If you're one of those shoppers who struts into bookstores, clutching a latte in one hand and wrangling a book off the shelf with the other, Lee Kaplan thinks you should be a little ashamed of yourself. Lee and his wife, Whitney, own Arcana Books on the Arts, one of the best bookstores around for new and used books on contemporary visual arts. Not only is that latte a threat to the merchandise in a commercial sense, but it's also a nasty slur against the bound and printed page.

“We're not big fans of liquid in our store,” says Lee. Embarrassed, I recall that I walked in for our interview with a big, dumb, styrofoam cup of coffee. “A majority of people would walk in with their bag from Barnes & Noble and their cup of coffee. We'd say” — his voice becomes light and decorous — “'Can we please check those at the counter for you?' And they'd assume we were accusing them of stealing, turn on their heels and walk out.” Lee swivels his eyes as if to say, I don't get it. “But most people would peek their head in and think we were too weird.”

Thanks to a series of fortuitous events, Arcana has happily ditched the Barnes & Noble foot traffic runoff and its longtime home on Third Street Promenade — where it had been since 1989 — for newer, much nicer digs at the Helms Bakery building in Culver City. A soft opening is set for Tuesday, and customers will be able to look around and make purchases, but there is still much work left to be done for Lee, Whitney and their seven employees.

On a recent afternoon, massive metal shelves (designed by a structural engineer hired by the Kaplans) fill the majority of the 5,000-square-foot floor, and dozens of carts laden with books and wrapped in plastic are scattered in whatever empty space remains. Empty Diet Coke cans sit on random surfaces, apparently forgotten. On the ground, there are boxes of Break Through! gray paint and slabs of cardboard. Employees bustle around wearing surgical masks, carting in more and more books. Encountered in media res, this work-in-progress scene seems pregnant with a sigh of relief waiting painfully to be breathed.

It's easy to see that the last few months have been rough. Since Thanksgiving, the Kaplans have been working 12- to 14-hour days with no more than 10 days off total. Because of the move, Arcana has been closed for 12 weeks instead of four or five as the owners had originally hoped. “Between the cost of all of our grandiose notions of moving and being closed for an extra two months without having any income,” it's been difficult, says Lee. “It's been the most stressful thing I've done in my adult life, probably Whitney too, but it's been really amazing.”

Looking back at Arcana's history, Lee's excitement about being part of Helms Bakery is understandable. He started out as a musician, concert producer and music writer and worked at the legendary Rhino Records in Westwood in in the late 1970s and early '80s. Later, burnt out on music, he decided that it would be cool to translate the knowledge that had served him well at Rhino — going to other stores, finding things that you know are more valuable than they're being sold for and reselling them — and apply it to book dealing. “I should sound more self-effacing, but it proved to be easier than I had anticipated,” he says.

He amassed a library and started Arcana in Westwood in 1984, before moving to Third Street Promenade in 1987. The store settled into its long-term space in 1989, and remained there until February of this year. “I grew to hate being on the Promenade,” Lee says. “When I originally moved down, it was before they renovated it, and it was like a no man's land, pre-gentrification. And it was awesome because a lot of book dealers in the mid-'80s moved there because the rents were incredibly cheap. It was basically a totally depressed walking mall.”

Then, small bookstore after small bookstore, unable to renew their leases as the Promenade landlords hiked their prices, left. Arcana was left sandwiched between a Borders and a Barnes & Noble, until the Borders, too, shut down. (Hennessey + Ingalls, the massive art and architecture bookstore, is around the corner from the Promenade.)

Though the Kaplans were paying four to five times less than what they should have been paying for prime real estate in the touristy thoroughfare that is the Promenade these days, the location was getting old, quite literally. The masonry hadn't been seismically reinforced according to the new laws enacted after the 1994 earthquake. The roof was leaking. The walls, which were made of limestone, would get wet and fall apart because of the store's proximity to the ocean. The cork flooring started deteriorating but couldn't be replaced tile by tile. The lighting was awful. The earthquake had splintered the ceiling with huge cracks.

Still moving in; Credit: Photo by Lenika Cruz

Still moving in; Credit: Photo by Lenika Cruz

“The ceilings were huge. Somebody would have to get a scissor lift and work for the better part of a couple of weeks to patch it up, like the Sistine Chapel, and we couldn't really close our building [for that long],” Lee says. Instead, he jokingly passed the disrepair off to customers as “part of the charm” of Arcana.

Now, the old space is in the hands of Tesla Motors; the company, according to Lee, is spending about $1 million to renovate the space and is probably leasing it at four to five times what Arcana paid. “I'm sure our landlord is happy as a clam,” he says. “It was just not so fun for us for a couple years. It became kind of shabby and rundown, and now we get to start fresh in this really beautiful space.”

Five of the possible new spaces that they negotiated for — mainly in Culver City, with more of an industrial warehouse than retail feel — fell through for crazy, last-minute reasons. Wally Marks of Helms Bakery ultimately wooed the Kaplans into bringing Arcana to its current space, which is essentially “a big glass box that's surrounded by windows on three sides,” Lee says, ostensibly a more fitting and attractive home for Arcana's 100,000 or so books that Lee has accumulated over the years.

But sunlight can damage books. “Airiness and lightness and windows — everyone loves these things in a space, but that's like a bookstore owner's nightmare,” Lee says. So they've stuck UV film on all the windows, and will likely have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fit them with shades. “Typically your used bookstore is not very nice inside. Most people who own a bookstore are kind of living hand-to-mouth. They don't have money to spend on niceties.” Dropping a hundred grand to spruce things up is often out of the question.

Which raises the question: How has Arcana not only been able to avoid closure but also financially weather the move to a larger space? In a similar move a year ago, the Last Bookstore relocated to a 10,000-square-foot space in downtown L.A., and this summer, it will be adding another 6,000-square-foot loft where it will house a revolving selection of 100,000 books priced at $1.

Lee attributes much of Arcana's relative success to its hyperspecialization. “We sell books on contemporary visual arts, photography, art, architecture, design, rock & roll, books about music photographically,” Lee says, rattling off the list like the letters in the alphabet. The key is that these books are not text-based, and digital technology like tablets and e-readers have yet to evolve to the point where they can reproduce, in great quality, large, carefully printed art books. Arcana still has a large collection of books that sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, even if they're not in the greatest condition, because they are so rare. Or because the art market is hot for a certain book.

Historically, the art book world has had its own strange laws of supply and demand. Before the Internet, the art dealers wanted to have large reference libraries so they could quickly look up a painting that was being sold on the other side of the world. A “hot” Gerhard Richter painting listed on Monday could be gone on Wednesday if you didn't give your art dealer a straight yes or no — there was no time, really, for a gallery's in-house photographer to shoot the artwork and mail the transparency over to the potential client so he or she could make a decision. Lee describes how, in the late '80s and early '90s, collectors in Japan went crazy for art, exhibition catalogs and books, buying them hand over fist. Then the real estate market tanked in 1991, and suddenly no one in Japan was buying art — or art books — anymore.

Arcana's new entrance; Credit: Photo by Lenika Cruz

Arcana's new entrance; Credit: Photo by Lenika Cruz

Even now, Arcana is not immune to the vagaries of expensive taste. Lee cites a recent example: The mid-2000 releases of The Photobook (volumes 1 and 2) by Gerry Badger, which lists the 400 most important photography books in the field, “became almost like a shopping list for the wealthy,” he says. A book that used to be $300 was suddenly worth $2,000 because everyone wanted it. Books would scale two, three, four times in price. “When the real estate market collapsed in 2008, all these wealthy young, dilletante-ish people who were doing this as a lark weren't spending money on it any longer.”

Another asset in the art book world before the Internet age were random, obscure bits of knowledge, like stories about the odd publication history of Ed Ruscha books that maybe 20 people in the world might know about. When anyone in the business dies, that knowledge might be lost with them. Even with the Internet, widely disseminated information might be cut with lazy bastardizations of details — Lee compares it to the children's game Telephone — so Lee and his deeply knowledgeable staff still have a distinct edge over amateur online listings.

Last Bookstore owner Josh Spencer thinks some independent bookstores have outlived bigger chains because they are more free to adapt to the needs of their customers, instead of imposing a monochromatic, one-size-fits-all model that is meant to work in every town or city. Though Spencer doesn't know Lee, he's a little familiar with Arcana and thinks it deserves a bigger space after 25 years. “I went to Arcana once about five years ago, and was astounded at the sky-high prices.” he wrote in an email. “Too rich for my blood. But I think they're passionate about what they do and have tapped into a wealthy clientele, which is why they're successful.”

Yes, Arcana has famous and influential clients — cinematographers, actors, directors, producers, fashion designers with more than a little disposable income to spend on rare books. But it's not a point Lee wants to dwell on. “I always try to be pretty discreet about those kinds of things,” he says. “I feel like I respect our clients too much to use their names to attract attention.”

A lot of it has to do with living in a city that is a hub for creative, wealthy types. “There are certain fashion photographers or designers who stop by every time they come to Los Angeles. So we could be having a terrible week, but then so-and-so walks in, they might easily spend $10,000, and that changes a terrible week to not such a bad week,” Lee says.

He acknowledges that Marks had this clientele in mind when inviting Arcana to Helms Bakery. “If someone comes to Arcana, they're perfectly capable of going and buying an Aalto vase or a $3,000 chair at the Vitra showroom or taking five people out to lunch for $200 at Lukshon.”

In the end, the books themselves are still what got him into the business in the first place. He might have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of high-end art publications, but he's still just a regular book junkie. A pall comes over his face when he speaks about “orphaned books” that are thrown into landfills or not swaddled in protective archival sleeves. In grammar school, he would work summers in Campbell's Bookstore in Westwood, where they'd pay him in books. His first real job was a commission by his grandfather to manually catalog his immense library on 4-by-6 cards.

“Typical of me, I didn't finish it,” he says laughing. But then he gets up and gets back to work.

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