Google “visit Los Angeles” and the listicles will all tell you to visit a: beach, museum, Hollywood and amusement park (usually in that order). That’s cool. Last time I was in LA I did some of those things too. But the typical tourist sites can’t offer the most fulfilling experience for a bookish traveler. Book nerds need a different list…a literary list. And our bookish nerdiness will compel us to skip the Hollywood Walk of Fame and instead seek out quirky literary spots and bookstores in Los Angeles.
The Dichotomy of Literary Culture in LA
Literary culture in Los Angeles is a contrast of light and dark. On the light side, you have sunshine and palm trees, well lit bookstores and books about the beautiful people who make movies. On the dark side, you have the noir underbelly of the city on Sunset after sunset with gritty private investigators, suspicion and murder.
Visiting these five literary sites and bookstores in Los Angeles will give you a taste of both the light and the dark. And the suggested reading list at the end of this post will let you indulge both your dark and light sides for your virtual visit to Los Angeles.
5 Literary sites and Bookstores in Los Angeles
1. La Luz de Jesus Gallery and Bookstore: Bright & Light
Let’s start with the light, shall we? It doesn’t get much lighter than La Luz de Jesus bookstore and gallery in the Los Feliz neighborhood east of Hollywood. In Spanish, “feliz” means happy and “la luz” means the light. And the La Luz de Jesus bookstore is absolutely both of those things. From the colorful mural splashed on the storefront, to the bright art gallery, to the whimsical selection of books and gifts, the store exudes happy light. While they do carry a mix of fiction and non-fiction, the don’t offer the typical bookstore fare. The stock is carefully curated to appeal to a lover of the artsy and the quirky.
I was particularly tickled by Donald Trump coloring books. And they offer an expansive collection of books on pop-culture, art, craft and music. They also have a gift store offering kitchy items such as socks with swear words on them (which I purchased for my brother-in-law). Their art gallery offers exhibitions of outsider and counter-culture art and they proudly accept the label of “the Peggy Guggenheim of lowbrow”. Lowbrow or not, when you visit the store, bring an open mind and your sense of humor and you’ll have a great time.
2. Stories Cafe and Books LA: First Dark, Then Light
Stories is located on Sunset boulevard in the Echo Park neighborhood. Echo park is a nice little neighborhood that is centrally located, has a diverse population and still manages to be affordable. Stories bookstore came into being in 2008 during a dark time in the Los Angeles economy. But contrary to popular myth, independent bookstores have NOT gone the way of the dinosaur. And this small bookstore is making it. They offer a selection of new and used books along with a cafe and patio.
Stories is the typical sort of narrow, dark, jam packed bookstore that is tricky to navigate but somehow manages to be the perfect neighborhood reading spot. They stay connected with the community by offering event space for local poetry readings, community storytelling and local music.
3. 826LA: Lighter than the beam of a UFO
Exit Stories and hang a right and you’ll find yourself in front of the retro storefront for the Time Travel Mart. Like La Luz, The Time Travel Mart is also quirky, but in a very different way. The store is brightly lit–like a 7-11, but cleaner and without the hot dogs. The store offers you a trip back in time and into a parallel universe where you can purchase things like: elixers for eternal life, cod scented deodorant and an intertemporal travel “pastport”. WTF??
What’s really going on here is a front for 826LA. 826 is a nonprofit organization founded by author Dave Eggars, whose mission is to help kids develop creative writing skills. They run programs in six US cities. Each city has its own kooky themed store– San Francisco runs a pirate store. But all of the sites run excellent literacy programs that give kids the opportunity to write and publish their own works. If you peer through the cooler case selling robot milk (not kidding), you can see the kids in the back working away on the next Great American Novel.
When you visit the Time Travel Mart, maybe you won’t want to purchase the cod deodorant, but please purchase something because doing so will support the organization’s programs.
4. Los Angeles County Library: Light on the Outside, Dark on the Inside
The main branch of the Los Angeles County library sits on the top of Bunker Hill right in downtown LA. If you are already downtown, visiting one of those museums suggested by the listicles (I suggest the Broad, it’s awesome). Well then, it’s easy to walk a few blocks south to the library. The exterior architecture of the library is quite stunning. It’s in the Art Deco style typical of the 1920’s. The building is decorated with large sculptures and accompanied by a lovely outdoor garden space. The interior of the building has some great murals depicting the development of California’s missions. And the rotunda (pictured below) is encased by a vast and beautiful mosaic.
Unfortunately, at the library I found that function did not follow form. Things tend to go dark with the library when you try to actually use it as a patron. The various reading rooms are difficult to navigate, dark and lacking that living room feel characterized by newer urban libraries such as the one in Salt Lake City. The building is worth a visit. Go there to check out the rotating art exhibit and the architecture. But take your reading outside where you can get fresh air and sunlight.
5. The Last Bookstore LA: Dark But Mostly in a Good Way
We come at last to the bookstore of bookstores in Los Angeles. I’ll just say right up front that entering the Last Bookstore in downtown LA is not a welcoming experience. You have to navigate a security vestibule designed to thwart shoplifting. That lack of customer trust really darkened my mood. But once inside the store, my outlook changed. The interior of the store is indeed a wonder. The Last Bookstore is quite notable for their creative interior design. Of course they sell books, but they have also put books to work as sculptural architecture, creating a cool bookstore experience. Wandering the store’s nooks and crannies felt a little like navigating a labyrinth designed by Bilbo Baggins’ librarian.
I particularly liked the upstairs sci-fi area. The bookshelves in that room are deliberately jumbled and anti-alphabetical. This forces you to wander the entire space if you want something specific. Or, conversely, it rewards your aimless browsing with surprises. The whole store has a dark vibe with dark woods, pale light, and even a tunnel made of books. This is the sort of dark that I can get on board with.
(Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that if you chose to purchase, I’ll get a small commission.)
Read a Book and Make a Virtual Visit to Los Angeles
Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard tells the hilarious tale of a Florida thug seduced into trying to make it big in Hollywood.
The White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty is a social satire of a black beach bum who experiences a bizzare sort of social displacement when his family moves from predominantly white Santa Monica to west LA.
Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon features Doc, a perpetually high private eye who does his bumbling best to solve a crime while dodging dodgy characters.
The Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly explores the life and cases of LAPD detective Harry Bosch. He’s a strong advocate for victims and has his own dark history to navigate.
LA Confidential, by James Ellroy is a noir novel exposing the corrupt, violent and seedy side of Hollywood in the ’50’s.
The Big Sleep, by Ramond Chandler is the apex noir novel featuring PI Phillip Marlowe at his sleuthing best.
Take a visit to the literary sites and bookstores in Los Angeles. Or take a virtual visit by diving into LA’s great books. Either way, you are guaranteed a deeper look into both the light and dark culture of the city.
Itching for more literary tourism? Then check out these other bookish hot spots:
- Books and libraries of Salt Lake City
- Literary tour of San Francisco’s Mission District
- Finding books, drinks and Kerouac in Denver
- How a Ravenclaw got her groove on at Universal Studios Florida
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