Los Angeles has just about everything, but it doesn’t have that many great bookstores. Sure, there’s Book Soup in West Hollywood, and out in Pasadena there is Vroman’s. But if you live in West LA like me you’re hard pressed to find anything more than a storefront in a strip mall or a Barnes & Noble. I could rattle off a couple of independent video stores I like that are mere walking distance from my apartment, but as for books, forget it. It may be the wrong medium for this town, but I tend to get nostalgic.
There are two bookstores in downtown that reverse that trend, both one block between each other. They represent two business models, and their experience gives a bit of insight into the future of independent booksellers in this country.
This is a little gem of a store tucked away next to an abandoned movie theatre on Main. A refuge from the grit of the Arts District, it has all of the charm of a favorite aunt’s home—couches, fans, and a friendly dog resting near the entrance, not to mention very kind staff.
Metropolis has some specialties like mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. It even has a nice young adult nook at the back that would make Judy Blume proud. There is a used bookshelf in the corner, but most of the stuff on sale are crisp hardbacks and paperbacks. Some of the titles are too expensive for my budget, so when I look through the stacks, I make a mental note to compare the prices to those on Amazon.
And that’s my problem, I love Metropolis Books, but I can’t quite afford its selection. This points to a larger problem in the bookselling community: I am not a fan of the e-book, but the prices do look good—seven or eight dollars less than the list. Call it a failing of my generation but we will always mentally comparison shop between bricks and mortar and whatever’s online. I want great independent bookstores like Metropolis to exist forever, because they support great independent authors, but I wonder if the competition is far too intense.
The Last Bookstore
The Last Bookstore sits just north of Metropolis next to a quaint little restaurant, The Banquette Café. It just opened last year and has already won Best New Business from The Los Angeles Downtown News. And it does deserve a nod. The staff is friendly and the book selection (almost all used) is strong and eclectic. I could just as easily find a book on philosophy as one on food, or history. Unlike Metropolis, they don’t specialize in any genre, but they do have a great literature section. In fact, there’s an entire shelf in back devoted to local poets and prose writers.
The Last Bookstore, perhaps because it is run with such youthful enthusiasm, hosts a plethora of events. Almost every month’s art walk brings another reading or music performance. The shop is always busy, especially with young hipsters, and sometimes I can’t even find a seat at the table in back.
Yet, there are very few new books on sale. Their business model is good—used books can be bought at a fraction of the price and are easy to resell. Let’s face it, most readers aren’t sticklers for clean-looking pages. The Last Bookstore is not just a tongue in cheek nod to 1984; this is the last place books are sold. Authors and publishers make no money on the merchandise. I love the store, but I worry the name is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if there were only last bookstores, there would be no authors and no new books.
I spend more money at the Last Bookstore, by far, but I can’t help but think this isn’t doing much for the book buying economy. Secondhand bookstores will always exist; even in an internet economy they can do most of their business online because there still is a market for old or out of print books. And as much as I like the model, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for those places that weren’t the last, the places you come to find books first, the kind of stores that are quietly disappearing.