Independent bookstores thrive in East LA

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While reading days loom, the idea of picking up a book for pleasure feels like a pipe dream. With the end of the semester in sight, students may soon have the opportunity to pick a novel off the top of their to-read pile. Or, an independent, local bookseller could recommend something new.

Three nearby booksellers have distinct characteristics that set them apart from each other: one is bound by clean, white-washed walls, another is home to cramped stacks of books and the feel of a living room, a third displays an impressively large tree in the middle of the store. Yet all three shops — located in Highland Park and Los Feliz — share the common goal of promoting their independence from chain stores.

The Pop-Hop Books & Print

Highland Park’s The Pop-Hop Books & Print owner Robey Clark waves to passersby grinning and waving frenetically. He remarks he has no clue who these people are — interactions with a wide range of community members are just part of running a bookstore in as large a city as Los Angeles.

Inside, the clean, white-washed walls are accompanied by the low hum of several fans overhead and the distinct aroma of old paper and fresh craft supplies.

Because The Pop-Hop is an independent used bookstore without ties to a retail chain, Clark said he can be “picky” about what books he chooses to sell. The store stocks locally published works such as zines, which are small circulation publications often reproduced on a photocopier that focus on topics such as music, poetry, politics and art.

While corporate online booksellers like Amazon can make maintaining a profitable brick-and-mortar store challenging, Clark has nevertheless found that the less-than-ideal climate for bookstores has a silver lining.

“I think that change in the landscape has rallied people who really do care about books to support smaller businesses,” Clark said. “We get people in here all the time who tell us how much they appreciate what we’re doing and how much they love the store.”

For Clark, helping people rediscover past love for books is the most rewarding part of operating a bookstore.

“I really love it when somebody finds a book they’ve been looking for for a long time,” Clark said. “My best friend just found a book from his childhood the other day in here.”

The Pop-Hop doubles as a space to learn about and practice self-publishing. It offers classes about formatting and publishing zines, as well as writing workshops. The Pop-Hop also hosts a reading series titled “Summar” every summer.

“We’re not part of the machine that tells you you need to consume,” Clark said. “We’re more a part of a maybe a smaller, less well-oiled machine, but nonetheless a very passionate group of people who would say, ‘No, you can make anything you want, you can do what you want to do.’”

Read Books

Read Books, just blocks away from Occidental at Eagle Rock Boulevard and Fair Park Avenue, has a starkly different aesthetic than The Pop-Hop’s art-studio style. The small space is packed with used books, and a dog relaxes on a sofa, making the space feel more like a living room than a store.

Co-owner Jeremy Kaplan met his wife (and other co-owner) at a bookstore, which eventually led them to open Read Books almost nine years ago.

Kaplan said the increasing popularity of e-readers is another modern challenge to physical bookstores, but doesn’t signal print’s demise.

“I think the whole idea that books are dead is premature,” Kaplan said. “You go into someone’s house and you look around to see what books they have, what music they have, otherwise, if it’s all on a little machine, you lose that culture.”

Many of the books in the store come from his and his wife’s own collection, according to Kaplan.

“We’re small — we can’t afford to have books that are more thrift-store type of material,” Kaplan said. “Everything we have in such a small space has to be good.”

While Kaplan said he doesn’t see as many Occidental students in his store as he would like, those he does see quickly become regulars. Read Books also offers a 10 percent discount to Occidental students.

Skylight Books

The towering ficus tree in the center of Skylight Books immediately distinguishes the store from other independent booksellers.

Manager Steve Salardino said that the store is a fixture in the Los Feliz neighborhood. Skylight Books has been in the same location for 19 years, and Salardino, sitting underneath the indoor tree, said that amount of time leaves an imprint on the community.

“We end up being this kind of community center for the area,” Salardino said. “People come here to see like-minded people, and just for something to do, in a way.”

Skylight’s collection largely highlights works of fiction, although it includes sections about Los Angeles history, biography and other nonfiction genres. An arts annex next door features books about fine art, photography, fashion, architecture, film and more. The store hosts numerous authors — up to 20 in a month, according to Salardino.

Salardino believes that Skylight Books and bookstores in general serve an important role in the digital age.

“I think people are escaping their phones or being online all the time and want to do things in their life, and I think bookstores are a perfect place for that because browsing is fun,” Salardino said. “The whole term browsing comes from books and libraries.”

The Pop-Hop, Read Books and Skylight Books don’t just provide bestsellers — they also fulfill a critical role within their communities and provide a unique experience that can’t be duplicated with a visit to an online retailer’s website.