Bookstore-hopping Thru TIME Time time…
  On Location    April 29, 2016     Eric Larkin



Today is Independent Bookstore Day. It is difficult to appreciate how lucky we are to live in a time when that is a thing. Though language and storytelling and abstract thinking are all aspects of what separates us from most animals (except dolphins and octopi, of course – renowned raconteurs, it is said), the next logical step of combining those things in a portable written form, readily available to anyone, has been a long time in coming. What’s the story? Well, since you ask…


We’re big on time travel around here. We’ve visited the famous Garcia Marquez/Vargas Llosa punch-out of 1976, and even prepared special book recommendations for our time-traveling compadres. Let’s utilize our secret yerba-mate time travel technique, and do a little in-person historical research. Bring your own TP and Clif Bars: we’re spending Independent Bookstore Day going bookstore hopping thru TIME Time time! [echo effect]



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Ah, Rome. Beautiful, stinky, violent Rome. There are bookshops all around the city – an idea probably ripped off from the Greeks, but developed or at least systematized by Rome, like nearly everything else the Greeks did. Well, ok – there’s some fuzziness here in what we mean by “bookstore”. What we’re talking about is where you go to get books. Throughout most of history, you got them at the same place they made them, unless they were imported. Though Alexandria is really the book capital of the Western world at this time, Rome is the center of everything, and we can get any book we want here – made or imported.

That is, if we could afford to actually buy one, which we can’t. Rich people have personal libraries; students and scholars have to borrow and trade books – actually, scrolls – which are a hassle to read and take up a ton of space anyway.



Ack – what a pain in the butt. Painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Still, let’s pop in here to one of the publishing houses and do a little window-shopping.

Browsing around, we see a few familiar authors that happen to be available: Aeschylus, Sophocles – a lot of Greeks in Greek – ahhh, Cato – that’s our guy. Holy smokes – No way we can spend an entire paycheck on one damn scroll. Oh wait, here’s a small, low-quality edition of The Aeneid we can almost afford. Hm, I’m not even sure if this is the whole thing – might just be excerpts – hard to tell on account of it being in Latin. Well, it’s the best we can do. It would just be humiliating to leave empty-handed, because these bookshops are where all the smart, cool, educated people hang out.

Oh – look thru that doorway – we can see the publishing “machine” at work. There’s a roomful of slave-scribes – a very expensive kinda slave – who each scribble furiously, copying down the words read aloud by a reader. This will produce as many copies as there are slaves. Ingenious. Wow. How could anyone ever do better than the Romans, with their impressive efficiency?

[For more on books in this period, check out Glued Ideas.]


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This medieval village smells about as bad as Rome, what with all the animals. There are no slaves, but there are lots of peasants, artisans and monks. There isn’t actually a proper bookstore, per se, with merchandise on the shelves and such, but if we want a book, we can get one. We go see the book maker with his network of specialists. Let’s do the rounds.

Here’s another roomful of scribes, scribbling like mad – they’re professionals – I see a few monks in the mix. There’s a lot of theology and philosophy being copied – still Latin and Greek. Next door are the folks who make paper: not so much papyrus these days, but vellum or parchment. And there are artists next door to that, and book binders across the street. There are a few wealthy patrons and university types telling the artisans how to do their jobs.

"For a few more shekels, we can throw in some nice gargoyle illustrations in the margin." "well, I don't know if I want to spend that much. This is a gift, and I don't really like the person." "Swine, then?" "Done." photo Wally Gobetz

“For a few more shekels, we can throw in some nice gargoyle illustrations in the margin.” “Well, I don’t know if I want to spend that much. This is a gift, and I don’t really like the person.” “Swine, then?” “Done.” photo Wally Gobetz

Ok, so if we want a book in the Middle Ages, we have to commission it. We can even get it customized: choosing the material it’s written on, how much illustration we want and what kind of script we’d prefer. That’s pretty amazing. Urrf – but they’re way out of reach for us. We could prob hang out at the nearby monastery and read whatever it has in its own collection, and if we’re students we can rent manuscripts, but we can’t afford to flat-out buy one of these “codices”. A codex is the latest in book tech – individual pages bound together, oft including footnotes, page numbers and such. They’ve been around for a few hundred years, and they’re a pretty big leap forward. It’s hard to imagine ever topping the options available here. Everything is incredibly beautiful, also incredibly expensive. Maybe we can find an old worn-out copy of something at discount. Or kill a monk and end up in an Umberto Eco novel.

[For more on books in this period, check out Medieval Fragments.]


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photo POP

photo POP

Here we are right at the beginning of the Reformation, a pretty crazy time in Europe – damn near everything is in flux. Even though Gutenberg’s printing press has been around for about 75 years (and moveable type for much longer than that  – from Asia), we’re still floored at how fast books appear on the market – in large quantities! We’ve lost some of the customizability, as this futuristic wonder pumps out these works by the tonne metrique, and the artwork is nowhere near the quality of the old illuminations – often just crude prints from block carvings – but the price has come down significantly. Hm. On the other hand… we’re still under the thumb of the elites. Almost everything printed is still in goddam classical languages, and very large works – they are basically all scholarly. Hence, though a lot closer to affordability for regular folks, we’d have to learn Latin or something and most books are just not really relevant for us. I mean, it’s possible for a little printing shop to survive on making and selling books, but they have to be really careful what they print: it has to sell and that means only printing what wealthy institutions and patrons will definitely buy. AH – but…. but: Martin Luther. That dynamo-in-a-robe who kinda sorta accidentally broke the Western Church into two pieces has just done something that changed publishing so much it took the rest of European culture with it. We’re in Wittenberg, Luther’s crib, ground zero for Reformation changes, so let’s just cruise over to one of his little shops and do a little browsing. What’s this? A small, elegantly made volume – this is really nice printing – even the woodblock art looks good (see above), not the usual hack job — Oh mein Gott it’s in German! We speak German! And the title: The Freedom of a Christian Man – a pretty severe challenge to the Church’s position ie grace-vs-works – damn, we could get burnt at the stake for this. We’ll take two. Plus there’s a German edition of Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly – less illegal, still wickedly subversive. Wow – and a stack of the social reform-minded Twelve Articles. It’s one of the manifestos for the Peasant War. I’m surprised that’s just sitting out on the table, but hey – it sells bonkers, they can’t print’em fast enough. BOOK BONANZA. Let’s grab a few of these New Releases – Psalms or Luther sermons or – ah, who cares what they are – they’re books and they’re cheap. Oh how nice – the clerk threw in a couple bookmarks.

Now we’re book shopping: these are readily available, affordable, in our language and on subject matters directly relevant to us.

All of that was Luther’s doing. It spread the Reformation movement faster than it could be controlled, but it also busted publishing wide open. In the middle of religious and political upheaval, regular folks could pick up literature on controversial subjects from whatever POV they chose and get themselves informed. That’s a first. That’s called revolution; thank you, Martin Luther.

[For more on books in this period, check out the amazing Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree. Our review.]


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So much of book making has centered around monasteries, and we’re heading to one now. This one is in Paris, and it’s not actually a monastery anymore. We’re going to make two stops in the same neighborhood, and before we get to the monastery, about a 10 minute walk away and 10 years earlier, we’re headed to Shakespeare and Company. Its American founder, Sylvia Beach, created a hub of literary life centered around her shop. Her bookstore not only sold books – and many that were banned elsewhere – but played home-away-from-home to everyone from Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway. She even published Joyce’s controversial Ulysses.

Off and on throughout history, the book trade has been tightly controlled by those in authority. This time it was the Nazis, who shut her down and put her in a camp for 6 months.

A few years after the war, George Whitman, another American expat, found this former monastery right on the Left Bank. His bookstore recreated something of the literary scene Beach had fostered, eventually going so far as to rename his shop Shakespeare and Company, with Beach’s blessing. Like many have done before us, we can actually stay overnight in the store, drifting off between shelves where the likes of James Baldwin and the Beat poets also found a home back in the day. Even now, it’s more than a retail shop; students and writers can take up residence, under the wing of Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman (yes, another homage). But we’re def gonna buy some books – without the threat of Nazi censorship – before heading back to LA in 2016.


[You can go here now, if you are in Paris.]


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And here we are back in Los Angeles, inheritors of a great bookstore heritage, with an embarrassment of local riches. While many of the monolithic retail bookstores have fallen under the weight of the Amazon leviathan, we independents are doing fine. LA is a hotbed of this subversion: Illiad in the Valley, Vroman’s in Pasadena, Skylight in Los Feliz, Children’s Book World in West LA, Book Soup in West Hollywood, Stories, Caravan, Hennessey+Ingalls – and yours truly, The Last Bookstore – and so many others, and sending respect to torch-holders like New York’s The Strand and Portland’s Powell’s. Most of us try to do more than sell books – not that that’s not enough – with a slate of visits from authors, music, art, and any kind of cultural engagement that will fit inside our walls (still working on the sumo wrestling – there’s got to be a way).

But best of all, you can buy any book you want, for probably very little money, and no one can stop you. That is, there’s nothing standing between you and a fresh perspective, the wisdom of our forebears, a new idea, a story, a verse, a sketch. The hardworking folks at all these establishments (no, we do not sit around reading; it’s a labour-intensive gig) and all of the folks throughout history that brought us to this point, have made you an absolute monarch of knowledge: you can reach out and take whatever you want. This is true not only on Independent Bookstore Day, but every day.  Just bring change for the meter.


Bookstore Hopping


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