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Archive for the month “September, 2013”

A Fine Day at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles.

The Last Bookstore, a giant bookstore selling 95% used-only books, is a delightful and rare treat for bibliophiles. I became aware of it through word-of-mouth from a couple of friends a few months ago and have been wanting to go visit ever since.

The store’s existence might be simple and not heavily advertised, but its mission is clear:

“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.  With our constant turnover of stock, regular musical and literary events, and coffee and vinyl LP shop, we book-lovers at the Last Bookstore hope to last as long as we can in downtown LA’s vibrant new community.  Join the cause!  Buy, sell, trade, and above all read real books…before they’re gone.”

The Last Bookstore is also not for the faint of heart. Its main level alone might take you all day, not to mention the vast second floor that includes a labyrinth-like back room completely devoted to $1 books is enough to make you dizzy.

I showed up on a glorious and sunny day last weekend. I took the train into downtown and wouldn’t you know the metro stop was only a block and a half from the shop? This boded good-tidings. If you have never been to downtown Los Angeles, you are missing something. Yes, the homeless population is large (but isn’t this a concern in most major cities?) and yes, once the sun goes down there is not much to do nightlife-wise that will get you out to trek about the mostly deserted streets (unless it’s Artwalk time). But downtown LA is chock full of art-deco history and hidden gems, such as The Last Bookstore. Take a look at the building:

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Beautiful.

I ducked inside, passing a security guard at the entrance along with cubbies for you to store your big bags and backpacks. Immediately I fingered the library book in my purse that I carried with me on the train, slightly worried I would be pegged as a shoplifter at some point during my visit. I assured myself that the LAPL sticker should be enough to convince anyone if I was stopped.  For some reason, I’m extra nervous in this store. It isn’t my familiar territory and most of the folks inside resemble dedicated and long-time customers. I should mention that I haven’t done a new expedition in Los Angeles in quite a long time, and I feel out of place. I used to be quite the adventurer and very game on trying new things. What’s happened to me?

But just when my self-consciousness reaches its peak, a store clerk bids me good afternoon and smiles at me grandly. Whooosh… ok, it’s all going to be ok.  Apparently I belong here. Good! Now where should I start? The space the store currently occupies used to be an old bank, I believe. It’s 10,000 square feet full of books. I mean, I never even found the coffee bar there was so much to explore. Well, the “Modern Fiction” section appears to be right in front of me, so I decided to start there. I grab my list of “To Read” books for my 2013 Reading Challenge and get to work.

First impressions: the store has a wealth of used books you probably can’t find in any other used bookstore. I saw copies of “March” and “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks, which are fairly newish, among the Paulo Coelhos, Mark Haddons, and other writers whose books are usually highly sought-after. Not only that, the store even had multiple copies of each book!

I gazed around in awe and managed to snag a copy of “Water Music” by TC Boyle- his first novel- that is largely out-of-print and not even available at the library. Another used store I frequent has a hardcover copy with a torn and damaged cover selling for $15! The Last Bookstore was offering it for $5. Mine! Now, not all books are $5 (discounting the $1 room, $5 seems to be the lowest price offered). Other books that are fairly newer cost more, and even though the store mostly sells used it does carry some new books, so check the price tags carefully. I passed on a few books going for $6 to $10 and will hold out for the library.

Heading over to the Classic Lit section I find a wonderful selection of Fitzgeralds, of which I’m sadly not in the market for, but nice to know they are there. I add a Faulkner and Saul Bellow to my pile. Things are looking up! I casually make my way over to the memoir and non-fiction section and am disappointed to find the David Rakoff I can’t get at the library is not cheap enough here ($10) for me to part with my cash. I still think that is a lot to ask for a used book.

Now it’s time to tackle the second mezzanine level with the aforementioned $1 books. I take a deep breath and pass another security station. I notice a sign that says, “No outside books”, and I fret once more over my library book that is no longer carefully tucked in my bag (I gave up with the zipper on my purse, as I figured that might make me look more suspicious as a shoplifter trying to shove a book in the depths of her bag). Should I give it over? I’m someone who forgets to go back for things. I recently left my freshly-picked-up-from the drycleaners wedding dress behind at a play rehearsal and nearly had a heart attack at my own carelessness. Nah, I decided, I’ll take my chances with anyone who stops me and just let them know it’s a library book and I didn’t see the sign.

I head upstairs. This sign is ominous: Thar be books ahead!

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Past the entry way, I am assaulted by rows and piles and more rows of books! If the main level is clearly organized and easy to maneouver and the second level resembles something out of Hogwarts. I instantly felt like Hermione Granger. In other words: BOOK NERD HEAVEN!

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Dazed, I wander around the shelves (neatly organized, by the way) and snag a copy of Rennie Airth’s “River of Darkness”. And FYI, if you are looking to catch up on your Game of Thrones, the store has several copies of the books. In fact, the second level has a whole plethora of sci-fi and fantasy books- the largest collection I’ve ever seen.

By the time I reach the dollar section, I’m pooped and over stimulated. Three walls alone in the dollar maze are made up of novels with book jackets arranged by color- red, yellow, blue and green- for no other reason than “just because it looks cool”. Here you will find lots o’ mass market paperbacks, with authors such as Belva Plain, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, Dick Francis, among many, many others. If I had one complaint,  it would be that I wish the dollar maze was organized alphabetically by author. It’s too much to spend an hour scanning each shelf- I could barely manage it for 15 minutes. However, there are lovely dollar maze denizens in the form of employees who seem to somehow know their way around the back room quite intimately. I listened to one such denizen, who fondly called himself King of the Dollar Room, actively seek out books for a customer who was looking for very specific British authors. The King of the Dollar Room took his time with his fellow book lover and even chatted about particular authors he liked. I watched two other people approach another employee and she knew exactly where to guide them in terms of travel and non-fiction. I could see no signs anywhere marking genre, but these folks know their way around so don’t be afraid to ask.

In short, the employees at The Last Bookstore are fellow lit lovers, just like me. The check out guy chatted with me about Penguin book covers and how he prefers the retro looking black and white covers with the blue back jackets the best. I don’t think you would find such passion at any other brick and mortar chain bookstore. Alas, I wish I could have spent a full day at The Last Bookstore and perhaps had more time to peruse, or even grab a book and settle down on one of the several couches and chairs the store has strewn about. It’s a place for reading, loving, and cherishing the written word. Sure, they probably want you to buy, but I think the owners also probably understand the fundamental reason people love to hang around bookstores anyway. What is a more perfect way to while away the afternoon than with a book (or 10,000 of them)?

So…Do any of you have a favorite used bookstore? If so, please share! And what would you pay for a used book? Frankly, I’m used to paying between $2 and $3, so $5 even seems just shy of steep for me. True, $5 is still cheaper than most e-books, but what do you think?

Bookshelf Shame: A Growing Epidemic

Hi Everyone,

The Paperbook Collective is back with Volume 2 now available in PDF or on the web. You can find my article, “Bookshelf Shame” on the link!

Please check it out and if it stirs you, you can also submit and be part of the fun!

The Paperbook Collective-Issue Two_2013

Merci!

Book Review: “Restless” by William Boyd

 

A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):

My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews (I can easily find out a synopsis on Amazon or Goodreads) so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.

My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.

If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.

“Restless”, William Boyd

 A great spy novel featuring a female spy! If I had to rate it, I think this novel falls somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. It’s an intriguing book- in fact, I couldn’t put it down over the past two days- but it’s not a deep character study, so I would warn you first to not expect a roller coaster ride of emotion with this one.But it can be quite thrilling. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that it’s about the very nature of spying and processing the world through a set of hyper-observant eyes. The book is partially set in WWII in various locales, so we are not dealing with high-tech gadgets or large-scale espionage tactics involving super computers, drones, or anything remotely complicated or technical. No, in this case, the humans themselves are hardwired to play cloak and dagger against the enemy using their own wits and extensive espionage training. This is where the thrilling comes into play. I was captivated by Boyd’s lengthy descriptions of Eva going through her daily routine of losing “shadows”, identifying “crows”, and just how precisely she was programmed to notice the minute details most of us miss. Considering the main story is set in the pre-digital age, and even the secondary story involving her daughter is set in the 1970s, it is actually refreshing to read a novel about people constantly seeking information using every other tool available (mostly their brains) besides the Internet and a cell phone. Yes, people: it CAN be done!

I have never read an Ian Fleming “James Bond” novel from the late fifties/early sixties (and I’m assuming the films took liberties), but I imagine that actual British Intelligence agencies and the act of espionage were quite similar to what is described in “Restless”. Lots of paper pushing, lots of seemingly meaningless messages sent back and forth, lots of code and double speak, but very little danger. When Eve does finally encounter a dangerous event, it appears to happen quite logically and her escape is entirely plausible. Nothing resembling James Bond here with massive explosions or an exhaustive supply of near-deaths. Now the novel takes an interesting turn and the true espionage begins: who sold her out? Who is the “ghost” (or double-agent) who sent her to her demise? Where can she run? And how can she out-smart the very agency that created her? In other words, a classic spy novel through and through.

Would I want to live my life this way- constantly looking over my shoulder and unable to trust another living soul? Absolutely not, and here is where the novel gets less exciting. The author had the opportunity to dive into the inner lives of Eva and her daughter Ruth after she learns about her mother’s double life, but he always stops short of any real depth. The secondary story involving Ruth and her potential Muslim lover, Hamid, lacks any sort of believability because Ruth herself is not very lovable or interesting. We just don’t know very much about her to really care. I liked the love story between Eva and Romer, but it has no ending or closure. She finally confronts him after years of living undercover and she doesn’t even bother to ask, “Did you ever truly love me?” I think that if I were the woman who obsessed over a man I later discover was my would-be assassin, the thought would cross my mind and I would want to know the truth.

The dynamic between mother and daughter also could have been better explored. The author has Eva say repeatedly to Ruth, “You just don’t get it, do you? Even after all that you’ve learned?” and it drove me nuts because why WOULD Ruth understand her mother’s life? Ruth herself has not lived 40+ years as a trained spy who changed identities and has been living under cover for most of her life. Here the relationship and the circumstances surrounding both of the two women and the lives they lead could have been flushed out with greater care. Perhaps this is why Eva was never a loving or affectionate mother? Perhaps this is why Ruth has always mistrusted confiding in others? I saw plenty of opportunities for the author to explore these paths, but he never really does. Ruth doesn’t seem to carry many emotions about the discovery of her mother’s double life. It bothers her, yes, but she never gets either truly angry or truly sad and devastated. She just merely accepts it all, and we get no sense of conflict between the two of them. Eva, on the other hand, is an extraordinary character: she is a woman who is taught to discount her own feelings, even when they seem inescapable. Boyd chooses to not go into too much detail about her inner struggle as a woman in love with a man she can’t ever love openly due to her occupation, so in the end we are left with a rather two-dimensional, albeit intriguing, person.

So why would I ultimately highly recommend this book? Because I haven’t read anything in a while that has kept me so glued to the page to the very end. I only peeked a couple of pages ahead ONCE and that says a lot for me! Yes, it’s not the greatest piece of literature I’ve ever read and it’s certainly not well rounded, but it is different from I usually read in the genre and features a female character in a power position without being defined as “crazy” or “psychotic”, and we need more books out there featuring strong women. This book will also appeal to you if you are a mystery genre fan, but want to branch out a bit (the novel is not quite a mystery, yet not exactly a spy thriller but somewhere in between). And if you are a fan of British fiction, you will also enjoy: Boyd can be dry and aloof, but he also has a great sense of humor where appropriate.

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