By: Scott Smith and Sandra Wells

Miraculously, some independent bookstores in Southern California have survived the plague–and we don’t mean COVID, which actually promoted more reading when outside recreation wasn’t an easy option (though for most of the past two years it did reduce in-person shopping). Someone years ago said that Americans were aliterate: they could read if they wanted to, but even that disinterest in books and long articles declined with the habit of sustaining attention for only 280 characters, instead of the minimum hardcover of 60,000 full words. And as many of those who still did read gravitated to e-books (which studies show don’t result in the same retention as those in print), the standard royalty to authors declined from $3 to $1 and advances became rare. Offering a helpful hand to the trend, of course, was Amazon. Yet some bookstores survived (we wrote about Book Soup in West Hollywood in the first in this series and Barnes & Noble in Glendale for No. 7). Here are a few more favorites just in time for last-minute holiday gifts:

Laguna Beach Books is a reminder of the joys of browsing in a real-world bookstore vs. searching for a book or even category you’re interested in online. As we entered, there was a table displaying quirky volumes on dogs, like How to Raise a Jewish Dogs by the rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary.

While this store had all the bestsellers at discounted prices, there were lots of other examples of how it serves eager readers by introducing them to subjects they never considered: The Giant Book of Tiny Homes: Living Large in Small Spaces by John Riha (in case you need to downsize), The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas and the Cost of America’s Coasts by Gilbert Gaul (and there are allegedly earthquakes in SoCal as another motivation to move inland), and Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown by Jim Newton (no matter what you think you know about him, you’ll be very surprised by many details). This store also has surprisingly strong sections on science and philosophy for a book nook.

The Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood has 150,000 volumes that are impressively organized in a large store behind a beautiful facade painted with figures from Greek literature. Huffingtonpost put it on the list of “50 of the Best Indie Bookstores in America” in 2017. Though it has, indeed, plenty of foreign language tomes, the vast majority are in English, including a huge science fiction section. The variety is so vast that you could spend weeks inside without ever getting bored for a minute, browsing subjects you didn’t think you had any interest in (say, Japanese anime, etiquette, insects, martial arts, or gypsies).

Aisle 22, for example, contains shelves on King Arthur, philosophy, hypnosis, the Holocaust, LGBTQ history, and alternative medicine, among others. Some unusual titles we stumbled across: Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios by Jim Cogan and William Clark, Godzilla FAQ by Brian Solomon, The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Stories of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch, and The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate”: The CIA and Mind Control by John Marks.

SideShow Books has a subtitle: Rare and Remarkable Books, Art & Curiosities. Located on La Cienega south of Pico, it’s colorful entry is to a curious circus of used books that require a dedication to serious browsing. It rewards quickly, however, especially if you’ve run out of everything in print for a fave category or want to gift a friend with a truly obscure tome on a topic s/he loves. There are all the previous bestsellers you never read, dirt cheap, too.

The Hollywood section is especially strong, of course, with really massive photo volumes you probably would not even stumble across in the online jungle. Some examples of breadth, depth, and quirkiness: The Television Sherlock Holmes by Peter Haining, Cinema of the Fantastic by Chris Steinbrunner (production details and stills from 15 classic horror and science fiction flicks), and A French Kiss with Death: Steve McQueen and the Making of LeMans: The Man, The Race, The Cars, The Movie by Michael Keyser (which one reviewer calls “the best book ever written on racing”).

And last, but not least, is The Last Bookstore at 5th and Spring St. in downtown L.A., which holds 250,000 volumes over a massive two-floor complex, making it one of the largest bookshops in the real world. You can get a good sense of what it is like to visit by looking at the videos on its site and it would be dangerously naive to think you can just pop in to glance around, since the real issue is how you will tear yourself away. Alas, there is no parking except at street meters (cheapest eves and weekends), and those are often hard to find unoccupied, so consider taking the metro to Pershing Square. Alas, there is also no restroom, which is inexplicable, because plenty of other stores large and small have found ways to control access for the convenience of customers and to keep them on the premises as long as possible. Oh, and don’t bother calling–they rarely answer. Search online and just go.

As we entered, the first display table included Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History by David Walker and Marcus Anderson. In the neighboring Arts & Rare Books Annex was an officially-stamped (not signed) book of Banksy’s images, as well as a shrink-wrapped Annie Leibovitz at Work.
Nearby was a huge section of music biographies, such as I Am Brian Wilson. A collectible niche on graphic novels included Frederik Schodt’s The World of Japanese Comics. There was a large area devoted to every classic book you’ve ever heard of and feel guilty about not having read, so an opportunity to prep before the next literary soiree or high school reunion.

The most fun was had browsing the upstairs rooms that covered every specialty subject from business to oversize military history photo books. Some that you probably wouldn’t find elsewhere: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective by Peter Vronsky, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrations by Isabel Wilkerson, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good edited by Adrienne Brown, and, The Ghost Ships of Archangel: The Arctic Voyage that Defied the Nazis by William Geroux.

Let’s make reading books cool again.