Local used bookstores still relevant, still inspiring

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Author: Lena Smith

I recently spent a day on a romantic mission: poking around used bookstores. At each store, I moved up and down aisle after aisle of slightly disheveled shelves, my eyes scanning every spine. I pulled down countless books to peruse author bios, blurbs on dust jackets and occasionally sample the first few pages. These were books that I wanted to buy at prices that appealed to my frugal-college-student side.

The first thing I saw as I approached Brand Bookshop, located in Glendale near the Broadway and Brand stop on the 180/181 route, was the obligatory $1 please-help-us-get-rid-of-these shelf by the front door. I scanned a selection of obscure histories and cheesy romances before walking inside.

Noriaki Nakano, manager of the store, greeted me with a smile and an invitation to explore.
On the immediate right was an encased collection of gorgeous vintage books, and through an opening in the wall on the left were old records and foreign literature. As I circled the store, I completely lost track of time amidst mysteries, cookbooks and biographies.

Nakano has worked at Brand Bookshop for 20 of its 28 years and seen it expand from one room to a labyrinth of rooms. My favorite was a nook once coated in pink fringe, now a lustrous blue, with its own door frame and a 5-foot ceiling. It is home to the store’s romance novels, a sanctuary for elderly ladies, Nakano said.

He keeps a list of categories corresponding to the sections on the shelves, which number over 1,500; Australia, etiquette and occult – the most popular genre – are all represented. Each of the 100,000 books in the store is easy to locate when a customer calls with a specific request.

“The beauty of the store is that we don’t specialize in any subjects,” Nakano said.

I felt less welcome at my next stop, Book Alley, located at a stop on the 181 route in East Pasadena. The store is full of beautiful and interesting books, especially illustrated children’s classics and photography books, the favorite subject of the owner, Tom Rogers. I found it more difficult to relax and browse than at Brand Bookstore; the neighborhood outside was poorly maintained and the floor was covered in stacks of books begging to be shelved. The environment was more that of a storage space than a store, since most of Book Alley’s business takes place online.

With the largest online presence of any of the four stores I visited, Book Alley illuminates the difference between online and physical bookstores. I observed a transaction where a recent graduate of Caltech sold a few books to the store. It is a 21st century business, whereas Brand Bookshop and Century Books, my next stop, are timeless. “We have nicer books because we pay more for them,” Rogers said.

Sadly, I left Book Alley empty-handed.

Century Books is in a classic setting on Green St. near the South Lake Ave. stop on the 181 route. The brick building was built in 1929 and used by the Navy to conduct research. Albert Einstein had an office on the second floor, where there is now a commemorative plaque. Well-kept, classic buildings and trees that speckle the sidewalk with shadows project a timelessness onto the street.

Co-owner Steve Marosvolgyi (who graciously spelled his name before I even asked) greeted me with a handshake and encouraged me to look around. The tables and shelves are packed with books but there is enough floor space in the middle of the room to make it feel open and inviting.

The collection contains mainly travel, cooking and history books: a treasure trove for a cultural romantic. Marosvolgyi and his wife, Judith, who co-own the store, go out looking for new books every day at library sales and thrift stores. They operate on the belief that people will always enjoy flipping through the pages of a physical volume.

“We pick and choose what we like and what we think would be good for the store. I believe there is hope for books,” Marosvolgyi said.

After selling books online for several years, the couple opened Century Books just over a year and a half ago to create a place for community gatherings around books and art. They keep a small gallery upstairs that displays rotating exhibits by local artists, including the work of Occidental professor Linda Lyke. Every Saturday evening they host a party with live music and food for either a new exhibit opening or an opportunity to meet artists.

My final stop, Read Books, is located on Eagle Rock Blvd. near Colorado Blvd. On the sidewalk sits a diverse collection of bargain books which welcome shoppers to the store. The selection ranges from novels to anthologies to collections of photography.

Inside feels like the library of a collector who has long since run out of shelf space, a feeling affirmed by owner Jeremy Kaplan, who told me the inventory was originally built from the personal collection he shared with his wife and co-owner, Debbie. Books are piled on the floor and on top of each other on the shelves, which in this case adds to the appeal. Curious and interesting titles call out from the shelves, although many of the books are too high to reach.

Kaplan likes to stock the books that people seek out, in particular rare books or popular authors. The shelves contain a large selection of classics. The store has a small online presence, mainly for its collectible books. “We depend on people coming in here,” Kaplan said.

For such a small store, it has an impressive following. People travel for half an hour or more to browse, according to Kaplan. The single room houses an extensive collection and since the only record of its inventory is in Kaplan’s head, browsing is always an adventure.

At the end of the day, I had three books in my backpack: a thick collection of short historical fiction mysteries, a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien – purchased mainly for the chapter on Tolkien’s interest in languages – and Crazy Salad,” a comedian’s take on professional women in the 20th century written by Nora Ephron for a series edited by Steve Martin. I spent less than $6 on each.

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