A couple of weeks ago at Village Books in Pacific Palisades, they were selling books like it was going out of style.
Some came for the inscribed copies of Palisades honorary mayor Sugar Ray Leonard's new autobiography. Some came for a talisman — a shelf, a hanging "Literature & Fiction" sign, any keepsake of Katie O'Laughlin's neighborhood bookstore on its last night before it morphed into palivillagebooks.com. Me, I came to buy the last book ever sold at Village Books, just as I'd bought the first one 14 years before.
To keep my mind off the temptation to weep uncontrollably, I asked myself which book would make the most fitting final purchase. The buzzards had long since started circling, so the remaining books were already huddling toward the middle shelves, hemmed in by vacant plywood on all sides. When I hit Mark Sarvas up for a suggestion, that sly blogger at the Elegant Variation — with unnerving speed, as if he'd already somehow had the question leaked to him — pointed discreetly toward a copy of Philip Roth's The Dying Animal. Then he resumed fulminating darkly about the evening's events: "Where were all these people six months ago?"
A copy of the Library of America's collection of Henry James' literary criticism suddenly appeared in my hand, using that patented magnetic-levitation technology they always do. But it was 30 bucks if it was a penny, even after the 40 percent going-out-of-business markdown, and I have my own undercapitalized indie bookshop/lending library to feed. Then I noticed an old copy of The Believer, containing interviews with Ed Ruscha and Harold Ramis, which penciled out to five bucks, six tops. But was I really going to play the cheapskate on O'Laughlin's last night of operation? The thought nagged at me: If enough people over the years had bought Library of America editions instead of The Believer, might all this not be happening?
Fourteen years before, at 10 a.m. on O'Laughlin's first official opening morning of business, I'd pressed my nose against the Village Books shop window until she ran back from finishing a 10K to wait on me. Now it was time for last call at her shop, and I was skulking around like some literary vulture. In the intervening 14 years, Village Books had sold innumerable books and given the lie to any easy insults about shallow Westside culture. Sure, I was determined to buy her last book because I'm a pathological completist who never met a grand opening or a farewell tour he didn't like. But every bookstore dirge these days can also feel like part of a larger diminuendo. At Village Books that night, I think I mostly just wanted to stand up and be counted, because, like too many readers lately, I fear I don't count for much.
The sad fact was that tonight, Village Books was going the way of Dutton's and Midnight Special, leaving just a handful of independent booksellers on the Westside, including Diesel Brentwood, the newly opened Sideshow in West L.A. and Pages in Manhattan Beach. Customers were still jamming Village Books — they spilled onto the sidewalk, even though it was pushing midnight. My cute little gesture of solidarity was well into its fifth hour. Just as they were about to zero out the register, I bit the bullet and shelled out for Henry James.
It was worth it. In return for my guilty tithe, I made friends with a shop employee who had, it turned out, already bought the other half of the two-volume set. So everybody won. Except, that is, for Village Books, O'Laughlin's staff and the readers of Los Angeles.
But the thing about independent bookstores is, they're not so easy to kill. O'Laughlin announced a low-profile sidewalk sale a few days after that Thursday night, and I had to go back and buy her last book all over again. (For all I know, this is some kind of new business model.) Borders just gave up the ghost, but in every one of those 400 doomed superstores, I swear there's some punk kid looking at all those discounted empty bookshelves and cash registers and thinking, "As long as I owe a kidney to student loans anyway ..."
Except for generationally, I am that kid. While O'Laughlin wonders if the degree of Kindle and iPad penetration in the Palisades may have helped do her in, Libros Schmibros, the lending library/used-books shop I founded a year ago in Boyle Heights, faces little such competition. The digital divide is insidious, all right, but because of it the future of indie bookselling may just lurk in neighborhoods like mine, on the wrong side of those same inequitable tracks.
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Either there, or in museums. With bracing weirdness, it so happens that the Hammer Museum has invited me and my volunteers to create a pop-up library/bookshop in its lobby gallery, starting Aug. 27. In addition to allowing people in Westwood to score a book on the fly for the first time since the local Borders threw in the towel, Libros at the Hammer will be a valentine to L.A. bookselling.
That Thursday night at Village Books, there in the crowd, I glimpsed the great film writer–director Ron Shelton and his wife, actress Lolita Davidovich, who'd starred in Blaze for him. One minute he was signing the guest book, the next they were gone. In their wake I sidled over to read what he'd scribbled in the heavy ledger. Here was the guy who'd written Crash Davis' showstopping monologue in Bull Durham. For Tin Cup, he'd come up with one of the great unsung movie endings. Who better to inscribe a valediction for Village Books? His handwriting would have given a medical secretary pause, but I could just make it out. It read, "I don't like this."
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