Glenn Goldman, the charming, sui generis, entirely lovable and perennially awkward proprietor of Book Soup, has died too young of pancreatic cancer. This is a blow first of course to his two children, and then to his many friends, and finally to the business of selling books in L.A. Will the shop survive? I am going to dream for a moment that a buyer will emerge who is as besotted as Glenn was with the absurdity of being an independent bookseller during the end days for publishing. Someone who knows exactly why L.A. needs Book Soup much more than, say, a bright, shiny light box called a Kindle, a machine that would have you believe convenience is the one thing that was lacking from loving and living with books.
Anyway, tant pis. In the 1980s, the first iteration of Book Soup was closer to San Vicente; a tiny, chic little maze, a bit like a set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The store had various levels and thick shelves, with paint the patina of café con leche, and was open from 10 a.m. to midnight. Glenn was a genius at book buying, really. It was his special skill to understand that books were sexy. And if he had to get the British edition of Martin Amis’ Money because it had more élan, so he would. Glenn was as curatorial with his shelves as Gagosian was with his Schnabels. His timing was perfect: He opened at the exact time houses like Vintage were reintroducing a kind of vigorous American lit to a new generation of readers. Glenn’s shop was where you went to find the latest from small presses like Sun & Moon and Black Sparrow — gorgeous books made pretty much by hand in California. Before Hunter’s in Westwood or Beverly Hills had Jay McInerney, Bret Ellis, Joan Didion, Steve Erickson and Kate Braverman — you would know to first go to Book Soup and put it on your house account. The little store he made so carefully was as emblematic of L.A. as Shakespeare & Company is to Paris. The house accounts were perfect, old school — like the house accounts you used to be able to get at restaurants like Joe Allen (now Orso). It made book buying more glamorous, and if you were broke — possible.
I was often alone there at night, behind the counter in the early days. Typing. Maybe a few people would come in after 10. Glenn knew there had to be a haven for anxious and insomniac writers, readers and assorted movie and art types on their way to Canter’s or Gorky’s. Actors wanting published screenplays at 11:50 p.m. One made friends: Bruce Wagner skulking around, before he became the great chronicler of L.A., as a dark magic trick in the desert. (Wagner in fact devotes sections of his first book, Force Majeure, to Book Soup as a spot in the miasma to breathe and think, collect yourself from the sordid and various ghouls that haunt this town.)
And so then, of course, the little store grew up. It had to: It was dying from quaint and overcrowding. And it occurred to Glenn that there might be actual money to be made rather than the pin money that came in from the little Caligari maze. In its move down the street across from Tower and Spago, it became a machine, a slick albeit a kind and decent one, and Glenn retreated to the back, not so much a front man anymore. He was able to devote vast space to art books, more than anyone else in the indie-bookstore scene. He had a special love for richly produced, lavishly printed photography books. And his curatorial skills expanded. Book Soup was the place for visiting and local authors to come to celebrate their latest.
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Whenever my plays were handsomely published, we would have a little “thing” at his brief folly of a café next door — a signing and some champagne. It was the only such ritual I enjoyed, as I had written both The Film Society and The Substance of Fire at Book Soup, the latter in a borrowed book-crammed office above the new shop. The first line of that play is “Look at all these books . ”
We were close back then. I moved East, but checked in a lot. His smile and laugh made me smile and laugh. There was, wrapped up in all his adultness, the weight and complexity of being a father — still a child’s joy. Books were his toys, totemic and sacred. Business was never as important as the mystique of what was on a page, and why it was valuable.
In the last years, after Tower closed, he was worried. But Glenn shrugged, stuck with it. There are not many like him left.
Jon Robin Baitz is a playwright and screenwriter, and creator of the television series Brothers & Sisters.