Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Caravan Has Left Los Angeles, Calif. / Early L.A. Book Shops & Booksellers Row

550 South Grand Avenue, in Downtown Los Angeles

Leonard Bernstein, proprietor of Caravan Book Store, said at the time his parents started the business in 1954, the area consisted of numerous offices for rail and shipping lines along with a few airlines.  The name, Caravan, was chosen to connote exotic travel, a nod to the Silk Road, and the treasures abound from other parts of the world.  The store became a center for art and literature.

We were standing in the back of the store and just when he finished with the explanation, a woman and three children walked over.  One of the kids handed him a bouquet of wildflowers along with a small pouch of seed pods of the same.  This Saturday afternoon, February 24th, marked the last few hours for friends and customers to come in and visit with Leonard, at least within the small quarters of limited walk space, and to make a final purchase from the store-closing sale.  Sales appeared brisk.

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When the word got out that Caravan was closing and that Leonard was happily looking forward to retirement, the news media and others got on it:

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Resuming our conversation, peppered by questions from this blogger, Leonard said yes, the nearby Central Library has been an important part of his life; he still goes there.

He has often enjoyed the food at Water Grill, conveniently next door.  And Philippe's, home of the French-dipped sandwiches, a bit further away.  He mentioned a customer for the longest time wanted to treat him to dinner.  Finally one day the customer would not take no for an answer.  His host returned wearing black-tie formal and was ready to take Leonard to a restaurant of his choosing.  Leonard said the friend really enjoyed the meal at Philippe's!

A wooden desk sits in the rear of the store, its surface taken up by a stack of books and papers.  Leonard extended the pullout shelf attached to the desk.  He explained that one day he lay his head down to rest on the shelf.  He then heard someone in the store, and it was a woman inquiring how long the store had been around.  The woman was Caroline Kennedy.  Leonard, in typical form, pointed out that her father visited the Biltmore Hotel (next door) in 1960, when she was a very young child.

On another occasion, word got to him that Sting was in the store.  Leonard said he was not familiar with Mr. Sting.

Leonard and his daughter behind the sales counter

Leonard Bernstein with Darryl Holter, co-owner of Chevalier's Books

The scene Saturday included L.A. photographer Gary Leonard (with back to this camera)

Victoria Bernal, co-founder of the Twitter feed @lahistory
Pictured here shielding a volume of Sanborn maps (hiding it from other customers, Victoria?)
A gift of wildflowers for Leonard.
(Photo courtesy V. Bernal)

Postscript:  L.A. Times' award-winning writer Thomas Curwen filed his final story on March 2nd during Caravan's move-out day. 

Below, Darryl Holter stopped by the empty storefront the same day, a day made even more somber by the morning rain showers.

Darryl stopped by Caravan on his way to the historic Lebanon Street nearby

History of Los Angeles Book Shops

The availability of books and other reading materials offered by a general merchandise store to the small population of Mexican Los Angeles is hinted at by a reference in William Rich Hutton's letter to his uncle, from Los Angeles, Calfa., July 14', 1849.  Hutton, as assistant surveyor to Lieutenant Edward Ord, was in town awaiting the contract to survey the city as he stopped into Benjamin Wilson's store:

"A few days ago, as I was looking over books in Wilson['s sto]re, I saw one marked 'Frai Gerundio['s]' 'Teatro social,'  He com[mences] his introduction by speaking of all sorts of ghosts and the [ones that?] appeared to him in particular; some of his articles were hea[ded] the same as in Padre Isla's, such as 'Casa de Locos' & some others, but on the title page it was mark[d] 'El Siglo XIX.'  Do you know anything of such a book? It completely fooled me at first.  It is in the same style as the real one, but 'muy moderna.'" [source:  Glances at California 1847-1853, diaries and letters of William Rich Hutton, Surveyor (San Marino:  The Huntington Library, 1942), p. 16]

Note:  Benjamin Wilson, known as Don Benito, was the maternal grandfather to the World War II General George S. Patton, Jr.

Acquisition of stationery supplies was a challenge for Ord and Hutton:  drawing paper needed to be obtained from San Diego; if the vessel Lise's came in, Hutton thought he might be able to find some India ink.

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Dearly departed bookstores and their stories are lovingly ensconced on a wonderful blog Bookstore Memories Blog written by Paul Hunt.  One post Hollywood Boulevard Bookstore Follies Part 2 cites an Ernest Dawson essay profiling the early book vendors:

According to Dawson, one of the earliest book retailers may have been Samuel Hellman's stationery, book, dry goods and cigar shop in 1861.  Samuel was related to several other Hellmans, early Jewish pioneers who forged into banking and merchandising.

Then there was the Jones Bookstore at 226 West First St., operated by Frederick D. Jones of new and second-hand books and stationery (listed in the 1891 L.A. city directory).

The Eclectic Book Store at Second & Main, was operated by James Wallen Smith, who stocked paper novels, scarce, valuable and used books, about 1892.

Fowler Bros.

The city's oldest bookstore maintained a longevity none surpassed; it began in 1888 and closed in March, 1994.  [Note:  Currently, Pasadena's Vroman's Bookstore is going on 124 years.]  Fowler Bros. had a succession of location changes, a whopping six locations:

Fowler & Colwell (A.W. Colwell & J.W. Fowler) new and second-hand books bought & sold, 111 West Second St. (Los Angeles Business Directory, 1890-91).  John Fowler arrived in L.A. in 1884, and he specialized in Bibles.

By 1900, the business name changed to Fowler Bros., at 221 West Second St. (per L.A. Times); also listed as Fowler Bros. (Robert A. and John W.) booksellers and stationers (Los Angeles City Directory, 1901).

Newspaper entries in 1908 through 1913 list their third address change:  543 South Broadway.

Newspaper entries in 1915 and 1926 list their fourth address change:  747 South Broadway.

Ad from February, 1932 issue of American Auto News
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center)
Their fifth location landed on 414 West Sixth St. along the famed Booksellers Row.  This site lasted the longest, 41 years before moving again in 1975.  Their time here meant that they were neighbors to Caravan Book Store when they opened in 1954.

At their final store at 717 West Seventh St. came their demise in the age of deep discounters competition by Crown and Super Crown, Staples and Office Depot.

The Department Store Book Section

The department stores sold books and employed experienced book buyers.  Fowler Bros. aligned with the department stores to group advertise during the Christmas season or in the promotion of a book title.  This is apparent from newspaper ads from the 1920s through the 1950s as sampled by this blogger - the stores included May's, Broadway, Robinson's, Bullock's; in later years other bookstores joined (Parker's, Little's, Brentano's, Campbell's, and Pickwick).  

Booksellers Row

A concentration of book shops dotted West Sixth Street (between about Hill Street to Figueroa Street) from the 1920s, to the Row's decline by the 1980s.  Several establishments were also located off the Row, at Grand Avenue and Hope Street.

* Jake Zeitlin *

One individual who singly influenced the rare book world was Jake Zeitlin.  He hailed from Fort Worth, Texas.  In his early years and when he was not being fired from jobs, he gained experience in a Bullock's book department.  His first shop was established in 1928 - a teeny 10 x 15 feet one on Hope Street, practically at the bottom of steps of the south entrance to the Central Library built just two years earlier.  He was the budding arbiter of culture and art, exhibiting in his tiny shop the first west coast shows of Edward Weston, Rockwell Kent and others.

The following year he moved to 705 1/2 West Sixth St. (Booksellers Row proper).  Columnist Jack Smith wrote richly about the bon vivant Zeitlin in a 1975 piece and also described the Row:

"His was the smallest of the shops that made a Booksellers Row of 6th St. in the '20s and '30s.  They were narrow and dimly lighted to save electricity and redolent of old leather and buckram and glue and dust and coffee.  Usually the proprietor held open house at the rear near a cash register whose ring rarely interrupted the debates over James Joyce or Henry Miller or Robinson Jeffers or Christ or Aeschylus." 

"Across the street were Green and Lofland's, and Dawson's at Grand and Wilshire.  Jones across from Pershing Square, and Fowler's.  The Abbey was run by a flyweight boxer named Bunster Creeley, like a name of out of Dickens.  On the north side the Howey brothers.  Two very quiet, very scholarly gentlemen."

By 1937, Zeitlin moved out of downtown to Wilshire Boulevard, and his store name expanded to Zeitlin and Ver Brugge when he married his third wife, Josephine Adriana Ver Brugge.

* Parker's Book Store and Jones Book Store *

Charles Cullum Parker was known as the dean of the Los Angeles book trade.  In a 1921 Publisher's Weekly announcement, his store at 220 South Broadway would move to the new Pacific Finance Building at 520 West Sixth St., with free parking in the basement.  Thomas A. Neal wrote that Parker's was a reliable place to count on for a desired book title.  Neal also mentioned that in the bowels of this store was where all the activity took place in filling the orders from the Los Angeles Public Library. 

The same issue of Publisher's Weekly reported that Jones Book Store (mentioned earlier in this post) would move to a new building at 426 - 428 West Sixth St.

Ad in 1922 publication "Automobile Row" by Autorow Publishing Co., L.A.
(Image courtesy Seaver Center for Western History Research)

* Arcadia Bookshop and the Argonaut *

Louis Epstein came to California in 1925, and the next year he left his Long Beach book shop and set up on Sixth Street, next door to his brother Ben's store, the Argonaut.  Louis named the business Arcadia Bookshop.  His time on Booksellers Row was brief, as he soon moved to Eighth Street, where there was a richer clientele.  In 1938 he established Pickwick Books, Hollywood's first used book venue.  [Update 7/5/2018:  Interview of Louis Epstein, "The Way It Was:  Fifty Years in the Southern California Book Trade," 1977, UCLA Library, Center for Oral History Research]

The Argonaut remained at 621 West Sixth St..  It was listed in the 1956 street directory, which helps to establish that this was one of the stores that Leonard Bernstein's parents, Morris and Lillian, would have been familiar with as they settled onto Booksellers Row.

* Bennett & Marshall *

This shop was also listed in the 1956 directory at 612 West Sixth St. and stayed along Booksellers Row until 1966.  

In 1937 Robert Bennett was working for Norman Holmes who operated the Holmes Book Co.  Richard D. Marshall began a 25-year partnership with Bennett in 1941. By 1966, they moved to 8214 Melrose as the solution to their outgrown business.

* The Abbey Book Shop *

Mentioned above in the Jack Smith piece on Zeitlin, this business was also listed in the 1956 directory at 629 W. Sixth St. and also showed up in the 1965 directory.  Some indication of the store's age can be found on the web, where a reference dated it at the same address in 1938.  Again, the Abbey would have been colleagues and competitors with the new kid on the block, the Caravan Book Store.

* Holmes Book Co. *

This operation was started in 1901 by Robert Holmes of San Francisco, who was the father of Norman Holmes.  Norman took it over when the elder Holmes returned to San Francisco and ran it until 1952.  The company was largely importers and dealers of rare items.  The 1906 and 1926 city directories list multiple locations downtown:  333 So. Main, 740-742 So. Main, 128 & 620 So. Spring, and along the Booksellers Row at 812-814 West Sixth.

* Dawson's Book Shop *

Today it maintains an online presence, and its scope is not too different from Michael Dawson's forefathers for its offerings of rare books, first editions, early printing and fine bindings.  Their time at Booksellers Row lasted from 1922 to 1952 at 627 South Grand Ave.  A previous post covered the closure of the Larchmont building.

* Thomas Bros. Map Store *

At least as recent as 2011 one could visit the map store at 521 West Sixth Street.  Not sure when it went away.

* Farewell My Book *

A useful little book to learn more about Booksellers Row is Thomas A. Neal's short memoir of career adventures in the retail and rare book trade (Farewell My Book, Los Angeles:  Dawson's Book Shop: 1983).  He provides first hand accounts of the shops along the Row beginning in 1921, and his friendships with bookmen like Jake Zeitlin, Robert Bennett, Louis Epstein, and the Dawson clan.

Farewell My Book by Thomas A. Neal

A Chance Encounter with Dutton's Books While On Jury Duty

While sitting in the jury assembly room last week, this blogger needed a flat writing surface to start researching for this post.  Picked up a random copy of Los Angeles Magazine that turned out to be an ancient issue, January, 1995.  Flipping through it, the page opened serendipitously to a piece on Dave Dutton and his North Hollywood store (which closed up in 2006):

Coverage of the one-year anniversary of the Northridge earthquake.
Dutton was asked how he coped with the mess at his store.


A paper leaflet from 1999

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And finally, here is a link to Los Angeles Area Book Stores - these are lists compiled by Evelyn C. Leeper from years ago - to show what businesses used to exist and those still standing.

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