Like Darwin’s finches, the booksellers of Los Angeles have found niches and creative ways to stay alive in a tough business and an even tougher town. We may be the largest book-buying market in the country, but is there a city in the world that offers more competition for our attention — and our money? Despite this, we are blessed with some world-class bookstores, staffed by some world-class booksellers. In this issue, we celebrate those stores — from east to west, Vroman’s, Skylight, Book Soup and Dutton’s, along with two relative newcomers, Family and Diesel — and the book buyers, owners, event planners, publicists and sales clerks who work in them.
These people are clever, wise, savvy, and by turns funny and tragic. Despondent at times about the future of their industry yet determined to see it through in some as-yet-unknown fashion, they and their workplaces are gloriously idiosyncratic in a culture veering precariously toward sameness. Beset on all sides by chain stores with whom they had established a wary truce, our city’s independent bookstores are also hemorrhaging customers to the biggest competition seen this side of Terabithia, a global entity for which no single metaphor seems to apply. Taking 33 percent of all U.S. book sales with it, online giant Amazon.com has swept down upon the world of letters, embodying every metaphor rolled into one. The hare’s speed, the tortoise’s endurance. The hundred knowing eyes of an Argus who never sleeps, with tentacles to fling books — shipping speed standard or expedited — straight into your mailbox.
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And yet, there are reasons aplenty to make the drive past the mailbox. Not the least of which is being in a place where the newest best stories get talked about, where communities form, where the gawky teenager you meet behind the register could very well be the next Rowling, Grisham, DeLillo, Rushdie, Lethem or Boyle, where it’s highly likely that you can meet the current Rowling, Grisham, DeLillo, Rushdie, Lethem or Boyle. Or, if all else fails, and none of that impresses, you can always pick up another copy of The Da Vinci Code.