Indie Bookstores Talk Shop
  Conversations    April 28, 2017     Eric Larkin

We independent bookstores have our own day, the last Saturday in April. This is mostly thanks to you folks who have made us viable with your faithful patronage.

If you didn’t walk in here and huff our pages, we’d be sunk, so I guess it’s your day as much as ours.

I reached out to a few other indies, not only to stand around and clink glasses hey, good job guys, but also to underline that no matter where you are, there’s a bitchin’ independent bookstore somewhere near you. Our guests are:

All the way from BookPeople in Austin, Texas – Abby Fennewald  

Leigh Altshuler from world famous Strand Book Store in New York City

And our super great pals from up in Ojai, Bart’s Books‘ own Matt Henrikson 

We have an ornate 100 year old ceiling, but Bart’s has the whole damn sky.

 

Eric at Last Bookstore: What is your origin story?

Leigh at Strand – Strand Book Store was born in 1927 on Fourth Avenue on what was then  called “Book Row,” an area that covered six city blocks and housed forty-eight bookstores. Strand’s founder Ben Bass was all of twenty-five years old when he began his modest used bookstore and sought to create a place  where books would be loved, and book lovers could congregate. He named the Strand after the London street where avant-garde writers like Thackeray, Dickens, and Mill once gathered and interesting book  publishers thrived. 90 years and 19 miles of books later, the Strand is still run by the Bass family.

Abby at BookPeople – BookPeople started out as tiny Grok books back in 1970. Now, 40+ years later, we’ve grown into the largest independent bookstore in Texas. The name BookPeople comes from the novel Fahrenheit 451, where “Book People” are the intellectuals who are working to preserve books. It’s a bit of an obscure reference, but a fun one!

Matt at Bart’s Books – The store was Started by Richard Bartinsdale in 1964.   He served in the military on the European front in the second world war, and following his discharge was inspired by the outdoor book carts along the Seine in Paris to try and recreate their general feel in California.  He started with a corner lot in Los Angeles, but had grander visions of an artistic community occupying an entire block. He purchased a 1930’s cottage in Ojai and began paving the lot and filling it with open air bookshelves that attempted to keep the feeling of the Carts along the Seine.

Eric at LBS – Wow, that’s a lot of history. We’re the new kids on the block, I guess. Our owner Josh Spencer started selling books out of his loft in downtown LA, the same loft where he and Heidi (co-owner) got married. I remember the massive room full of books, wedding guests and lit tea candles. Lovely and terrifying: one spark, and fwoosh – carnage. That’s maybe our story, every step is: “This will either be amazing or destroy us all. Let’s do it.” From there we had a small shop front, then our current spot in the bank district. We’ve been around for a little over 10 years. Our building is 100, though. 

 

Richard Carradine leading our ghost hunt chat. You can see the mezzanine where our artist pals are located.

Eric at LBS – Retail is difficult enough as it is, but as bookstores, we have this sort of glorious added burden of being a window to literature, history, philosophy, art, science, etc – in other words, nearly every important human endeavor.  What do you think is the role of the bookstore, beyond just being a retail shop?

Abby at BookPeople – We really strive to be a sort of “third place” for our customers. We have a full service coffee shop, over 10 book clubs hosted by booksellers, storytimes 3 times a week, and author events nearly every day, not to mention seating around the store to sit and lose yourself in a book. We try to put together a diverse set of programming that provides something for everyone!

Matt at Bart’s Books – Bookstores can and should occupy several different roles in addition to retail.   We are a classic ‘third place,’ a public space that is neither home nor work, and a nice alternative to bar culture.   We  also elevate, inspire, inform, and educate through engaging and being in dialogue with our customers. The resulting relationships to these customers through books are frequently deep, lasting and far-reaching. The combination of being the third place and engaging people on a personal level through books creates communities and adds to the depth and breadth of human experience.

Leigh at Strand – Of course, we sell books: new, used and rare, however, that’s just a part of what Strand is. We are a place of culture, conversation and community.

Eric at LBS – Oh, I like that “third place”. That’s great. Our artist neighbors in the mezzanine (Spring Arts Collective + Gather DTLA) plus the music we host moves us towards that culture center idea. Our space is big enough that a few plays have been done here, but that’s a huge endeavor and kinda rare.

 

Strand has its own labyrinth. Love that optimistic signage. photo by Kristy

Eric at LBS – What’s the most interesting event you’ve hosted or participated in?

Leigh at Strand – Hard to choose! We host nightly (sometimes even twice per night) literary events, seven nights a week. We’ve hosted talent ranging from Doug the Pug & Grumpy Cat to Elizabeth Warren, Virginia & Dave Grohl, and soon Lizzy Goodman.

Abby at BookPeople – Well, interesting can be defined in so many ways!  In the last year alone we hosted Bruce Springsteen for a meet and greet with 1100 fans in just 2.5 hours, a “Carnival of Books” for a summer part, a midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with 1000+ people in our parking lot, and a PEN/Writers Resist event in January, with some really moving readings from local writers. They’re all fun and exciting in totally different ways!

Matt at Bart’s Books – We turned the entire store into a gallery for an evening , with multiple artists using all the shelves as space to hang art.  It was a lot of work, but brought something new to life temporarily in our space.  I wish it were less work so we could do it more often. (The picture of the mid air boat was from this event, the boat is made of old love letters encased in wax, it was later intentionally sunk in the ocean. The Artist is Alicia Morris)

Eric at LBS – Yeah, love the art show thing. My personal fave event was an art thing I co-produced. It was called The Last Spookstore: A Horror Story Art Show. There were 31 original pieces of art based on 31 classics of horror lit. Right, tons of work, but totally worth it. Wow – Springsteen & Elizabeth Warren – those are huge. It’s great enough that folks can come in and buy the collected art & thought & history of humanity, in the form of books – but it’s amazing that we’re all working really hard to provide these other experiences. Ok, we didn’t get Grumpy Cat, but we did get Doug the Pug. Speaking of which, our only official store animal is the occasional wild mouse. Do you have any official store pets?

Leigh at Strand – BarkBox once said that this dog has the coolest job in New York City. Just saying.

Eric at LBS – Oh, are you kidding? We need a dog.

Abby at BookPeople – Sadly no, having a cafe prevents us from having store animals.  

Matt at Bart’s Books – We have our store cat, Pygme (short for Pygmalion). He is my cat, a life long outdoor cat of 17 years. When I began managing the store he came with me.   He keeps our store relatively mouse-free. Being mostly outdoors, we are able to do a fair amount of bird-watching from our courtyards. This year a family of red-tail hawks took up residence in a nearby eucalyptus and when the young one was ready to leave the nest we frequently saw three of them flying overhead.  Lately we have been receiving neighborly visits from Pyg’s gender-swapped twin from over-the-fence, Princess Rhea.

Eric at LBS – Alright, you’re the only one of us that offers concurrent browsing and bird watching. Are you doing anything special for Indie Bookstore Day?

Leigh at Strand – We’ve got a few things up our sleeve. We’ll be sharing our day on Instagram stories. Check it out!

Abby at BookPeople – Yes! In addition to being part of the first ever Austin Bookstore Crawl we’re also hosting a costume contest, fanfic writing station, and an event for CORK DORK, complete with a wine tasting. And of course we’ll have some of the exclusive Independent Bookstore Day merchandise.

Eric at LBS – We’re not. Embarrassing. We do have a cool event (Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson), but it has nothing to do with Indie Bookstore Day.

 

Wow – nice event space, BookPeople. And that’s Keija Parssinen up there. – photo by Lucy

Eric at LBS: People seem to think working in a bookstore means we read all day. Any response to that? Follow up question: how’s your lower back?

Abby at BookPeople – Anyone available to help us do our annual inventory? It involves an entire night of not reading in the bookstore. :)

Matt at Bart’s Books – Hahaha.   It’s even worse here.  People seem to think I sit outside in perfect weather reading all the time, I almost always think this is what they’re imagining when they say they want my job.  It’s so common that my stock response has become “actually most of my job is schlepping, and it’s usually schlepping large amounts of heavy objects”.  In regard to all the schlepping, I injured my back my first year in this business and am much more conscientious about what how much and how I lift and carry these days.  Just yesterday I reminded a coworker to lift with their knees.

Eric at LBS – Word. I was the van driver here for a few years; all I did was lift boxes full of books. Books are heavy. We read on our own time.

 

Strand – photo by Carl

Eric at LBS: What is the best book you’re read this year (old or new)?

Leigh at Strand – I can’t choose just one! I recently finished Sunshine State, a collection of essays by Sarah Gerard. It was fantastic!

Matt at Bart’s Books – I’ll give you one of each.  My favorite new(ish) book I read this year is Alva Noe’s Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature – He’s a philosopher and cognitive scientist, and this book beautifully describes the experience and process of art making from a novel perspective.  If that one doesn’t work for you, because it’s actually from 2015 ( for me anything published in the last five years reads as “new”), then I’d go with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. His The Intuitionist is one of my favorite books, and I’d been looking forward to this one for a while.  I was not disappointed.  For an old book, I’m currently halfway through Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.  It’s the oldest novel I’ve ever read and is hilarious.

Abby at BookPeople – Our entire staff has been united by our love for by Mohsin Hamid. We loved Exit West so much we were inspired to put together a special promotion for it. When you buy the book through us, in-store or online, we’re donating part of the proceeds to Caritas of Austin, where they help homeless and refugee families in our area.

Eric at LBS – What a phenomenal idea, Abby. That’s good work, right there. And a great novel. I really liked Gaiman’s Norse Mythology – I guess that’s new and old! I’ve also been obsessed with those old Moby Illustrated Classics you used to get in Happy Meals. Like, for a year I’ve been obsessed with these things as objects (- they’re all severely adapted). All those beautiful editions out there (like from Folio Society), and I’m stuck on 70s era, dime-a-dozen, kids’ editions that smell like french fries. 

 

 

It was really cool of these guys to respond to my interview requests. They have a ton of other work to do, and they still sat down to chat with us. That’s what those indie folks are like [wink wink].

If you love books, reading, and indie bookstores, the best thing you can do is to keep showing up. And remind your local book clerk to lift with their knees.

Here are the upcoming event calendars, in case you’re gonna be in the hood:

BookPeople, Austin, TX

Strand, NY, NY

Bart’s Books, Ojai, CA

and us, The Last Boosktore, downtown Los Angeles, CA

 

 

 

 

 

 

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