Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Disappearing Bookstores of Los Angeles

The first edition shelves of Kulturas, a sight of rare beauty. Rare meaning teetering on the verge of extinction.

Guest blogger Renee Montgomery explores the fast-disappearing second-hand bookstores standing in Los Angeles:

Following is the first of a five-part series highlighting the second-hand bookstores of Los Angeles. Organized by region: first Santa Monica, to be followed by Venice/Mar Vista, West L.A., Hollywood, Los Feliz. Angeleno People: take note, we have a full-scale local state of literary emergency on our hands!

If you want to be sure to find a particular book, advance asap to the three A’s: Amazon, Alibris or But if it’s community and atmosphere and sensuality you’re looking for, try a secondhand bookstore. These are two of my favorites, not just because they’re on my daily route, but because one can actually find what they’re looking for there, and save money, and recycle.

Angel City Books (218 Pier Street)

One word describes this charming shop on Pier Street: Light. The diffused sunlight of the old Ocean Park series by Richard Diebenkorn. The Santa Monica of the ‘60s -- laid back mornings after the surf chops out --white clapboard cottages on narrow lanes -- health food stores and original Birkenstocks -- dreamy days before that ridiculous Borofsky ballerina clown went up and Main Street turned trendy. Like Kulturas below, Angel City carries a bit of every topic, but mainly the humanities. As proprietor Rocco Ingala explains: “Our goal is to create an environment that encourages a classical education. We are more than a bookstore, we are a philosophy.” YEAH! I ALWAYS come away with a stack of excellent choices at fair prices (half the marked price in most instances), never settling. A collection of kitschy mid-century pulp novels injects some verve. Friendly Rocco is as involved or uninvolved as the customer wants, letting you browse quietly or providing helpful literary context, like how Balzac birthed the modern novel.

On my "Can-I-Actually-Locate-What-I’m-Looking-For-There-Or-Should-I-Go-Running-Back-to-Amazon’ index (with NYC’s Strand being #10)", Angel City rates a 9.5. As a professional information manager I appreciate Rocco’s experimentation with the best way to organize his inventory, ultimately settling on your basic scheme of fiction all in one section, with mystery separated out -- with Faulkner filed after Fante and regular maintenance of The Alphabetical Order. My only complaint about the quaint Angel City: no chair -- because when you’re Serenely at Peace with The World, you want it to last.

Kulturas Books (corner of Ocean Park and 17th Street)

Can you say NYT bestsellers and flawless taste? My other favorite used book store for several reasons. The most up-to-date merchandise. Important current releases would seem to fly over from Barnes and Noble or Book Soup, like John Wray’s “Lowboy,” in no time at all. Friends agree there’s not a clunker in this store. And the owners and staff are incredibly knowledgeable. Part-time clerk Ahnadgud not only chaws on Bukowski’s “Women” at the counter, but also on Bukowski’s influence CĂ©line. Even the clerk’s friends are smart, guiding me to the best Flaubert like it was je ne sais pas quoi. Only, I’ve never been made to feel a literary half-wit here. It’s stylish but unpretentious. Like Angel City, this is a relatively small store but every category of reading is represented -- with large sections on politics, American history, contemporary culture, art, food, plus many first editions and rare books, from “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan . . . ” to Dobie’s “Cow People.” Or Francis Dean Smith’s collection. But just when I thought the proprietors Andrew MacDonald and Irene [XXXX ] had made themselves at home here after two years, with a section about L.A. and shelves double-parked with stock, Kulturas announces its return to Washington D.C. A victim of L.A.’s lack of population density. Crap. Check it out anyway before the July 20th closing date.

Which brings me to my next topic . . .CRAP!!! Again. Bookstores floundering, failing all around! What’s wrong with us Los Angeles!!! A metropolis of 4.5 million and we can’t even support a few secondhand bookstores? We’re pathetic. When I went to interview the proprietor of the 99 Cent Secondhand Bookstore at Venice and Culver Blvds., I met the painter, remodeling for the next tenant. You might not have even noticed this shop, a noble experiment wedged in between Ross, Office Depot and Albertsons, -- seeing that it lasted only a few months.

Who says L.A. lacks tradition? Pickwick, Heritage, Dutton’s, Wilshire Books, Other Times, Santa Monica Promenade Borders -- a long tradition of closing bookstores. C’mon L.A.! Aren’t we sick of playing back-water second-fiddle to NYC and DC, here in the illiterate wild west? Borders La Cienega on its last legs too, except for shelf-after-shelf of “Gossip Girls.” We rally Angelenos! Wi be The Big Read! When native son Philip Marlowe wasn’t liquoring himself or womanizing, he was reading. City of Angels: We Can Do It! Sustainable reading. A readin’ riot. In our secondhand bookstores. Because like La Brea Woman slippin’ in the ooze, Papa Bach’s may be gone but It Is Not Forgotten.

[FBC! guest blogger Renee Montgomery is a California native, like her literary hero The Lost Woman of San Nicolas Island. Renee enjoys books about shipwrecks. She attended So Cal colleges with cows on campus.]

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