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The Great Anti-Mall Experience

Support Your Local Bookstore

by BEN PLEASANTS

I am a Los Angeles resident who has spent most of my life on the west side of the city. After leaving Long Island, New York in 1963 and moving to San Diego for a year, I’ve lived in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades and Westwood with six months off for good behavior in Kona in 2009 and a total of two years in France during the 1970’s. Those were the best ! My life has been mostly about writers, theatre and books. From 1967 on, I covered small theatre, poetry and literary profiles for the LA Times. At my best I reviewed and rediscovered John Fante in 1978 and introduced him to Charles Bukowski that same year . The John Fante tapes from five different meetings are available online in text and audio from 3 Am Magazine thanks to Susan Tomaselli, editor. That’s something books can’t do unless they contain CD’s. In the sixties, I wrote a piece on Bukowski for the Free Press when we were both employed there. It was a Symposium on LA writers taped live at the newspaper. Steve Richmond, Ron Koertge and Gerald Locklin chimed in. It was fun. Bukowski did drawings to match.

Each time I worked on a piece for the Times or the Free Press or Reader, I was in and out of bookstores. It was a place to check up on facts, from the owners like Ken Hyre and Phil Mason, to the readers and writers who congregated there. “Do you have a copy of The Green Hat?” Phil Mason had several. Later, when I did pieces for Los Angeles Magazine on Bukowski the week he died and on Fante long after he was dead, I went to Larry Edwards on Hollywood Blvd. and Williams in San Pedro. The owners had the books I needed and they had met either Fante or Bukowski. And then there was always Vromans in Pasadena, the town where Bukowski’s father was born. They’ve been there for more than a hundred years!

Every time I took on a controversial subject, I checked in at bookstores. If Phil Mason didn’t have the info I needed at Yesterday’s books, say on Mencken and Fante, he knew someone who did. Like Ken Hyre or Jake Zeitlin.

 

When I upended the Bukowski fans who deny Buk’s involvement in Nazi organizations before World War II and followed it up with a novel Bukowski suggested I write titled “The Victory of Defeat,” I called one my friends, Ira, who owned a bookstore off Vermont . Ira knew all about the Nazi archives in California. And their first amendment rights for members of the Bund, at least before Pearl Harbor. Again and again I went to bookstores first, libraries second. At LACC I found Bukowski’s pro-Nazi letters to the editor in the LACC school newspaper, in the library. With Bukowski’s help. That was not in a bookstore. Some things you can find only in libraries. Buk Made so much noise, talking about his college days, the librarian who pushed a cart full of old newspapers almost threw us out. “They let me take the Nazi side. My teachers at LACC. First amendment rights,” said Bukowski. I have it on tape. It’s all in my book, Visceral Bukowski! But there’s not a lot about bookstores.

Bukowski said he was proud he’d spoken out at LACC and defended Hitler’s Germany. He spoke of Celine. Shocking, but that is the test of true freedom of expression. Later, Bukowski proved his Nazi leanings by avoiding the draft from 1941 until 1943, when he was finally arrested for draft dodging. Try that in Berlin in 1940, defending FDR. Celine and Bukowski survived and continued to write. Their books can be found in bookstores and libraries. They were never burned. So what is the difference between bookstores and libraries? Bookstores are places where fights break out over politics, sex and religion. In libraries, you are shhhuuushed.

When we worked together at the Free Press in the 1970’s and I asked if I could be his biographer, Bukowski said yes, but he told me to tell it all. Leave nothing out. Especially his Nazi past.
He said that John Martin had tried to change lots of things because he thought them bad for business. I told him I’d keep it all in and it’s there in my book, Visceral Bukowski, published in 2005 by Sun Dog Press. The book was attacked relentlessly by Bukowski incorporated. Linda Bukowski and John Martin. But it’s out there in bookstores and libraries all over LA.

Free expression leads to many odd discoveries. The fact that I’m a quarter Jewish, with relatives killed by Nazi’s, some Jewish, some Christian, never gave Bukowski pause. “Just tell it all,” he said. “Being a quarter Jewish is like being a quarter crazy. It only matters if you take it seriously.” He never told me his mother’s mother was named Nanette Israel. His mother’s mother was Jewish.

Bukowski loved literary squabbles. How Truman Capote called Kerouac’s On The Road, “… just typing.” How the New Critics attacked the old critics too much biography and not enough explication of text. He said some poets were safe, like Creeley, and others would be arrested, like Baudelaire. Or shot, like Rimbaud. Or had green teeth, like Gregory Corso. Or were drunks, like Bukowski.

Bukowski didn’t go to bookstores much, unless they had money for him. He liked the LA Public Library, one of Bertrum Goodhue’s masterpieces. He liked literary warfare . He took sides: Love and hate. He loved Robinson Jeffers more than any other poet and he hated Kenneth Rexroth–mostly for his politics.
By chance, after three interviews, I grew close to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Owner of City Light Book Store in San Francisco, and publisher of a huge collection of Bukowski Stories calledErections. Ferlinghetti was always a big help. He loved Bukowski’s work. He published Celine, one of Bukowski’s favorite writers. He invited me up to his bookstore for a weekend and let me sit at the cash register with Gregory Corse. Corso did have green teeth and he stole from the till.

Ferlinghetti said “It’s OK. I let him.” That was the kind of place he ran. Sanctuary. He championed writers most publishers were afraid to touch, like Ginsberg and Corso and Kerouac. He gave them a place to stay in when they were in SF with food to eat and a place to greet their fans and readers. Wow. He made sure that had warm clothes and pocket change. The writers he published and promoted, he honored and respected and loved. They were mostly Beats. The LA Times wondered aloud how I had access to Ferlinghetti. I told my editor it was simply a matter of publishing what he said. When I was in his home in North Beach or in his bookstore on Columbus, he was the same guy. He was helpful.

When Ferlinghetti gave me a letter to take to George Whitman at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, that led to a reading at the famous bookstore and a one-week stay upstairs in the library where Whitman brought me coffee and gave me Sunday lunch. That was March, 1977. I was nothing then. Same today. Whitman was hopeful.

Like Bukowski, Ferlinghetti loved struggle. He thought writers should push the limits. He loved how poets would crowd into City Lights for readings and memorials and then push on over to the Café Trieste to finish off an evening. Bookstores and cafes and music and coffee and poetry and life. They all go together. That was true from the time of Socrates on, when poets hung around the Agora in Athens. And there were book stalls there. Or scroll stalls. See Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup. Also freedom of speech !

When I interviewed Corso, he asked me , “What the hell are you doing at the LA Times?” I didn’t have an answer.

Many years later, when Beat Scene published my essay “Rexroth, Bukowski and the Politics of Literature ” in 2009 to almost total silence in the US, I thought of the song “The Tango Maureen” from RENT. What the hell does it all mean? La vie Boheime.

But back to bookstores. Bookstores are a refuge from this dreary mall world. They are a place to pause when you are about to give up. You can come home with a handful of new ideas or new directions. Especially for writers. Two of my plays are about writer’s struggles. “The Hemingway/Dos Passos Wars,” (produced at Al’s National Theatre in 1995, and in 1998 at the Hollywood Court Theatre) explores the battle of writers during the Spanish Civil Wars. Many of the fights were fought out in bookstores.

In 2002 I wrote “Contentious Minds: The Mary McCarthy/Lillian Hellman Affair,” where the two writers square off in a Paris bookstore, tossing books at each other. The whole play is on YouTube. Most of the ideas came from another writer who knew them both, Budd Schulberg. It’s funny how these things happen. The LA Times published some insulting comments about Schulberg. Maybe it was his hatred of Joseph Stalin. Whatever it was, Art Seidenbaum, the Times book editor, asked if I’d like to interview Schulberg back at his home in the Hamptons. Did I hate him ?

I told Art I was a great fan of Schulberg. And Kazan . So was Fante and so was Bukowski. They all loved What Makes Sammy Run. So I went back to Long Island to spend a weekend at Budd Schulberg’s house with his wife Betsey and his two children, age two and four. I think Budd was 70 then. We spent the whole time talking about writers, but more than anything else, Budd talked about bookstores. Mostly about one bookstore in Hollywood owned by Stanley Rose. In our six-hour conversation (which I have on tape) , Budd describes what it was like to be a young writer in Hollywood in the mid-’30s. Hollywood was the paymaster for most of the writers struggling with over- priced houses and too much debt. Sound familiar?

Looking back, I think what Schulberg told me about Stanley Rose’s bookstore in Hollywood is the best look at writers behind-the-scene in bookstores, since Ben Jonson wrote about the Mermaid Tavern. Schulberg, above everything, was a great reporter! He did the leg-work. Three years later, in Writers in America, pp. 163-164, he wrote it all down:

“Nathanael West was one of the regulars who hung around the Stanley Rose Book Store forty years ago. (that was in 1983) Stanley Rose wasn’t one of the characters in West’s little time bomb of a Hollywood novel, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, but he might have been. “Pep,” as West was known to his friends, loved Stanley and though Stanley had his favorites among the writers who made his bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard their home away from home ( Bill Saroyan was one, Bill Faulkner another, this habitué a third), we all had to concede that Pep enjoyed the highest perch in Stanley’s aviary of rare literary birds. And what a collection they were. Wander in from Hollywood Boulevard – that Middle Western Main Street with its sad, exotic embellishments – and you would find yourself browsing and brooding with John O’Hara, Guy Endore, Scott Fitzgerald, Erskine Caldwell, Gene Fowler, John Fante, Jo Pagano, Aben Kandel, Dalton Trumbo , Dashiell Hammett, Jim Tully, Tess Schlesinger, Sid Perelman, and Dorothy Parker. Strolling into the backroom you found congeniality in the art gallery where original Picassos, Klees, Bruncusis, and the best of our local artists – Fletcher Martin and Hillaire Hiler—were being seen for the first time in Hollywood’s brief and spastic history, your appreciation basted with orange wine, a beverage that Stanley Rose dispensed by the gallon. The flock of published writers who migrated to Hollywood to refill their larders against the long cold winters of the Depression inevitably found a home in Stanley’s hospitality corner.”

Stanley Roses’ Bookstore was on Hollywood Boulevard, next to Musso and Franks.It lasted only from 1935 to 1939, but for many readers and writers it was more important than psychotherapy. Much more important.

For me personally bookstores are what bars are for alcoholics. I need them to breathe. I

Part Two

So, now we are in an age of free market warfare. Once Westwood Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard were lined with bookstores. Then came Borders, gobbling them up one at a time and Barnes and Noble, which ultimately gobbled up Borders. And then Barnes & Noble, next to the Landmark Theatre disappeared. Anyone know why? They had very fine people there. Knowledgeable people and a great boat load of books and magazines, not to mention movies next door and plenty to eat. Just like the Agora in ancient Athens. So what really happened?

I made a list of bookshops on the west side of Los Angeles that aren’t here anymore. It’s a partial list. There were many more. All were filled with ideas, points of view, books and bookmen! Many bring back vivid memories of great delight to me. Nights of conversations and illumination. My first look at Orwell’s essays Papa Bach’s. The poems of Han Shan in Chinese discussed at Westwood Books. A leather volume bound by William Morris himself held by Jake Zeitlin. (He wouldn’t let me touch it!) Arguments at two AM at Izzy’s in Santa Monica over Updike’s Rabbit novels and . Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe discussed at Bird’s on Franklin after gathering up tapes and records and books at the next door bookstore and gallery. Still there, by the way. So few of the ones I remember from past decades remain.

Checking an old Yellow Pages, I found a huge list of bookstores I love d that are now gone.

Here’s a very incomplete list: Arundel (a spectacular shop), Acres of Books, The Bodhi Tree (one of a kind), Campbell’s Books in Westwood, Duttons (all three stores gone) Either/Or Books, French Books, Gene de Chene, Heritage Books, Karmolie Rare Books, La Cite des Livres, The mystery Bookstore, Midnight Special, Phoenix, Rothschild Rare Books, Science Fiction Bookstore, Traveler’s Bookcase, Vagabond Books, Walden Books, Yesterday’s Books, and Zeitlin ver Brugge. To mention a few.

Each one had a specialty, a niche, an area of expertise. One is reminded of the scene in “Vertigo” where Scotty goes to Argosy and asks Pops about “who murdered who in the Embarcadero.” That’s what bookstores do. They inspire. They catch up the mind in mid- thought and fill in the blanks. They allow for browsing and pacing and questioning.

Most of the bookstores I once visited in West LA are gone, but a few remain.
Such a place is Alias Books on Sawtelle around the corner from the Nuart Theatre. It was founded in 1959 by Ken Hyre, an expert in Henry James and rare bindings and lithographs m and bookstore gossip. He was the subject of it a little himself. An angry ex- wife once fired a gun at Ken in his shop as he sat calmly reading. The bullet went through the book he was reading .To close friends he would show it off, the bullet still lodged in its’ pages.

But Ken Hyre was much more than a bullet stopper. He was an enthusiast in art and photography and Incunabula. There was always a chair by his desk where a reader could stop and chat with Ken. One of his readers, when she was a little girl, wrote him long letters about the books he chose for her. Her mother was an actress. He always had lovely children’s books, some of them signed, some of them in fine bindings. The girl was Angelina Jolie. You can read them still, if his daughter permits. She owns the bookstore and has passed it along to Brian Papaer (pronounced PAPER) who trained with Ken Hyre and finally bought out his books.

On an average day, you’ll find conversations stirred up over writers like Brett Euston Ellis and David Mamet, both of whom buy books there. Brian is from Netherlands. He first met Ken Hyre when he decided to sell his own books and move back to Europe. Ken convinced him to stay and learn the book trade. Brian became Ken Hyre’s employee. When Ken Hyre died, his daughter Carol inherited the property and convinced Brian Paeper to continue her father’s work.

Brian has been at it for more than a decade. He’s thriving. So much so, his brother Patrick has opened an Alias Books in Glendale.

So….. This is all black and white. Print. Here’s where “The Wizard of Oz” turns into color. Literally. Here I can take you right into the bookstore on You Tube and give you a chance to watch a twenty five minute film on Alias Books (It’s in two parts, Part 1 and Part II.). A talk with Brian as he helps customers. Sample the energy of the place. The fun people have when they go there for a break. The conversations the just happen. The search for books and ideas. Like in the Agora. And it’s thriving. There’s parking on the street or behind the shop.

So, thank you Ginger Buswell for suggesting I write this piece there. What was I looking for? A book about Pasternak. Last week Timothy Bottoms just dropped in for a reading. And Penny Grenoble, former Free Press editor dropped in. She just wrote a mystery novel about Malibu. Do they have any bookstores left? Small bookstores are the great anti-Mall experience. I just saw a book once owned by Polly Platt. Maybe it was left there by Peter Bogdanovich. He buys books there too. And that screen play you’ve wanted to sell? Well, you never know. Stanley Rose is not dead. His spirit lives on.

Ken Hyre owned his own property. He had no landlord to squeeze him when he was doing well. He had parking in back. It’s still there.

BEN PLEASANTS is an anarchist poet, playwrite, essayist and novelist who lives in California. In the late 1970s, he and Dave Lindorff and several other L.A journalists operated a collectively-run alternative newspaper, the “Los Angeles Vanguard,” at which Ben was arts editor.