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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Hollywood Confidential

 (Photo: Writers Cleraringhouse News Service)
Brand Bookshop, Glendale, California
LA GOES LITERATE

By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Los Angeles
Los Angeles is one of my favourite bookish cities.

What, Tinseltown, the Entertainment Capital of the World (read, Hollywood); and home of the upcoming, umpteenth Academy Awards show, the world's greatest showcase of tasteless ritz 'n glitz, is going literate?

Who knew?

What would, I daresay, Dorothy Parker or F. Scott Fitzgerald, two of Lalaland's sharpest critics, think?

Parker probably would now say the same thing I'm saying: That in the last decade or two LA is belatedly getting a much-deserved 800 on its SAT Readings score. Fitzgerald? Well, 'I'll drink to that!'

Of course, tourists have nothing to fear. Hollywood sleaze still prevails at Hollywood and Vine. Kiddies still get the ride of a lifetime at Universal Studios, and, if you're lucky, you too can still spot a B-lister on Rodeo Drive or on Melrose.

My LA, however, is one of bookshops. Consistent, perhaps, since I'm a founding partner (along with my late father) of @philabooks|booksellers, an on-line, Philadelphia-based used bookstore. My work requires periodic book buying sprees to various cities where, over time, I've found particular success in finding titles in my speciality areas: books by and about John O'Hara; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; books about the The New Yorker; equestrianism; and the arts (particularly about mid-20th century European and American painting and about museums).

I've honed my book buying to Boston (John O'Hara and equestrian pursuits); Washington (again, riding; and the Windsors); New York (John O'Hara and, not surprisingly, The New Yorker); and to my hometown of Philadelphia (local boy O'Hara, the Windsors, and horsey titles). Lastly, there's Los Angeles. And, this being mega-city LA, of course, its Southland environs get included.

While other back-East cities seem to emphasise, as I've noted, specific speciality areas, Los Angeles bookshops (and I count used bookstores at local libraries among these) have a lot of everything. I've long ago given up trying to understand the 'science' of bookbuying and bookselling. It is what it is, as they say. So, if my other bookbuying cities have a smattering of this or that, my LA caters to all my interest areas.

Moreover (and, at this point, I trust that my West Coast comrades will leave the room), LA pricing is generally about 50 percent, yes, 50 percent, cheaper than those found back East. In other words, I'm looking at an immediate 25 to 50 percent markup. Sometimes, even a 100 percent, or a keystone, markup since many titles are woefully underpriced at retail here. (Without mentioning names, I came away a few years ago with about a half-dozen O'Hara titles that way, and have since successfully keystoned them).

I was at a wedding at a private house last weekend, in the Mar Vista hills, overlooking a truly breath-taking view of West Hollywood (despite the area's name, no ocean views, unfortunately), when I learned that my table companion, Richard Gibson, was a collector and seller of fine art books. (Ted Gibson Framing, 4271 West 3rd Street). Later, I also learned that Gibson comes highly tauted. I'm not surprised. In between, wedding toasts, he spoke knowledgeably about his book collection and fine art framing.

Whether I'm in Long Beach on a visit to Acres of Books, LA's largest secondhand bookshop; to Book City in Hollywood; or to bookshops in Los Feliz, where my brother Mark lives, the range, number, and speciality of local bookshops never fail to inspire hope about the written word and the future of the printed page. (Forget Kindle. At outdoor cafes here, you see readers reading books).

I even like some shops with new books; though unless I encounter deep discounting, I rarely bother with them for serious buying. (Still, who can not like Hennessey+Ingalls in Santa Monica, one of the world's great art and architecture bookshops).

True, any reverie that places LA, the nation's second largest city, as the West's principal book haven doesn't always stack up with the statistics. Or alledged statistics. Believe it or not, an institution of higher learning, Central Connecticut State University, has even come up recently with data that shows Los Angeles as the 59th 'literate' city in the United States, behind, ahem, way behind, such well-known cultural meccas as Tulsa; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Tampa. (Philadelphia, at 31, also wins out).

Connecticut State has also crunched the numbers regarding bookshops per 10,000 residents in the top 75 US cities. How much humbug are these stats? Well, Newark, New Jersey, is ranked No 1. Philadelphia is 37, even with Borders closing on Broad Street. New York is 68. Los Angeles, 70. Please, enough said.

To my mind, Conn State's figures fail to pass the smell test. Who can't remember just 10 years back when Center City Philly was richer by at least five other prominent bookshops? Manhattan? Same thing. Back East, bookshops are a dying breed. Here, despite Conn State stats, they're thriving.

In all, I can easily count up to 50 bookshops in Los Angeles within easy driving distance. In sheer number alone, try that, Philadelphia! Even mid-town Manhattan!

Like driving, bookshops are part of the daily culture here. I was having lunch Tuesday with Mark at the Figaro (a fabulous French bistro on Vermont Avenue), and I was flanked by at least three bookstores and the Los Feliz branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The nearby Skylight on North Vermont Avenue is probably is best known. New books only. Still, I usually wind up buying something.

For one reason another (again, the science of the thing), many local bookshops specialize in travel. Many others, not surprisingly, concentrate on show biz in all its forms, from film to music.

More evidence of literary LA? The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, its 16th, to be held at the University of Southern California campus here from 21-22 April, is one of the largest in the country.

Actually, my favourite LA bookshops aren't exactly in LA, but rather in Glendale, best known for its 'Beverly Hills' of Hollywood's deceased, Forest Lawn cemetery.

To a Philadelphian, describing Glendale results in a jumble of tangled bits, in that no Philadelphia suburb quite matches Glendale in population and building density, walkability, and affluence. Wilmington, Delaware, might be something like it if Wilmington were located where Upper Darby is (with no West Philly in between) and with a main street that sported a Tiffany's and other up-market shops. And, of course, 'niceness.' If Glendale were in Ireland, it'd be the kind of place where Postman Pat would tip his tam 'o shanter and offer you a 'top of the morin'.' People smile and take pride in the community. (Earlier this week, I noticed a pedestrian on the main drag, Brand Boulevard, picking up and disposing of a stray newspaper. Why? Because he just cared).

In this idyllic place (don't forget the palm trees), I've found my top fav bookshops, four in all. Thankfully, a branch of Barnes & Noble has replaced the Borders on Brand that bit the dust. Hold on! This isn't just any B&N. In its location, in the new Americana mall, it's the largest in square footage and inventory west of the Mississippi, more than three times the size of the B&N on Rittenhouse Square in Philly. And the branch specializes in books, not the book paraphernalia that seems to encroach on B&N branches back East.

It's also a 'sustainable.' Not surprising, this being California and all. 'Do you want paper or plastic?' the youthful sales associate asked before wrapping my purchase. When learning of my Philly roots, he added, 'We're sustainable here. I don't think you have paper bags at the branches back East yet.' He was right.

Bookfellers, also on Brand, is another favourite. This place is especially well stocked in American literature. (In other words, John O'Hara country). For the arts and equestrian titles, the Glendale Public Library's resale shop, the Book Nook, is the place to go. When in idle conversation, I mentioned that I was from Philadelphia, the sales associate was genuinely interested in my bookbuying adventures. Had I tried the Goodwill store, with its extensive collection of used books? I had. It was closed. 'Anyway, welcome to Glendale!' she said.

For my purposes, I can find no better book emporium in Los Angeles than Brand Bookshop on North Brand Boulevard, overseen by the genial and knowledgeable Jerome Joseph. (And aged. He's 83. His son, who also works in the shop, is 63. A murky future, maybe?)

Since 1986, Mr. Joseph has presided over an inventory of more than 100,000 titles. This is shop that caters to my every whim. I whip off the shelf Roger Scruton's On Hunting. Two books, one by Lllian Ross and other by E.J. Kahn, Jr., whet my New Yorker interest. What? Two books by Margaret Cabell Self, the mid-20th century eminence grise of riding instruction. These too are spoken for in short order. I scope out the shelves, yes, shelves of books on museums.

Brand Bookshop does what few other used book stores can't or are unwilling to do. Books are clean, plentiful, and reasonably priced. And uniquely sold by Mr. Joseph, one of the most kindly and convivial booksellers I have ever met. That combination, no doubt, accounts for the fact that Brand Bookshop is rated, year after year, as the 'BEST USED BOOKSTORE' in LA by Los Angeles Magazine.

'Good to see you again,' Mr. Joseph told me as I concluded my purchase.

Needless to say, as well, for bookbuyers, welcome to Glendale.

Philabooks|Booksellers