After almost an hourlong Metro ride from North Hollywood to downtown, waiting 20 minutes for a bus to take me from Union Station to USC, and navigating a foreign campus for the second day in a row, I ran up the stairs to the Bing Theatre minutes before my first panel started. I took a seat near the back, so I could slip away a half an hour later to make it to another panel I bought a ticket for. The room was surprisingly empty, but it was early for a Sunday (10:30 a.m.) and I heard there was a line to get off the freeway to park on campus for the free event. A middle-aged man in front of me turned around when he saw me pull out a notebook and pen from my bag.
“Are you taking notes?” he said.
“Yes,” I answered, hesitantly.
I was unaware that note-taking during a discussion was strange. I was on a college campus, an institution that programs students to copy down everything twice.
He asked me if I attend the L.A. Times Festival of Books every year, and I told him that I did. He looked down at my lap and noted that I was reading the New Yorker. He was flabbergasted that a 20-something would be interested in reading. And attending a panel discussion. While taking notes. When I told him I was in a couple of book clubs, his eyebrows nearly flew off his face.
I was paging through my magazine, killing time before the panel started, when he turned around again.
“And you still tweet and text?” he said.
I told him I did and he searched his brain for other abnormalities. He asked if I was happy, and then if my parents were in good health. He was looking for something that would voluntarily propel me into a life of literature and panel discussions on a weekend. When he couldn’t find anything wrong with me, he turned around, unsatisfied.
At an event with thousands of people in attendance, it didn’t strike me as odd that I was there until I looked around the theatre. Elderly couples, men in Hawaiian shirts, groups of mothers. He had a point. And I was at one of the more decidedly “hip” panels.
The Festival of Books gives off the deceptive appearance that print is thriving in Los Angeles. In reality, there are few bookstores, and small literary communities that are not linked to the film industry. If the mass closing of Borders bookstores from Sherman Oaks to Hollywood to Culver City doesn’t paint the desolate picture well enough, count all the independent bookstores in the city that sell new books. It’s hard to get past two hands.
I can name five that have a wide-ranging selection of new releases: Vroman’s in Pasadena, Book Soup in West Hollywood, Skylight in Los Feliz, Small World Books in Venice, and our own Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City. The first three have a calendar full of author readings and events. In fact, it’s almost a sign of success if an author reads from their new work at one of these three independent sellers when on tour. But where does that leave the rest of the city, namely, the Valley?
North Hollywood’s , which is stocked well and has everything from Shakespeare to Frank Gehry to Ron L. Hubbard. It’s conveniently located across the Chandler bike lanes on a stretch of Cahuenga Boulevard that has, well, not much else. A couple of miles away in the NoHo Arts District, JH Snyder is planning to open a by the end of the year next to Phil’s Diner and a chain gym will soon take over the vacant spot in the NoHo Commons where a market once stood. There are no current plans, however, to erect a bookstore in NoHo or Toluca Lake.
It is easy to dismiss the publishing industry in favor of e-readers and tablets. Why fill your house or apartment with stacks of bound books when you can download thousands on a silm device that doubles as a social media station? In a bookstore, there are conversations. Customers ask clerks for advice, readers ask each other what to buy, and strangers talk to each other about books they hated or loved. It’s a communal atmosphere that can’t be replicated online. But maybe it’s this kind of purist thinking that made me stand out as an odd character to the stranger on Sunday morning. On Sunday night, one of my roommates gifted our living room with a flat-screen TV donated to her by a family member. The next morning, my other roommate bought a Blu-ray player with a Netflix hookup. After having a 19-inch monitor with no cable in our living room the past two years, I’m curiously intrigued by this new technology. If only he could see me now.