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Unchain Your Heart 

Bookstores for the independent-minded book lover

Thursday, Oct 13 2005
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Illustration by Max Kornell
Contrary to the East Coast caricature that narcissistic illiterates populate this town, Los Angeles is positively teeming with bookworms (many of whom probably are narcissists... but that’s another story). Statistics show that Southern California is the largest book market in the U.S., and L.A.’s thriving independent bookstore scene would seem to bear that out. Despite the proliferation and convenience of large chain stores, with in-house Starbucks, plentiful parking and sometimes better prices, indies continue to retain a loyal following here, and for good reason.

“At independent bookstores like this one, we often buy books with certain customers in mind,” says Kerry Slattery, general manager of Skylight books in Los Feliz. “That’s the main difference between us and the chains. In that sense, customers feel like they have a real stake in the bookstore and they become very attached to that.”

Skylight is one of the biggest and best-known indies in town, and a favorite of author JT LeRoy (Sarah, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things), who also likes Small World in Venice, West Hollywood’s Book Soup and Dutton’s in Brentwood and Beverly Hills, even though staff sometimes follows him around, “like I am gonna steal something.” Understandable — LeRoy usually wears a blond wig and sunglasses when out in public. “But I’d never steal anything from an indie,” he says. “A chain, well, yeah. But not an indie.”

I ask Slattery to recommend stores that are independent like Skylight, but less well known. There are plenty, she says, since few indies can afford advertising. She reels off a long list of stores worth checking out — some of which I’d never heard of — and I pick five places to visit.

Counterpoint on Franklin is nestled in the heart of the so-called “stretch” between Bronson and Tamarind — a row of self-consciously scruffy shops, bars and cafes such as the Bourgeois Pig and La Poubelle. Part bookstore, part record shop, Counterpoint is a relaxing place to browse with a to-go cup from the Pig. It is dusty and filled with bespectacled hipsters. Little piles of books waiting to be reshelved betray the clientele’s reading tastes — Huxley, Simone de Beauvoir, Kerouac. Good solid boho bedtime material, all used. Next door is a small gallery called Harmony, which also sells books. The two stores share ownership. Harmony’s reading collection is higher end, with more first-edition and hardcover stuff. I pick up Taschen’s 1000 Tattoos and head west down Franklin to a Hindu Temple that houses, so I’ve heard, the best religious mysticism bookstore in town.

“A Hindu temple in the hills above Hollywood? Where’s that?” you ask. I wish I knew. Mapquest totally let me down and even though I could clearly see the white dome of the Vedanta Center peeking over the 101 Freeway, I spent at least 20 minutes driving in circles trying to get to it. Like a desert mirage, it kept disappearing the closer I got. I recommend using the Force, which got me there eventually.

After stepping through a gate, you walk through some small gardens and past the meditation center to reach the bookstore, which contains various tomes on Hinduism, the Kabbalah, Islamic mysticism and American Indian spirituality. It is run by the monks and nuns of the Rama Krishna order, who started it back in the 1930s as “two tables with some books” according to the friendly 70-year-old man behind the counter. He tells me about the temple’s literary connections — Christopher Isherwood used to meditate there and Aldous Huxley actually lived in the monastery for some time. It is nice to be in a place without cameras watching your every move. I buy a copy of Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, along with three packets of patchouli matches and a small bronze cast of a Hindu deity, and head into the Valley to The Iliad.

North Hollywood’s The Iliad is a 17-year-old used bookstore with a strong counterculture emphasis. At the back is a notice that says, “Fuck Hate... We able-minded creators do hereby tell you, the establishment: fuck you in the mouth. We’ve had enough of your bullshit.” The Iliad’s house authors are Kesey, Burroughs, Ginsberg — you get the picture.

There are gray couches at the side of the room perched beneath a stained-glass window bearing the shop’s name, taken from Homer’s tale. Unlike the dusty little hangout that is Counterpoint or the specialized quirk of Vedanta, this place feels like it was made for serious book lovers. I count four rooms in total, increasingly dark and windowless, holding thousands of volumes. Metaphysics gets 14 shelves alone. There is a selection of paperbacks simply named “Old and Strange” and an impressive art collection and four whole shelves devoted to Star Trek. But the best thing about The Iliad — apart from its two cats, Torquemada and Helga — is the cut-price table, where I find a Janis Joplin biography — hardback, no less — for $4. Sweet. I tell the two dudes behind the counter that I am headed downtown next, to the ultra-left bookstore Libros Revolucion and to Creation Books, literary provocateurs specializing in banned books and extreme literature. “Watch yourself at Creation,” warns one of the fellas. “That’s a shady area.”

He’s right. It feels eerie as I pull up outside Creation on West Seventh Street. A burglar alarm is going off somewhere and homeless people are asleep on divider walls across the street. I find parking right outside, but don’t go in straight away. There’s a crackhead hanging out in the doorway. He steps away to check out a cute Latina girl walking by, and I make my move — but the door is locked. In the front window, I notice a copy of The Velvet Underground, the fetish book that inspired the band’s name. I knock and a huge rockabilly dude named Dan opens the door and welcomes me in. He talks a mile a minute as he shows me around his extraordinary collection of mainly new books: a guide to freak horror movies, Wilhelm Reich’s controversial The Mass Psychology of Fascism, books on Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. A book called Virtual Government: CIA Mind Control Operations in America. Another called Psychopathia Sexualis, detailing 237 case histories of unusual fetishes.

“I’m not crazed,” says Dan. “I am simply the guy who is ready to look all this shit in the face. Just because I sell books about serial killers doesn’t mean I am one. And just because I sell books on Satanism doesn’t mean I go home and sacrifice cows.”

The store, formerly called AMOK, used to be in Los Feliz until rising rents pushed it downtown. I buy the AMOK Dispatch, the definitive guide to edgy bedtime reading and a literary work in itself, for only $10.

“We often sell books at less than the cover price,” says Dan, before seeing me to the door and waving goodbye as I head down the street to Libros Revolucion.

Situated on the edge of the garment district, Libros Revolucion is the sort of place where you can read about Mao Tse Tung’s take on revisionist histories of the Vietnam War. At least, that’s what one customer was asking for when I visited. “I looked everywhere,” he said. “I figured this was the only place in town that would have what I want.” And there it was.

Libros Revolucion, a bilingual bookstore, is run by a collective of volunteers who support the Revolutionary Communist Party. The store’s pamphlet states that Libros Revolucion, which opened 18 years ago, is a place where “immigrant garment workers come to seek news from the Chiapas and young rebels from South Central stop by to pick up a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book.” There is revolutionary graffiti on the floor, and a pillar at the back bears the words “Free Palestine.”

The store and its staff have received threats and hate mail from those who take offense to its politics. A young Latino man with a floppy Mohawk tells me that hasn’t deterred people from visiting. “A lot of people come here to find out about protests and to read about the plight of poor people around the world,” he says. “They come here to find out the truth.”


Counterpoint Records & Books | 5911 Franklin Ave., L.A., (323) 957-7965

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Harmony Gallery | 5911½ Franklin Ave., L.A., (323) 957-7967

Vedanta Center | 1946 Vedanta Pl., Hollywood, (323) 465-7114

The Iliad | 4820 Vineland Ave., North Holllywood, (818) 509-2665

Creation Books | 1228 W. Seventh St., L.A., (213) 623-6995

Libros Revolucion | 312 W. Eighth St., downtown, (213) 488-1303
Reach the writer at caroline@carolineryder.com

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