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:
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!
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!
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?