For too long, when I thought about used bookstores in downtown LA, I thought of the lyrics in X’s song “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline”:
L.A. bookstores open
Kicking both doors open
When it rested on 6th Street
Except those aren’t the lyrics. It’s “L.A. bus doors” not “bookstores.” Sometimes your brain hears not the world but the echo of its favorite conversation subjects. Some of my favorite subjects are books and independent bookstores, like Powell’s where I used to work.
Despite my error, LA does have independent bookstores. There’s pitch-perfect Skylight Books in East Hollywood’s Los Feliz neighborhood. There’s Pages in Manhattan Beach, Arcana: Books on the Arts in Culver City, and the venerable Vroman’s in Pasadena, which a friend described as “the Powell’s of Los Angeles.” There’s even the expansive Above the Fold Newsstand on the Promenade in Santa Monica, a magazine and newspaper stand with a classic, mid-century feel and outdoor weather ideal for browsing. The only bookstore downtown, though, is the one that carries the ominous name The Last Bookstore.
Store owner Josh Spencer used to sell books, CDs and other stuff on eBay from his downtown loft. He opened The Last Bookstore’s first brick and mortar incarnation in 2009 in a building in the Old Bank District at 4th and Main. When he moved the store into its current location on 5th and Spring Street in June, 2011, two indie bookstores in Pacific Palisades and Laguna Beach announced pending closures that same month, and downtown’s Metropolis Books went up for sale. Spencer didn’t go into this business with any detailed, long range plan, and he’s aware of the risks. “People look at all this,” he told Los Angeles Downtown News in 2011, “and think we’re rolling in the dough. They don’t realize I’ve used all the debt I can, from everywhere, to open this. We’re doing OK, but not great.” He added: “Whether we last will depend on if the community supports us. Right now, they’re supporting us.” It’s because there’s a lot to love.
The store is enormous: 10,000 square feet. Stock is varied and voluminous. Shelves are well organized. And prices are low. Also, the setting is one of a kind: inside an old Citizens National Bank, opened in 1915, on the ground floor of a tall historic building. White columns rise twenty-five feet to the vaulted ceilings. Original tile floors contain geometric designs and the sort of uneven wear that makes historic structures so charming. A small coffeeshop is wedged in one corner, all dark woods and purple walls and stray beams of light streaming through the window. Chair and couches ring the center of the store, though a sign warns:
Please note: we are not a library
-1 hour time limit for chairs & couches
You damage the books, you buy them
This message doesn’t detract from with the store’s warmth and larger message: that all are welcome.
In their 2012 article “The 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World,” Flavorwire described the store’s “huge space, high ceilings and stately pillars” as contributing to “a lovely reading experience.” It’s true. Contrary to the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” mantra, when it comes to ambiance, appearances sometimes matter, and this store is inviting, like a giant living room. You’ll want to spend quiet time here searching the shelves for surprises. That was Spencer’s intent. As Los Angeles Downtown News put it in 2011: “Spencer said he wants the store, which already hosts events including an open mic night on Mondays, to feel like a gathering place.”
Still, it’s hard not to get hung up on the name. The Last Bookstore – it sounds more like a eulogy than a business. Is it a nod to a waning industry? A challenge to the conventional wisdom that bookstores are a losing business proposition? Or just a reference to the death of LA’s once thriving used book business? A little bit of each, it turns out.
As the store’s website says, “The name was chosen with irony, but it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as physical bookstores are dying out like dinosaurs from the meteoric impact of Amazon and e-books.” In the LA Times, Carolyn Kellogg described what seems a telling metaphor for the rise of the niche independent bookstore in these times of chainstore die-off: “Scratch under the old style and the dark stain and some bookshelves might look familiar; several of them came from a closing Borders store in Glendale. ‘We scavenged the bones of the corporate giant,’ Spencer admits.’” Yet in that same article Spencer strikes a more dreary chord: “I think books are going to become sort of like vinyl is now: the province of people who appreciate things that are well made, appreciate craft in graphics and creativity they can feel. …I think there’s always going to be a great market for books, but it’s definitely going to shrink to those who value and enjoy the ritual of browsing through books and holding books and turning pages. That’s gradually going to become less and less, as the generations pass. This might be the last generation, I think.”
Time will tell. For now, The Last Bookstore is here to provide us with affordable used books and the kind of ambiance bibliophiles crave. In the process, the store is making a stand against economic trends and the general assumption that the old bookstore model is doomed, and it’s putting a little of the literary life back into the bustling center of this smart, literate city.
To get a sense of the store’s stock and buy books online, visit their website here:
For a sense of its interior, here are some more photos I took on 5/30/12:
But photos of bookstores don’t keep them open. We have to buy their books. You can do so online here. And when you’re in LA, you’ll enjoy a trip to the store through downtown’s shady, energetic streets, which are surprisingly congenial despite how urine-scented they often are. On my last trip here, I bought a few things, including the LA-based Slake magazine, an eclectic quarterly. Among the nonfiction I bought, my favorite acquisition was Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader. It’s a collection from one of New Journalism’s least known progenitors, Grover Lewis, contemporary to Gay Talease and Tom Wolfe, minus Wolfe’s horrendous titles and mouth-clot maximalism. It gathers great pieces from Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Texas Monthly and more. It was five bucks.
Great article by Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times here.
Another interesting one here.
And a short 2012 LA Times piece here.
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