When Josh Spencer first moved into the neighborhood, he saw quite a few unexpected things: “Dead bodies in the street, people shooting up outside my door. I saw so many blowjobs on the street, too.”
It might be hard to believe Spencer is talking about the much-traversed blocks around Spring and Fifth Street in downtown L.A., much less that the era he's describing was just nine years ago. But as the owner of the Last Bookstore, Spencer has done as much as anyone to catalyze downtown's renaissance.
Modest to a fault, the soft-spoken Kentucky native chalks it all up to good luck. Selling books and other things on eBay had long been his business plan – until he got tired of his apartment “looking like a permanent garage sale” and decided to focus on books. Then, a cheap commercial space opened up across from his apartment in 2009, and he bowed to friendly local pressure for a brick-and-mortar store.
“It was on a short lease, so I could experiment,” Spencer says. His contractor father flew in from Hawaii and they set up the place in 10 days.
But the shop quickly outgrew the space. Someone suggested a larger location just a block away, a 10,000-square-foot former bank. Spencer recalls visiting the empty building: “I would just sit there and imagine it: the high ceilings, the columns, the immensity of it. I was enthralled.” He finished the designs and called his dad again.
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The store has since become such a regular feature in magazines and travel guides that Spencer leased the equally mammoth floor above, stocked it with dollar books and nicknamed it “the Labyrinth.” With its artwork, color-coded shelves, curved book tunnels and portholes, it's nearly impossible to leave this reassuring-smelling maze without an armful of books. Some regulars buy 10 or more a day.
With Spencer, 38, busy raising 2-year-old daughter Idunn with his wife, Heidi, he admits, “The only books I read now are about parenting or business.” He ran an online magazine before coming to L.A., and has a dozen books of various genres planned out in his head. “I thought the store would pay my bills and allow me time to write,” he says. “But I was very wrong about that!”
A 1996 moped accident left Spencer with no sensation below the waist, but even as he was building his book business online, he never let his wheelchair stop him from driving to yard, garage and library sales to pick up inventory. Faced with stairs, he says, “I had two people carry me, and it would cost me twice as much to get books.”
These days, “death, divorce or downsizing” ensure that stock keeps arriving, Spencer says. The store semi-runs itself. Spencer is more typically found at the warehouse (online sales comprise about 25 percent of the business) or working from home.
He lives for new people finding the store. “My favorite was a guy from Kenya who came in. He was on vacation, had heard about us somehow, and had a list of books he read when he was a schoolboy but couldn't get in his country. I went around the store with him and ticked off every one on the list. He was real excited to find them all.”
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