Millions Quiz: Bookstores We Have Known

April 12, 2010 | 6 8 min read

So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.

As many long-time readers of the site know, the creation of The Millions was partially inspired by Max’s time spent working in an independent bookstore.

With regular Millions writer Patrick’s recent departure from Vromans in Pasadena, we believe this is now the first time in the history of the site that none of its regular contributors are working for an indie bookstore. In commemoration of that fact, the former booksellers among us have offered up encomiums on some of the bookstores that helped pay their rents and feed their minds over the years.

Book Soup, West Hollywood, California
Book Soup is on the Sunset Strip, across the street from the Viper Room (where River Phoenix died), and not too far from the manicured estates of Beverly Hills. It’s my favorite book store because they’ve got everything, and because you can lose yourself in its tall, labyrinthine aisles, maybe run into a starlet or two along the way (in the self-help section, most likely). I worked there for a summer when I was 19, and for another two years after I graduated from college. I call it my alma mater. In my essay about the late Glenn Goldman, the owner of the store who passed away last winter, I wrote: “Outside of Book Soup there are trashy girls from the Inland Empire, heading with arms crossed to a nearby club, and raving homeless men, and at the newsstand an actress is reading about herself in the tabloids. A man walks by selling puppies, maybe a waterproof radio. Inside of Book Soup there are highly opinionated, supremely well-read booksellers who want to know what five books you’d take with you to a desert island, go, and what your favorite Morrissey song is, and how many people you’ve slept with, and don’t you think I need another tattoo? Inside there are books, so many books.” When I close my eyes and think of a book store, it’s The Soup I see.

Skylight Books, Los Angeles, California
Skylight is all light and space and beautiful displays of beautiful books. There is a tree in the center of the room, and, yes, a huge skylight. When it rains, it’s loud, and you feel like you’re in the heart of some big storm–but safe, too. The store’s got an art annex, right next door, with lovely large books, and kiosks of zines, and an incomparable graphic novel section which attracts the cute boys. (In fact, Skylight has the cutest clientele in the universe–I’m pretty sure of that.) There is now a kitten, Franny, who inherited the store from beloved Lucy, may she rest in peace. I worked at Skylight a couple times a week for about a year, and only stopped recently. (Actually, my exit coincided with Franny’s arrival–and I was relieved. She’s adorable, but, alas, I’m allergic to cats.) I love Skylight most for the community it inspires. It’s the center of Los Feliz Village, and the store does all it can to promote not only literacy, but conversation, and fun. At the store employee Christmas party, we sang songs. At the summer employee party, we hula-hooped. Where else can you find that goodness?

The Brick Row Book Shop; San Francisco, California.
The BRBS is a venerable antiquarian book shop founded in New Haven in 1915 before eventually being relocated to the west coast; I believe it is one of the oldest continuously run book shops in the country. Owner John Crichton ostensibly specializes in English and American literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, but the shop inventory includes a whole range of material (fine press books, Americana, 20th century poetry, travels & voyages). Wow, I sound like a brochure. Anyway, the two years I spent working here were the best two years of my professional life so far. When people (mostly the online commenters on NYT pieces about education) proclaim the futility of a liberal arts education, which, they allege, renders its recipients unfit for any sort of employment, I write a strongly-written letter in my head and tell them about this job. Because it was wonderful, and it would have been unfit for anyone who thinks a liberal arts education is futile.

The Book Rack; Menlo Park, California.
This is my grandmother’s secondhand book shop, which she has owned for many years. I can’t be said to have worked here in the fullest sense of the word, because I was a child and child labor is wrong, but I certainly hung around here a lot and helped (although I may not have done that in the fullest sense of the word either). When we visited her throughout my childhood and adolescence, this is where I spent most of the visit, stacking and sorting and pressing buttons on the register. I was given lots of ice cream, and when I got older I commanded a more competitive salary. The experience was undoubtedly formative, especially considering my abiding love of secondhand paperbacks. The Book Rack is particularly well-stocked in mystery and romance novels, but they buy, sell, and trade books of all sorts.

Housing Works Bookstore Café, New York City, New York
Housing Works Bookstore Café is a bright and out-of-orbit star in the indie bookstore solar system. Technically a subsidiary of Housing Works, Inc. — a multi-service AIDS service and advocacy organization serving homeless New Yorkers — it’s also its very own weird and beautiful thing: a nonprofit bookstore that sells both new and used stock (100% donated by well-read New Yorkers from all over the city), staffed lovingly and almost entirely by volunteers, located in a stunning SoHo loft space (spiral staircases and balconies and all) where not only bookselling but music concerts, lit events, comedy showcases, and staged readings are held regularly. Twice a year staff and volunteers haul out the inventory for a huge Street Fair on the cobblestones of Crosby Street, all books and CDs on sale for $1. The café is excellent — one of the hats I wore during my time there was as a café volunteer, where I helped launch a quiche-and-baked-goods-making brigade — and the store has a membership program with great benefits. Literary lights and other cultural icons who love, have read at, and have been sighted hanging out at HWBC: Mary Gaitskill, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Lethem, Lynne Tillman, Anne Carson, the late Heath Ledger, Salman Rushdie, on and on. Having spent much of my adult professional life working in nonprofits, and now seeing up-close a sliver of the commercial publishing world, one wonders if all literary enterprises should consider this hybrid businessy-nonprofit model. And, as if supporting the literary cause were not enough, all store profits go to support Housing Works, Inc. AIDS programs.

Second Story Books, Rockville, MD
As a high schooler in Washington, DC, my friends and I haunted the dusty purveyors of second-hand records and used books. The pinnacle of the literary side of this pantheon was Second Story Books, in whose Dupont Circle location we would imagine ourselves neo-Beatniks as we thumbed through volumes of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. At sixteen, I wheedled my way into a job, but not at any of their regular locations. Instead I landed at the vast warehouse in suburban Maryland, where the manager — he of the rumpled, curmudgeonly school of used bookselling — eyed me with suspicion. I spent most of my time sweeping the labyrinthine aisles and sneezing in the clouds of dust. But I also set aside the broom and grabbed any old volume that caught my eye, pausing to read and read and read.

Book Soup, West Hollywood, CA
I arrived at Book Soup a “self taught” reader, well read in spotty, idiosyncratic ways, but I left nearly four years later with a broad and deep appreciation of a whole spectrum of books. That education was provided both by my coworkers and by a cast of regulars whose engagement with the literary overturned my naive preconceptions of “Hollywood.” But Book Soup doesn’t exist in opposition to Hollywood, it is very much of Hollywood, with some of its celebrity clientele “ego searching” the tabloids at the news stands, while others stock up on meatier fare (whether researching a role, or just for fun). Every city needs a great bookstore, and that bookstore will take on the character of its city. Book Soup is the creative, literary core of Hollywood that too many don’t know exists.

Freebird Books and Goods; Brooklyn, New York
My first year out of graduate school, trying to plot the elusive point of diminishing returns on the money-time matrix, I was lucky enough to fall into part-time work at this bookstore right around the corner from home. Having written about Freebird in our Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Bookstores, I’ll spare you any lengthy description. I will say that my notion that I would get lots of reading done on the clock was misguided. Freebird’s collection, though modest in size, is high in quality – particularly in fiction and New Yorkiana – and before I could finish any one book, I would have picked up three or four others. Still, in summer, with the front door admitting a briny breeze off the harbor and folks strolling by on sleepy Columbia Street, to sit and sip a Moxie soda and fail to read novels was paradise.

The University of Chicago Bookstore, Chicago, IL
This was not, sadly, the famed Seminary Co-op Bookstore, one of the best bookstores in the country, and to this day, my second favorite place in Chicago, after Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. This was the Barnes & Noble-affiliated campus bookstore. We sold physics textbooks and sweatshirts (which all looked strangely like off-brand Chicago Bears merchandise). I tried to work as many shifts as I could with a particular local high school girl who had landscapes painted on her fingernails. She was one of the coolest, smartest, most fun people I met at the University of Chicago, and she didn’t even attend the college.

Book Soup, West Hollywood, CA and Costa Mesa, CA
What can I say about Book Soup that Max and Edan haven’t already said? I made so many enduring friendships at this place that I think of it as something other than a retail establishment. If one were to take a tour of my life, Book Soup would figure prominently. It was the pivot around which my entire adult life revolved. I started working there when I was in graduate school, and I continued to work there long after I’d decided that graduate school was terrible. When I began working at Book Soup, I thought I would be a filmmaker, and that working at the store would be a sort of quaint anecdote in my incredible highly lucrative directorial career. I was mistaken. What it turned out to be was the beginning of a career in books.

Book Soup was the place where I met people who were Booksellers, not writers who worked in a bookstore or filmmakers who worked in a bookstore. This was important. The people who considered bookselling important, not just something to do on the way to something else, were inspiring to a guy who was, it seemed, perpetually on his way to something else. I started out working the Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to Midnight newsstand shift, and I ended up running one of their stores. It was where I met Paul McCartney and Michael Stipe and Gavin Rossdale (the first celebrity to acknowledge me in public, when we ran into each other at the now-defunct Aaron’s Records) and Terrence Malick and Martin Amis and Charles Fleischer, voice of Alf and Roger Rabbit and the original Book Soup regular. I also met some people I’m still proud to call friends. One of them, thank God, agreed to marry me.

Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena, CA
What can you say about a business that’s nearly as old as Stanford University? It was a humbling experience, working for a bookstore that was founded during Grover Cleveland’s presidency (the second one, sure, but still). Maybe more incredible than its endurance is its vibrancy. Here is a store that continues to innovate, that continually asks the question “What does it mean to be a bookstore?” There might be hipper bookstores, but I don’t think there are many that have a better idea of what their customers want. Run by a bookseller’s bookseller, Allison Hill, Vroman’s is always looking for something new to offer its customers.

At its heart, though, Vroman’s is all about tradition. It is every bit as much Pasadena as the Rose Bowl (which, by the way, was first played 5 years after Vroman’s was founded). I can’t tell you how many people I met who shopped there who told me “I grew up coming here,” or “My grandparents shopped here,” or, once, “My grandparents worked here.” It really is part of what makes Pasadena unique, and it’s a shame there aren’t more places like it in the world.

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  1. Thanks so much for this–I’m hoping to get out to LA next year and now have some stops for the trip! When I lived in DC, I used to go to Second Story & traded in a car trunk of books for my Gwendolyn Brooks 1st edition Report from Part One, one of my treasures–thanks for the part about the warehouse–

  2. Longfellow Books, Portland, Maine – wanted to work there so much but alas. I couldn’t make the last ferry to my island on the shifts they offered. Got a p/t job at the Portland Public Library instead.

    Malaprop’s – Asheville, NC. With cafe, just down the street from the library. Lots of nooks and crannies. Lovely website with staff picks. Features new NC writing and author visits.

  3. Unity Books, 57 Willis St Wellington, New Zealand.
    The staff know books. They will find and buy in anything you ask for. You can hang about browsing and reading for as long as you like. They have comfortable chairs. I have dealt there for fifteen years and they haven’t disappointed me yet.
    The very best thing, after the books they carry, is the staff. They appear to employ only bibliophiles, across a range of ages, who are also pleasant and obliging.

  4. Once Upon A Time, 2207 Honolulu Ave, Montrose, CA
    Well, let’s not leave out Once Upon A Time in Montrose, CA (that is part of LA for those of you who don’t live here.) It is the longest continuously running children’s bookstore in the USA. Now it also has adult books. It has been called “pleasantly chaotic” and indeed sometimes even the booksellers don’t know for sure where a book has gone. It is so inviting to kids that parents sometimes leave them there to play and we have to gently remind them that we are not running daycare. The adult reading group has been going for over 40 years, has librarians, teachers, mothers and career women and even the occasional man attending. Maureen, the owner for the last several years is crazy for the concept of a community, family oriented bookstore but has to sometimes be polite to the conservative community she serves. She is not really that good at being polite but she has the most incredible energy and fearlessness about books.

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