I feel a bit like Hermione Granger scurrying along the shifting staircases of Hogwarts as I duck in and out of the labyrinth.
I’m in a bookstore, looking for books I may never find.
Accustomed to linear shelves where each tome logically follows the next, I lurch along rows that loop and snake intricately along the floor, over and through hallways.
I enter a jumble of corridors and nearly fall into a giant room of bargain-basement paperbacks, where I’m sure I’ll find my 20th-century novel but no, they’re aren’t arranged alphabetically. In this room the books are filed by color! Red on that shelf, blue on this one… just like the second-hand shop that it is.
I continue my search in this “anti-bookstore”, whose displays the website Atlas Obscura calls “beauty in disarray”. Sculptures protrude from corners, made of paperbacks that couldn’t be sold – shaped like waves, like people, all at odd angles, teetering precariously against walls and railings.
Doors that lead nowhere are flanked by more book art which uses books irreverently to love books.
A tunnel moulded from unsaleable literature sags under the weight of its ceiling-high construction, threatening collapse at the slightest touch but no, it’s steadier than it looks. The heaving shelves push onward until they reach a massive steel-like door which would slice you in half if it ever slammed on you.
No wonder: The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles was once a bank, and this gateway sealed its vault.
Beyond its foot-thick metal lies a rumpled room, some books scattered on shelves and others in piles on the floor or tumbling out of boxes, for those who like their books musty – and at $1 each, very cheap.
For this is in fact a used-book shop, one which not only sells you things to read but buys yours. It is a literary corner of downtown Los Angeles where you can browse, chat or in the evenings watch a performance. An enlightened urban museum, in a way.
Modern chain bookstores, the few that survived once the Amazon.com broom was done with its sweeping, are bright and crisp, their tall ceilings and track lighting illuminating orderly shelves, which give me a sense of control. I know where everything is.
These modern stores look alike, their bestsellers near the entrance, and two-for-ones not far away. Seek enlightenment and you’ll have to climb – or descend – an uninspired floor or two.
The Last Bookstore, on the other hand, hurls its quarter of a million used novels and essays at you, trying to catch your attention as your gaze fixates on a giant elephant trunk jutting out from a mezzanine.
Spread on two – or is it three? – floors, the marble columns that once graced the bank’s atrium stand like smooth logpole pines whose bark has been peeled away, the only predictable vertical lines in this dusty warren of crookedness. They are cool to the touch and smell cold as stone should, in sharp contrast to the tinge of ancient must that gathers in corners.
Rather than force you to buy books, this shop tries to distract you from them, testing you, tempting you away, assessing your commitment to the written word, gauging you
r interest. Will you buy? Will you simply wander? Will you quench your visual thirst in the trompe l’oeil and wacky sculptures that keep pulling you away from the stacked shelves?
This is a shop that respects the book, not its sale; the reader, not her money.
Whoever said books are dead needs to drop by here for an hour. And whoever thinks this Southern California city is only about pictures, not words, should wander through the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books – America’s largest – in April each year.
We all know about the sprinkle of stardust that escapes when the first page of a book is turned. What the citizens of this fair city have been able to do is endow the space around the book with mystique, inviting you to drift through a dozen fairy tales until you find your treasure.
As I buy something – because, of course, I do buy – I ask a cashier to describe The Last Bookstore in a single word.
She says: “Magical.”
I think Hermione would agree.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- The Last Bookstore has performances and readings – make sure to check them out here.
- You’ll find it in LA’s historic downtown area at 453 S Spring St, or here on Google Maps.
- Especially great to visit on a Sunday, when offices are closed and the area is blissfully traffic-free. There’s parking everywhere and a subway station two blocks away: Pershing Square Station, on the Purple/Red line.