Thursday, September 20, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: The Last Bookstore

Visiting The Last Bookstore on South Spring Street in Los Angeles is like stepping into a fairytale. When one of the clerks at Skylight Books learned I was exploring independent bookstores during my stay, he recommended I visit this new-and-used bookstore located downtown. His description was a little cryptic--he told me it was pretty magical and that there were two floors with lots of books upstairs. I thought, okay--great. Two floors. Books upstairs. Magical. That's nice, right? 

I walked three miles from my cousin's apartment in Koreatown and arrived blistered and breathless at the entrance. The security guy tucked my backpack into a cubby and told me to enjoy myself. He seemed genuinely excited to see me and even more thrilled when I told him it was my first visit. You know a place is special when the security crew are smiling about it. 

And then I stepped inside. Maybe it's because I've been boxed away in the big box chain store world of Chapters-Indigo and Barnes and Noble--the gloss of these stores are shiny and appealing, but also sterile, the uniformity and efficiency busying me into a mode of comatose book buying--but, from the moment I stepped into The Last Bookstore I felt like I was unraveling some great mystery, as if I had stepped into some secret world where bright-eyed bookish people gather to frolic. 

The store's sky-high ceilings and rows of white columns speak to its architectural origins--the building, called the Spring Arts Tower, was built in 1914 and housed the Citizens' Bank. There are old leather arm chairs, worn and torn, soft and deep, along with velvet backed claw-foot chairs that look like they're from 1930s Hollywood hotels. These are set up against columns, people sinking in, heads bowed, books splayed across knees.

Sky-high ceilings

Who perched on this chair and had their afternoon tea before it made its way to book heaven decades later?

A distinguished library chair. Also the most appropriate place to smoke a cigar.
A tattered, but lovely reading chair and ottoman.

Upstairs, there are thousands of books, all on sale for $1. When you're up there, you really feel like you've fallen down the rabbit hole. You're in a labyrinth of books, strange little art installations tucked into hidden corners, as if this is an old curiosity shop--which in many ways it is. An elderly gentleman, cap and all, shelves endless carts of books and offers a multitude of historical tidbits when asked. He tells us that "unfortunately" they do have children's books--far too many. An entire back room overflows with them, bright paperbacks slipping haphazardly off shelves that wind back and forth and round and round, never ending.

Looking up
Looking down through an art installation (apologies to the artist--I did not write down your name!)
Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud
Through the rabbit hole! Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud

Their science fiction collection is housed in what used to be the bank's vault. An actual, bolts, combination, straight from the movies vault. If you get trapped inside, the original notice on how to ensure a nice flow of oxygen while you wait patiently for help, is posted in the window--the paper is yellowed, the typeface faded and it very clearly indicates that the vault cannot be opened from the inside.

The text reads:
Procedures to follow if accidently [sic] locked in the vault

The wheel located directly above the vault door should be turned as far to the left as possible. Pull wheel and attached spindle out.
This leaves a small opening through which air may come into vault. It also may be used to communicate with out-side the vault.
It is not possible to open the vault door from the inside.

The store regularly hosts readings, musical events, lectures, and other "unforeseen combinations" accepting applications from the public on a quarterly basis. They also feature art installations by local artists and display them throughout the store.

Bicycle wheels!

I couldn't figure this one out--but something was happening inside a birdcage.

A table--with pipes for legs!
It's all about the decor. Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud.

One of the things I truly loved about this store was how new and used books are placed side by side on the same shelves. If you go looking for a book, you're likely to find the used version sitting alongside a new copy of the same title. Of course they make a profit on the used books they sell, I wouldn't expect anything else. But even so, the focus seems to be on the dissemination of books, rather than simply selling for the most significant profit. And look, I am an avid book buyer--it's the one thing I will readily buy guilt free, money gone in seconds. I think the publication industry needs readers to buy books and I think we should buy them. I just feel that a store that puts reading at the forefront and makes it more financially accessible deserves plenty of accolades. 

There's a genuine feeling that this store is an informed participant in the larger literary and cultural community of Los Angeles. It's part of the culture and in many ways defines it, but it also cultivates it and takes an active role in promoting and fostering a healthy book culture and community. I think this, in the best way possible, describes what a bookstore should aim to be: a dynamic, constantly evolving community hub where words and ideas fuel a cycle of creativity.

 Even for a few brief hours, I liked being a part of that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: Skylight Books

I visited Skylight Books on N. Vermont Ave on a warm, breezy Tuesday evening after I had just finished reading Simon Van Booy's short story collection Love Begins in Winter. I didn't know how much I needed to read work like his--stories that shatter your heart and then very calmly and tenderly, piece it back together again. I don't want to call these fairy tales, but they have that frail spirit of bringing into fruition what you didn't think was ever possible. His stories are emotionally honest--lines press at the deepest part of your psyche and you think how true they are, how they pinpoint the most fleeting moments of recognition.

Once I finished reading, I wanted more stories. I wanted more secret entryways into the lives of people I didn't know--strangers flitting past me on downtown streets into the muddle of their own tragedies. I wanted to reach out and brush my fingertips against theirs, maybe sit on a park bench and hold their hand for awhile. Short stories make this possible. And now that I had finished a collection that had been a companion to me for weeks, I needed something to replace the void.

I looked up independent bookstores in LA and Skylight Books came up over and over again--reviews said what I wanted to hear: the people at Skylight know their books. I wanted to walk in and ask someone to give me a book they were passionate about. In my mind, it played out like a scene from a movie: I walk in, brow knitted with sweat from the dizzying Los Angeles heat and the clerk at the front desk offers me a deep, knowing nod. Soon, we're mired in passionate conversation about words and stories and the power of forging onward and upward and then there it is: their eyes light up like signal fires, fingertips brush against my elbow, they lean in close--and urgently press a book into my hands.

It didn't happen quite like this, but my experience at Skylight Books was more than fulfilling. Located on a quiet street lined with dimly lit restaurants bursting with flushed diners who spill happily onto patios late into the evening, the store has a communal vibe. Open late (everyday 10am to 10pm), it really does feel like the "neighborhood bookstore" where you stop off to pick up a book as if you were picking up a jug of milk from the dusty convenience store on the corner.  Their calendar boasts readings, signings, and discussions almost every night and I felt a little forlorn that I didn't live in LA so I could be a member of their "friends with benefits" club that offers discounts and access to special events. 

One of the gentlemen at Skylight spotted me staring blankly at shelves of books and when he asked if he could help, I pounced. I'd been waiting for just the thing. When I told him I wanted to discover a new short story collection, he spent the next ten minutes combing through the store putting together a reading buffet for me. He piled the books on the table  and went through them explaining his choices and giving me mini histories on each author. He shared collections he was currently reading, gave me a sense of writing styles, and shared authors he hadn't read, but heard great things about. He offered collections from the canon, newly launched books, as well as local Los Angeles writers. And to think that when I'd walked in, the first thing I'd looked for was a computer terminal so I could conduct my own antisocial search. Such a hermit.

From the buffet, I purchased Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures and Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.  Bender's stories have so far succeeded in creeping me out and making me cry (in that disconcerting, oh my goodness the ants are eating my skin from the inside kind of way)--and I suppose this is both a good and bad thing. I have to give it a fair chance before I wilt away completely. I'm looking forward to Murakami's work and am grateful for Skylight's helpful and diverse suggestions.

Read on, minions. Read on.

Mythical Skylight Cat


I must say that the best thing about this bookstore is that it has its own cat. She preens and stalks about like she owns the place. I think she probably does own the place. Isn't every bookstore owned by a cat?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: Walking the streets

My favourite palm lined streets in Los Angeles have dozens of dusty corner cafes, pupusa shops, thrift stores selling electric blue lamé leggings for $1, and mini malls blaring salsa and merengue tracks from speakers hidden behind mural slathered walls. There are very old men dressed in crisp white shirts hunched over ice cream carts, tailor shops with sewing machines whirring in bright slats of sun, tiny shops with cardboard signs announcing Tomales! in thin strokes of red paint.  

There's a thin, small woman waiting at the bus stop outside a grocery store and she looks stern--her hair is pulled back so tight, it could be scalp, and her vibrant blue eyeshadow strokes up against her thin, arched brows. And there's a man, very tall and robust, his arms full of odd shaped packages, his mouth puddling into a frown because he's irritated--the older woman he is with (his mother? his aunt?) wants to take one more look, in one more shop. There are two men carrying chairs--they have that energetic push in their step that tells you they are not from around here, because yes, they're white and yes, they're antiquing. If you're from around here, you are waiting for the bus, or you are walking with a steady gait to the food mart with a portable buggy, your kids have backpacks sweating up against their small necks, barrettes snapped tight over dollar store hair extensions--one pink, one blue--and you have the weight of life slowing you down.

But there's this energy beating up against the soles of your sandals, a syncopated beat flicking off the uneven pavement and you know that whatever it is that makes you love this city is right here, striding along with you, heating you up and making you go on, earnest and true.

"Los Angeles" by Shht! (m.caimary)