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California’s temple of tomes

A literary treasure trove in downtown Los Angeles proves that books still matter

The Last Bookstore is California’s largest new and second-hand books store.
The Last Bookstore is California’s largest new and second-hand books store.

It was fate. I was deep in an armchair, flipping through a book, when I looked up and saw the dog. It was a pom, white and perky, booties on his feet and a bell on his leash. He saw me looking, wagged his tail and moved on. I think the wag was approval of my reading choice, a book called #WeRateDogs, showing off some of the “goodest doggos" in the world. It was a happy coincidence. But, then, I was at a place designed for magical experiences and memorable stories.

The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles is a bibliophile’s dream come true. It is California’s biggest new and second-hand books and record store and one of the largest independent book stores in the world. It opened in 2005 in a downtown loft and, in its third incarnation, is a 22,000 sq. ft collection of books and records.

I visited it one summer afternoon and fell in love, and like someone who cannot get enough of their beloved, I went back twice. It still wasn’t enough time to sample a fraction of their over 250,000-strong collection.

On my first visit, I walked in and stopped short. There were books everywhere, stacked in shelves and displayed in installations. The store had a high ceiling and pillars, with lights twinkling above and wrapped around the railings of the mezzanine. A clock on the far wall looked down upon a seating area modelled on a drawing room, which doubles as a stage for events.

Mellow music, English pop and classic numbers followed me as I walked through the room. The main bay had shelves containing fiction and non-fiction, organized alphabetically. A turning at the entrance took me to the annexe containing art and rare books, some out of reach behind glass, peeling covers indicating a life well lived. Here, Ernest Hemingway in a green jacket sat beside Charles Dickens in blue while Sigmund Freud, a little yellow around the edges, looked on.

Another small annexe led to the children’s section, with a small play area. Nearby was an alcove name Dungeon Dungeon, stocked with graphic novels, indie books and zines. One whole section was dedicated to vinyl records, stacked according to genre, and surrounded by plants. The décor here could be a lesson in upcycling, with vines and succulents growing proudly from transistors, small TV sets, record players and cassette players. It was a beautiful symphony of the old birthing new life.

It is upstairs that books and art find cohabitation. The mezzanine, also known as the Labyrinth Above the Last Bookstore, houses used books (over 100,000) covering subjects like sci-fi, true crime, history, cultural studies, religion and travel. There are also several installations made from surplus stock and ruined books and pages. An old vault is the home for the horror collection, though the books have little to do with the chills felt in the place. A favoured spot is a tunnel made of stacked books. The only light at the end of this tunnel is that of camera flashes, as people seek their best angles for Instagram. A notable installation atop the stairs has books erupting from a bookcase.

Away from the books is a space dedicated to artists from the Spring Arts Collective, who display their wares in little niches on the mezzanine, and a yarn shop.

The entire store is located in what was once a bank, perhaps symbolizing that treasure can take on different meanings. My haul from the store included a few short story compilations, postcards and a mini artwork.

As expected from a store selling stories, there is a story behind the origins of The Last Bookstore. Owner Josh Spencer, unable to walk after an accident, decided to reorient his life and dedicate it to his love for books. The store opened in 2005 in a loft before finding its home at the historic Spring Arts Tower in 2011. The name is a cheeky take on the state of book stores today, many of which are shutting down, losing out to e-readers and online stores.

There is something for everyone at The Last Bookstore. There is art, and merchandise on sale. There are regular lectures, book clubs like The Thing in the Labyrinth (for horror fans), and events. There are enough cute spots to delight and distract millennials addicted to their smartphones.

It also stays open late, until 10pm. Even then, this millennial had to eventually be kicked out.

Joanna Lobo is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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