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LA's Last Bookstore looks to keep the page in the digital age

The floor of The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles
The floor of The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles

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Downtown's Gallery Row district is an example of what's happening to downtown these days: New restaurants, expensive luxury lofts, and like the name implies, art galleries. But there's one business that's at the heart of the neighborhood: The Last Bookstore. Reporter Colin Berry has more.

For years Josh Spencer made a decent living selling books on eBay. In 2009, however, he decided to open what he named the Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. at Fourth and Main -- a modest shop of just 1,000 square feet. The neighborhood has been enjoying a renaissance lately, particularly its Gallery Row district where, besides new lofts and restaurants, a thriving creative community has sprung up.

“I’ve always been into science fiction and post-apocalyptic things,” Spencer says, “so I always wondered what a cool ‘last bookstore’ would look like for some future civilization.”

But in 2011, at a time when five big bookstores were closing in L.A., Spencer was offered a new location a couple blocks away: the ground floor of a 99-year-old Art Nouveau building at Fifth and Spring — the original headquarters of Crocker Citizens National Bank. With its 25-foot ceilings and massive columns, the new space was 10 times bigger than his existing store.

“I’ve never really paid attention to the book industry before, because I never saw myself as a bookstore owner,” Spencer explains. “So when this opportunity arrived, I didn’t think about the economy or how bookstores were doing. It was like, ‘Oh, well there’s a space, I can do something with it.’ ”

The result could be out of a neo-Victorian sci-fi novel. As Spencer has imagined it, the Last Bookstore is more quirky than stuffy, with bicycle-wheel chandeliers, a huge mural made of paperbacks, and sculptures made of books that literally fly off the shelves. The store trades in new and used titles, and upstairs you’ll find a massive labyrinth made from used books that sell for $1 apiece. One section is organized inside one of the bank’s old vaults.

“I kept getting images of Indiana Jones at his university in the 1920s, and like fantastical movies like ‘Hell Boy,’ ” Spencer says.

Store manager Katie Orphan says the plan to open a new store at a time when others were closing was actually one of the smartest things they could have done. “There’s still a lot of people who want the physical experience of holding a book, of smelling a book, of reading from pages instead of an e-reader,” she says.

Besides hosting live and community events and offering a selection of zines, small publishers and vinyl records, the store draws customers with the breadth of its inventory. Alexei Calvin, a student, believes it’s the best bookstore in L.A.

“The depth of selection is amazing,” he says. I’ve been here for a total of several weeks and still haven’t delved into everything I’m interested in.”

Wendy Werris is a West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly. She says that, besides its setting, the store’s choice to specialize in previously read titles was one of its keys to success in a down economy. “Josh saw the potential in selling used books not only because of the lower prices, but because the good indies can’t afford to keep a well-stocked store anymore,” she says.

Since the heyday of great writers such as Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, things have been pretty quiet on the Southern California literary scene. But with a handful of new journals and small presses appearing on shelves and the increasing visibility of Latino and Asian writers, the Last Bookstore seems to be bringing it back to life.

“It’ll be a while before we can fully challenge New York to the literary crown,” says Orphan, grinning. “But it’s great to be a bookstore that encourages and participates in that.