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.

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