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The Last Bookshops Of Los Angeles

Tasbeeh Herwees |
November 15, 2012 | 10:47 a.m. PST

Senior Staff Reporter

 

The tactile feel of printed books provide an experience that brick and mortar bookshops hope will continue on (Alan Levine/Creative Commons).
The tactile feel of printed books provide an experience that brick and mortar bookshops hope will continue on (Alan Levine/Creative Commons).
Mary Goodfader dreads a certain kind of customer. She can identify them when they pull out their smartphones, snap photos of her “Staff Recommends” display – a selection of books curated by her employees – and leave without buying anything. They’re not her customers; they’re Amazon’s. 

“They go home and order it on Amazon,” says Goodfader, “It’s very hard not to say anything to them. But if you need to save money in a bad economy…”

Goodfader’s voice trailed off in resignation. She owns Venice Beach’s Small World Books, one of the last bastions of independent book selling in Los Angeles. Concealed behind the Sidewalk Café – which Goodfader also owns – Small World Books is easy to miss if not for the red and white awning announcing its presence. It’s been located here, on the Venice Beach boardwalk, since 1976. People who’ve lived here in the neighborhood their whole lives often stumble in by accident, surprised to find the shop there. 

Goodfader is among a quickly disintegrating club of independent booksellers who’ve managed to hold onto their businesses in the post-Borders era.

Amazon has monopolized the book business by selling their books for prices that aren’t just competitive for independent bookshops; they're catastrophic.

The American Booksellers’ Association lists 1,900 independent bookstores as members – only two decades ago they had listed 4,000. 

You can count the number of remaining independents in Los Angeles proper on two hands: Chevalier’s in Hancock Park, Book Soup in Hollywood, Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Esowon Books in Leimart Park and Small World Books. Diesel A Bookstore, which has branches in Malibu and Oakland, opened up another branch in Brentwood in 2008. 

Thirty years ago, it was chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders that were putting indepdendent bookshops out of business. In more recent years, however, the threat of chain stores has been replaced by an even bigger menace, Amazon, which has not only cornered the market on printed books but has popularized e-books with its slick Kindle readers. Amazon’s e-book sales, in fact, have dwarfed its sales of printed books. In May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos released a statement gleefully sharing the news. 

“We never imagined it would happen this quickly,” he wrote, “We’ve been selling print books for 15 years and Kindle books for less than four years.”

Many independent booksellers, Goodfader included, blame Bezos and Amazon for willfully putting them out of business. Amazon doesn’t charge sales tax in 42 states – a Supreme Court ruling exempts retailers from collecting sales tax in states where they have no physical office – and they price their books far below the publisher’s suggested retail. Author J.K. Rowling’s latest venture, “The Casual Vacancy” sells for $30 at brick-and-mortar stores, but Amazon gets away with pricing it at $20. Independent bookshops just can't match those prices -- they're not large enough to absorb the losses. 

“Who knows why they're doing that, except to put me out of business?” says Goodfader, “They're called loss leaders just to get people to buy from them. I can't do that. I could barely make it selling full-price.”

Goodfader is lucky enough to own the building her store and cafe are housed in --it's a moderately-sized property in a great tourist location, just overlooking the beach. With no rent to pay, profits from the Sidewalk Café help mitigate the costs of keeping Small World Books in business. 

“It's almost a community service," Goodfader says half-jokingly, "I think the government should subsidize me because I keep culture alive.” 

The City Lights of Los Angeles 

Much like other artifacts of former eras – record vinyls, rotary phones, and drive-in theatres – bookshops are nostalgic things, evocative of a time before smartphones and iPads. 

Historically, they’ve been hotbeds for political dissent and civil disobedience, centers of intellectual discourse and community gathering places. In 1930s Berlin, a bookshop called Marga Schoeller Bücherstube sold books and pamphlets forbidden by the Nazi regime and later the store became a crossroads for intellectuals, artists and writers from all over the world, including T.S. Eliot and Thomas Mann. 

As Russia fought in the Second World War, a St. Petersburg bookshop called Dom Knigi – “House of Books” – carried literature critical of the Soviet regime, dangerously risking the shop’s license.  

Much closer to home, the owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, Shigeyoshi Murao, was arrested for carrying “obscene” material – Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” now considered a permanent fixture of the literary canon. City Lights has been declared a San Francisco landmark, visited by tourists from around the world.  

Every city has its "City Lights." In Birmingham, it was Gene Crutcher Books. In New York City, it was the Gotham Book Mart. 

Los Angeles had Papa Bach's. Once a second home to L.A. bohemians and a breeding ground for L.A.’s counterculture movement, it was described as a "cultural center" of Los Angeles by journalist Lionel Rolfe in his book Literary L.A.

“Papa Bach was a meeting place and a cultural institution in its own right,” Rolfe wrote. "It was a counterculture place where lefties came to argue politics or literary people to debate the merits of their favorite heroes or heroines.” 

Papa Bach’s eventually closed in 1984, victim to “greedy landlords, chain bookstores, parking problems, and… the ominous signs that the Reagan television generation that was coming of age really was illiterate,” writes Rolfe. The store’s closing was an inauspicious sign to other independent L.A. bookstores, including Chatterton’s in Los Feliz, financially beleagured at the time.  

Chatteron’s was once dubbed “Papa Bach East” – the store stocked literary and political literature, but it was known for its extensive collection of Beat poetry, curated by the store’s owner, William Koki Iwamoto.

Kerry Slattery, an actress at the time, frequented the store to browse the same stacks that Anais Nin, T.C. Boyle and even Allen Ginsberg would browse. 

“At that time, stores didn't do events as much as they do now,” remembers Slattery, “But [Chatterton’s] did have readings with famous beat poets and alternative medical health things. It was pretty well-known.”

Chatterton’s shuttered in 1994, after Iwamoto died. It couldn’t contend with the growing success of chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, which were experiencing a golden age -- they were responsible for a quarter of the nation's book sales (coincidentally, though unrelated, that was also the year Bezos began planning Amazon).  

Slattery bought the space formerly known as Chatterton's two years later and renamed it Skylight Books. When she opened her shop there were several independents in the neighborhood with which to compete. 

“There was a bookstore on the next block called Amok,” she says, “They were around for a long time in different locations… across the street at one point, there was a German bookstore.”

Slattery’s turned Skylight into a hidden museum of L.A. bookshop history -- she's collected equipment from closed-down bookshops and used them to furnish the store. 

“We have fixtures from ten or eleven bookstores that no longer exist,” says Slattery, “We have fixtures from Sisterhood Books and the French bookstore, La Cite, and Dutton's in Brentwood… and Chatterton's, of course.”

For The Children

When Los Angeles bookshop owners reminisce about the past, it’s tinged with the bitter reality of the present. 

Filis Winthrop, who owns the historic Chevalier’s in Larchmont Village, has seen the L.A. bookshop scene through its transformation. When she was studying at UCLA, she worked at Campbell’s, a large, cavernous store with multiple floors in Westwood. She remembers, pensively, the late Yetive Moss, who curated the store’s art book section and “Mr. and Mrs. Campbell” who ran the store. 

“Campbell's had a wonderful children's department,” says Winthrop, “Their whole basement was children's books and Blanche Campbell... took charge. It was a huge and wonderful bookstore.”

When the store closed down, Winthrop went to work for Joseph Chevalier at his bookstore in Hancock Park. Ailed with heart problems, Chevalier had a difficult time keeping the store; he sold it to Winthrop in 1990, who still owns it today. 

It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it storefront down Larchmont. The room next door has been appropriated as a large children’s section. Winthrop says they don’t make any money, but the children’s section helps keep the store alive. Picture books don’t sell well as e-books – most people still enjoy the physical book and artwork.

“Children, God forbid the time ever comes when they're only on Kindle,” said Winthrop, “Little children like books. And they like that we have story-telling time.”

Goodfader says that after Harry Potter, independent bookstores enjoyed a brief “flourishing time,” but blockbuster booksellers, like Twilight and The Hunger Games, still boost sales for the shop. 

“Children's books sales have not dropped. They still sell,” said Goodfader. “I have a four-year old grandson who -- he just loves the iPad. But he has to have a book, and turn the pages. It's just an instinctual thing. Books are a great invention too.”

More recently, erotic adult novel Fifty Shades of Grey helped bring in customers. 

“Fifty Shades of Grey kept me in business this summer because I am such a tourist spot and there's so many tourists on the weekends here in the summer," said Goodfader. "They were just coming in to buy that book.”

The book sold 40 million copies – a phenomenon almost unheard of in today’s publishing climate. But what’s special about the series is its ability to hook in “untraditional” readers – readers who may not be interested in literary talent but rather a fantastical story to sink their teeth into.

Winthrop said she remembered a woman who entered her shop a few weeks ago to ask for a copy of the first book in the series. 

“She says, ‘you know, I've never read a book in my life.' I didn't know how to react. I sold her the book,” Withrop said. Three weeks later, the customer returned to Chevalier’s. 

“She says to me, ‘I suppose you think I want those other two books, don't you?’” said Winthrop. “And she says, ‘I enjoyed that book, but where else is your fiction?’”

The woman left with two new books, neither one written by E.L. James.

Little Places

Last month, Slattery walked into the local 7-Eleven in Los Feliz. 

“There was this big wall with Amazon across it and they have lockers. They're places where you can pick up your Amazon products,” said Slattery. “This is a block from us!”

It seems to Slattery like one more thing she has to compete with. A few years ago, in 2008, they decided to expand the store, open up a small place next door for art books and graphic novels – the “Arts Annex.” It had been their best year. Soon after, the economy crashed. Since then Slattery said "it’s been hand-to-mouth.” 

“We increased our rent, we increased our staff, but it still seemed to have been a good thing to do. It was a positive thing having our arts annex,” she said. “I'm sitting here reconciling bank statements and trying to see how many bills I can pay today.”

It’s what Slattery and Skylight Books can do– the things that Amazon can’t – that has allowed them to sustain the business. Cultivating an online presence has been an aspect of Skylight Books’ survival strategy, but it hasn’t been for Chevalier’s and Small World Books. All three of these stores rely on a loyal and local clientele, neighborhood shoppers with whom booksellers can build a relationship. 

“That's the essence of an independent bookstore,” said Goodfader. “The only way that they will survive is that personal interaction with the customer.”

Chevalier’s, located in a historic part of Hancock Park, has intergenerational customers – families who’ve lived there for years, who grew up around Chevalier’s, and bring in their children, who bring in their grandchildren. 

“We have this little group of people who want a real book, the feel, and they want to come in here and talk about books,” said Winthrop. “Of course we're struggling terribly and we can't get any bank money at all, we can't get any lines of credit, we can't get anything.”

Slattery’s shop caters to the neighborhood’s “eclectic” demographic – their books range from international bestsellers to local authors to strange and obscure titles. One of the store’s bestsellers this month, for example, is There Is No Right Way to Meditate, an illustrated guide to meditation by Yami Sakugawa, a SoCal native. The printed book is not even available on Amazon, though you can purchase the Kindle edition.

“Something that you wouldn't even have known to ask for, or to look for, that’s what you would find in a store like this,“ says Slattery. “Ideally, you go in for one thing, but you may discover something new.”

As for e-books, current trends suggest they’ll have a difficult time completely replacing printed books – at least in the near future.

A Pew Research study found that e-book owners not only read more books than the average person, they also read them in all formats: 88 percent of people who read e-books in the past year also read printed ones.

While people enjoy the ease of downloading books immediately onto their device, they also enjoy sharing books, writing in the margins and reading them to children. There's a twinkle in every book-lover's eye when they discuss the touch and feel and smell of a book. It's a sensory experience that's difficult to manufacture on the Kindle. 

While Slattery, Goodfader and Winthrop continue to struggle to keep their stores open, there’s a spirit of goodwill that pervades their struggle – a belief in something bigger than just a few books, bigger than just their small shops. There remains a hope that these shops will return to the glory days of Papa Bach’s and Chatterton’s, community centers that don’t just give people access to knowledge but bring people together. 

“I think little places like this will never be big again,” said Winthrop. “But I think little places like this will stay in my grandchildren's generation.” 

Reach Senior Staff Reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here



 

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