After nearly 64 years on Grand Avenue, downtown’s beloved antiquarian bookseller Caravan Book Store announced Jan. 31 it will close its doors at the end of this month. Specializing in rare, curious and out-of-print books on California and the Old West, exploration, gastronomy and niche historical genres, the tiny storefront persisted in an antiquarian book market now driven by keywords and online sales.
Inextricably linked with the personality and proclivities of its owner, the shop’s essence — its idiosyncratic collection, atmospheric imprint, promise of discovery — has long been cocooned from encroaching pressures; a rare, self-contained sanctum of an already distant era.
Two years ago an evocative L.A. Times article cataloged the store's charms, celebrating its “analog insistencies” amid upheavals of a rapidly changing downtown — and declared, “Caravan won’t be found on the internet.”
Now, owner Leonard Bernstein isn’t sure about that.
“What we don’t (sell) we’ll take with us and be online, probably, and maybe open another little gallery somewhere,” he said in a telephone interview. He was busy tending his shop, where he has spent most days since he took over the business from his father more than 30 years ago.
Bernstein’s congenial tone belied ambivalence, sadness, determination. Even as he checked off familiar rationales for retirement — he’ll be approaching his mid-70s, people are telling him to step back, enjoy his new grandson, tend his garden — he is not ready to let go of an identity crafted through decades of daily practice, or the attendant sense of purpose.
“This is my home. I’m part of the community here. I know the neighborhood, I know the people — and yet every day is a new experience. There’s someone to meet, someone new and exciting. … It’s very stimulating, mentally, and very refreshing.”
The decision to close, he said, has been a “struggle in my mind” for nearly two years.
Calling it the “end of an era,” Brad Johnson, owner of Johnson Rare Books and Archives in Covina, remembered Caravan as “a great browsing shop,” the likes of which are disappearing as sellers move online and focus on more expensive and rare stock.
“That’s the great thing about open shops: When you hop on the net you have a key word, but when you walk down the aisle something might catch your eye — that ability to browse and make discoveries, that sort of serendipity, was a particular specialty of Caravan.”
Also chair of a local chapter of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, of which Caravan was a charter member, Johnson added, “Their roots run deep here in the L.A. book community.”
But “they” is really just “he.” With occasional help from his three children in earlier years, Bernstein has kept the doors open, answered the phone, organized, cleaned, handled inventory and shipping, developed pitch-perfect customer service and faced the onslaught of questions, both erudite and mundane.
His son, Jeremy, remembered working in the shop, often called upon to find “that one book that a customer wants, buried under a thousand books.” But now, he said, his father is also tasked with handling “the homeless and mentally ill wandering into the shop multiple times a day, every single week.”
Bernstein said he has family and good friends who “come and go or get me a sandwich from time to time, that kind of thing. But basically it’s me.”
Such businesses are not given to crude approximation, cynical rebranding or developer-driven renaissance.
Bernstein insists there are no economic issues, no obscene rent inflation driving him out. Succession is more complicated.
“I could've hired people; I took a résumé today,” he said, unconvinced. “But you have to have a sixth sense in this business and know the material. And part of that is because as I grew up in it, I didn’t have the benefit of a computer or an iPhone. So I had to know this stuff — there’s a requirement to be accurate.”
Like many artisans who have refined a craft to the point of a mastery, the nuances of which for whatever reason don’t translate neatly to the next age, he is wary of handing it over.
“It’s unlike another business where you can hire someone to run the cash register or a coffee line. This takes a lot of finesse, a lot of good people skills, a lot of judgment and decision has to be made spontaneously sometimes, good or bad.”
As Bernstein told a friend earlier that day, “This business has been run by feeling, so I’m going to have to feel my way and see what happens.”
He insists he plans to become active in the book trade — as much as he is now, but in a different form.
“I suppose an alternative approach would be online, a website. But again, we’ll see. At this point … I can’t be more definite, except that I’m not disappearing,” said Bernstein, inviting mystery. “You will see or hear from me or both. You may not get the charm of the store I’m sitting in — but there will be other charms.”
Caravan Book Store is at 550 S. Grand Ave., downtown. Items throughout the shop will be marked down during a closing sale through Feb. 24.
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