late night gossip, and nobody seemed to make it through a large stack of books.

A person sleeps on an air mattress near windows.
Reanna asleep on a somewhat uncomfortable air mattress after the lights in the bookstore came on.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

Hopf and Vanderhoof swiftly cleared out of the tunnel, disappearing before I could ask them how they had slept. But as the rest of us congregated downstairs to make purchases, Sridej told me about his late-night wandering.


“I was the restless one who was walking around in the labyrinth in the dark,” he said. “At 5 a.m. I was just walking around with a flashlight. And [Powell] was telling us that story about how there was a book that people were finding on the floor... it’s up there. Face up.”

“There are some books that moved in the horror vault while we were sleeping,” Gonzalez added. “It could’ve been just gravity.”

As they hung out in the horror vault, they even watched a spooky movie: “Antlers.” But as true horror lovers, both said the shifting books didn’t faze them.

“We were like, ‘Hey, spirit, if you’re in here…’” Sridej said.

“‘I was like, ‘If you have a book recommendation, just throw it off the shelf and I’ll get it,’” Gonzalez said with a laugh.

Stardust and Aguilar didn’t encounter anything nearly as spooky, but Stardust said sleeping wasn’t exactly easy.


“I felt like I was in the club,” she said.

But both couples left with a modest stack of books that they purchased and a positive outlook on the whole experience.

“I’d do it again,” Gonzalez said.

“We want to try and get a group of our friends, like a whole 14-person slot,” Sridej said. “We have some friends who would really enjoy it, and you could just make such a fun night.”

The novelty of the experience made it especially hard to dwell on the oddities of sleeping in less comfortable conditions.

“We’ll never forget something like this, because it’s rare,” Aguilar said. “If you go to a restaurant, go to a bar, you go to a party, we tend to forget those things. Something like this kind of sticks with us.”

Bags in  a tunnel of books.
Hopf and Vanderhoof’s packed bags in the book tunnel.
(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)