I had the pleasure of visiting The Last Bookstore, a new used bookstore in downtown L.A. Not only did TLB carry a bunch of titles I rarely see in other bookstores, but it also hosted a local poetry reading that included the sale of dozens of self-published chapbooks. The owner of TLB is the young and very low-key Josh Spencer, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Literary Lab.
LL: Tell us about yourself and about The Last Bookstore. (For example, how and when did you decide you wanted to open up your own bookstore? Do you only carry used books? Do you carry small press books or self-published books?)
JS: Well, I've sold books online for over a decade. For a few years I've had the crazy idea of opening an actual physical storefront to buy and sell used books as well, as an addition to my online business. Late in 2009, a space in my neighborhood opened up and I jumped on it. The landlord gave us only 10 days to open up, so my dad flew out from Hawaii and hand-built all our shelves in just 3 days! We worked ourselves to the bone getting everything set up and books on the shelves in time for the landlord's requested opening date, which coincided with the monthly Art Walk we have in downtown LA which draws over 10,000 people.
We generally only carry used books, but I'd say 75% of our inventory is in like new condition. We've carried a couple of new self-published titles and poetry chapbooks by local downtown LA writers, but for now used books are our focus. We also buy and sell used DVDs and CDs, and we carry over 100 new magazines on art, architecture, design, music, fashion, and the like.
The latter is sort of an experiment to see if we can sell any, and so far it's looking like we may drop the new magazines in favor of more used books.
LL: You've made your space available to help other writers. Can you tell us about some of these events?
JS: I actually leave all our events up to Billy Mark, a poet and musician and our events coordinator. He could tell you better than I could. I'm a bit "event-shy" myself because I don't like crowds and small talk. But I know we just had a book release by local poet Chiwan Choi which had a packed house, and he also runs a Poetry Chapbook reading and discussion every 3rd Sunday from 3-5 pm. A few weeks ago we had a reading by Jim Marquez, literary editor of Citizen LA and self-publisher of several books. Every Thursday except for the 2nd Thursday of the month, we have Literally Funny -- live readings of comedy pieces. It's pretty popular. On May 23rd, we're having an "Essays on Downtown LA" night with members of Los Angeles' downtown 3-on-3 basketball league. I think those are guys that live in the homeless shelters, so that should be pretty interesting. Then we also have live music nights and some other events. We're pretty open to hosting any community event that we like and that brings in book-buyers!
LL: Are there other ways in which you're helping writers?
JS: Hmm, not that I can think of. We love writers, obviously, and some of our events are geared to them, but as a used bookstore we're mainly focused on serving readers and collectors of books in their habit.
LL: What can we as writers do to help support bookstores?
JS: Keep writing books that people actually want and need to read!
LL: Among writers, the sale of used books is often discouraged because the writers rarely benefit financially from the sale of their books in used condition. Do you feel like you're hurting writers in any way?
JS: Really? I'm a writer and a ton of my friends are writers, and I've never heard that sentiment towards used books. That's interesting. But I feel like a single used bookstore hurts current writers about as much as a bee sting. The advantage of a used bookstore versus a new bookstore is VARIETY. We don't sell 100 copies each of a few dozen titles like most new bookstores; we sell one or two copies of 10,000 different titles by different authors dead and alive. I can't think of a single title we've had and sold more than a dozen copies of, and our best-sellers are usually by dead authors anyway. So it doesn't really affect current writers in any real way that I can see. Besides, most new titles don't trickle into used bookstores until 6 months to a year after they're out and by that time they've usually already had the majority of their sales, with the exception being sleepers and self-published titles.
A lot of people who shop in our store wouldn't be able to afford many new books, or they prefer older books, or they like used books because they can get 3 for the price of 1 new book. But then there are really rabid readers who are going to buy what they want to read when they want to read it, whether it's new or used. They have a hunger for books like vampires do for blood! Although the act of buying books lacks much in the way of sex and violence, unfortunately.
Ultimately I think the more people who are reading in a community or society, the better that is for writers. Whether people are buying used or new, or borrowing from a friend or the library, all efforts that feed the enjoyment of the written word are beneficial.