the Kids in the Hall
On a recent night at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, attendees were treated to a reading by best-selling author Jonathan Lethem from his new novel You Don’t Love Me Yet, one song played by Skylight clerk Arlo Klahr’s band, and a boy in a kangaroo mask. Klahr, one of a handful of creative types working at Skylight, had turned lines from Lethem’s book into song lyrics. Kangaroo Boy, meant to evoke the marsupial imagery in Lethem’s novel, wasn’t singing, or playing bass or drums or guitar, only sloshing around a bottle of whiskey. “It’s amazing what people will do for you if you just write a novel,” said Lethem.Among indie book sellers, Skylight is perhaps best known for its eclectic staff, who conceptualize events like the aforementioned book-into-song-into-kangaroo performance and midnight sellings of Thomas Pynchon’s novels (why should Harry Potter get all the fun?). “So many people want to work here,” says Kerrie Kvashay-Boyle, a Skylight clerk. “We get several applications a day.”Everybody at the store has a mystique. Klahr is the quiet one. According to Klahr, store buyer Charles Hauther is the bitter one. According to Hauther, store manager Steve Salardino is the ladies’ man because of the copious number of girls who come in to visit him. “We were known as the cute-boy bookstore for a while,” says Salardino, “then we were the cute-girl bookstore. Now we’re becoming the cute-boy bookstore again. I was part of the first cute-boy wave, but unfortunately my time has passed.”“I’m here basically to be personable with the author,” says Noel Alumit, Skylight’s events organizer, himself the author of two critically acclaimed novels. “Especially if the author is shy.” Alumit, who is easy with a crowd and the kind of person you want to know at a party, is also there as a fail-safe. Several times, when nobody bothered to come to a reading, he made conversation with the chagrined author.“Kerry Slattery, she’s the mother hen,” says Kvashay-Boyle, about the store’s owner. “She was seriously helping someone fill out their college applications the other day. Would that happen at Borders? I don’t think so.”Every independent bookstore must have a cat. Skylight’s cat is Lucy, who has orange fur, no tail, and has been described by customers as “addictively pettable.” During a recent Joshua Ferris reading, she meowed and walked across people’s laps, handily stealing Ferris’ authorial thunder. Lucy was brought to Skylight a decade ago by Slattery and simply refused to leave.Curious about what a cat in a bookstore does at night, Slattery sifted through footage recorded by the newly installed motion-activated digital security cameras. 4 a.m.: Lucy slinks up the stairs to use the litter box under Slattery’s desk. 4:15 a.m.: Lucy slinks back downstairs.Skylight used to be Chatterton’s. As a rule, independent bookstores grow back into the vacated spaces where other independent bookstores fold. Slattery, along with a group of silent partners, purchased the store back in 1994 when Chatterton’s owner died. When I stopped by on one day, she, Hauther and Kvashay-Boyle were huddled behind computers in the upstairs loft area.Hauther, who sat at that very same cramped desk when it was Chatterton’s, was bereft in the few months after it shut down. Then he heard neighborhood rumors that another bookstore was opening. “He tracked me down,” Slattery says. “He came to my home, stood on my doorstep, and said, ‘I’m an autodidact.’ No one had ever said that to me before.”Later on, I accompanied Hauther on his break to Fred 62 next door, the same place where he’d had lunch. “I’ve worked here so long that I’ve eaten at every restaurant within walking distance a million times.” Of his 17 years in the trade, says Hauther, “bookselling is basically the only work I’m not offended by. If I have to sell something, at least it’s books.” He’d been in phone sales before Skylight.“What did you sell then?”“Crap.”Hauther has also been a dockworker and an anti-nukes lobbyist for an extreme leftist political party, which makes a lot of sense. He is a big guy (and embarrassed about it), with large blue eyes and curly, graying blond hair — sort of like an overgrown cherub. In the “Staff Recommends” section, his selections gravitate toward tomes on anarchist theory and “space opera” novels. He is also fond of video games whose plots feature aliens taking over human bodies.Hauther is always inadvertently offending people, and they are always inadvertently offending him back. A handsome actor from the acting studio down the block came in asking for a book his teacher had recommended to him, by “Arnie Hemmings.”“Can you believe that?” Hauther says, scrunching his hair into his fists. “He meant Ernest Hemingway!”Not surprisingly, Hauther is the guy everybody else calls when a customer needs to be kicked out, such as when a homeless man shouldering a ladder wandered in, entreating people to literally climb up on his back. “He gave a speech about how we were getting rich off the backs of the poor. Everybody was afraid of him. But I thought it was kind of cool.” Hauther takes a giant slurp of his vanilla milk shake. “I appreciated the metaphor.”The staff go through phases of hanging out and not hanging out after work. For a while, Hauther and Salardino and a couple others got together on Thursday nights at Hauther’s apartment to watch episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But then the series ended. Nowadays, when the younger people go out for drinks some evenings, Hauther, by his own account, is the guy who doesn’t get invited.?“Noel is the model of how I want my life to be ultimately,” says Kvashay-Boyle. “He comes in for events and teaches and he has his nonprofit job at the AIDS foundation. The rest of the time he writes novels.” There are two kinds of writers, she figures: the inward, lost-in-their-own-world, just-want-to-be-left-alone-to-write type .?.?. and the hams who can’t stop talking. “I’m the second kind,” she says, laughing.Kvashay-Boyle’s good looks are, I think, wasted on print. She has long, straight, caramel-colored Rapunzel hair, and dresses in outfits that I want to call “quirky” or “vintage” but are likely meant to reference something way more sophisticated. When she isn’t at the store, Kvashay-Boyle, who graduated from the University of Iowa, is writing a screenplay of the short story she wrote for Dave Eggers’ Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology.“Trying to be a writer by yourself is too lonely,” she says. “When I’m at home I read the lit blogs and I’m so eager to come to work and chat about them with my co-workers. I love this job. I get to be around books all day and eat cheese and sip wine and schmooze with famous authors. I was ambivalent about living in Los Angeles until I found this bookstore. It’s a neighborhood joint and serves as a kind of anchor for the literary community.”Alumit introduces most of the authors at Skylight readings, but when Kvashay-Boyle’s dad, novelist T.C. Boyle, came in to read, she introduced him.“Do you mind if we take a little trip?” Steve Salardino asks me. “My life, see, it moves like this.” He snaps his fingers. We drive to a nearby nursery to buy his girlfriend a plant. Salardino and Hauther had both unpacked some of the first boxes of books at Skylight 11 years ago. “We’re like an old married couple, Charles and I. I spend more time with him than anybody else in the world. If I were to get a wife tomorrow, I would have to see her all day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year for 11 years to equal the number of hours I have spent with Charles,” he says. “Plus a few hours extra for the time we spent watching Buffy.” Slattery hired Salardino shortly after meeting him at the Japanese noodle place two storefronts up. He was reading a Sandman comic book, and they started talking. About what, Salardino can’t remember. “Eleven years,” he says, “kinda runs together.” He reaches into a snarl of plants. “People talk about how print is dying,” he says, as we pay for a small dracaena with violet leaves. “Things move so fast. We are in a continual state of flux. But we still see the same amount of people in the store. The chains strive to be similar, because it’s reassuring to people to see the same thing all the time. But I think people are also open to not knowing what they want.”I ask him about the word “FLUX” tattooed in all caps on the inside of his left arm. “I got it nine years ago when I turned 30. It’s my favorite word. It’s important to remember not to let things stagnate. And when things change for the better, it reminds me to take advantage. It’s a small word, but it says so much.” Though Salardino writes short stories, and has read them at the store, he has never written one about bookstore clerks. Someday, he would like to own a bookstore. It is, in fact, why he works at Skylight. “You have to have special circumstances for an independent bookstore to succeed,” he says. “Skylight has that. We have the great neighborhood with lots of artsy, literate people. We’re not cheaper, but we have unique items and atmosphere.”Back at the store, Hauther claps Salardino on the back by way of hello. A customer with that familiar beseeching look approaches Salardino and says, “Do you work here?”Salardino points to Hauther. “He does.”
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