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News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

'Welcome to the Last Bookstore': The story behind the iconic bookshop in DTLA

by A Martínez and Lori Galarreta | Take Two®

Book tunnel at the Last Bookstore. James F. Martinez

There's a quote by Jen Campbell, author of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops that almost perfectly describes the charm behind brick and mortar book shops:  "...printed books are magical, and real bookshops keep that magic alive.”

'Magical' is almost certainly a word that's been used to describe The Last Bookstore, located on the corner of  Spring St. and 5th St in Downtown Los Angeles.  Situated in a giant old bank building close to Pershing Square, the Last Bookstore sprawls across two floors and a labyrinth of rooms and vaults.

 

A video posted by Last Bookstore (@lastbookstorela) on

"...it's much larger than you'd expect," says Chad Howitt,  director of the new short documentary "Welcome to the Last Bookstore."  "It's definitely different from the more corporate stores that I grew up with...it feels very independent and I think that seems to be one of the qualities that draws a lot of downtown residents to it..."

 

A photo posted by Last Bookstore (@lastbookstorela) on

It was the allure and feel of the book shop that drew Howitt to it, "...just to see this store in existence didn't seem to make sense, it seemed kind of like this magic trick," said Howitt on what attracted him to making a documentary about the store, "So, just like anytime you see a good trick from a magician you want to ask, 'Okay, how'd you do it?'"

In "Welcome to the Last Bookstore", Josh Spencer, the owner, tells the story of the accident that took place 20 years ago and put him on the path to opening the book shop. The film also gives insight into Spencer's everyday life as the owner of an independent bookstore. 

Howitt and Spencer spoke to A Martinez about the bookstore's charm, it's status as a cultural staple in downtown LA and more. 

Interview Highlights

Who comes through the doors?

Chad: "You're seeing all types of people, all ages, kids with their parents. You get couples, you get tourists, you get people who are blood and bone bibliophiles who just read books every day, they're there all the time. You see the same faces sometimes and then you see a lot of people who are just passing through town, just wanted to see the bookstore one time just 'cause they've heard so many good things about it."

Josh, the books aren't new titles, but donations. In the documentary you say your job is like "a treasure hunt, not just the books, but what's inside." What do you mean by that?

Josh: "Well, it's like Christmas morning. I basically work mostly at our warehouse, so I come in and we've got anywhere from two to three thousand boxes of book, usually when I come into work. And I have to go through all of them and just find the treasures basically. Find all the good books we want to carry in the store, find the books that are valuable first editions or collectable or whatnot.

...there's just always so many weird things that you find in books, just yesterday we were going through a lot of stuff and we found a canceled check from like 1895, that was pretty cool. We found some uncut bills that were just brand new dollar bills. Sheets of them that were uncut..."

Josh, in the documentary, you mention how you believed The Last Bookstore would only be around for a few years, but 11 years on, it's in its third incarnation. What's next for the store?

"I think we'll be around for awhile. I don't ever count on anything, life has definitely taught me that your life can change in an instant. So, I don't take anything for granted. But you know, assuming there are no catastrophes or anything that happens in the world or society to really change things rapidly, I think we'll be around for a good bit longer. It does also seem like other bookstores are popping up around the country, too,  so I'm glad to know my name wasn't too prophetic."

Answers have been edited for clarity. 

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.

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