Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A short documentary tours the quirky interior of a bibliophile’s paradise.
The façade is an old bank building, buttoned-up and lofty. It “tricks you,” says Chad Howitt, a documentary filmmaker who trained his eye on the quirky, labyrinthine interior of The Last Bookstore, a resolute paperback haven in Downtown L.A.
By trade, Howitt is a commercial director well-versed in explosions and CGI. For Welcome to the Last Bookstore, his first foray into documentary, “I wanted to tell more of a humanistic story with no bells and no whistles,” he says. The documentary trails the shop’s owner, Josh Spencer, and his sprawling creation—enough of a curio by itself, with no need for added flash.
A beta fish floats drowsily in a bowl meant to look like a diving helmet; a mastodon peers down from the wall. A typewriter—with unspooling, undulating pages—hangs from the ceiling; jutting out from the shelves are mounted books, bent at their spines, as though a gust of wind has come and tousled the pages. Different pockets of the store have been carved out for various genres: the horror section lurks in an area that feels claustrophobic; the kids’ section is a big open area, flooded with light. A few dog-eared paperbacks prop up a slouching armchair that’s missing one of its legs.
In a warehouse, the staff sorts through donations that arrive in cardboard boxes stacked towards the ceiling. They thumb through picture books and a guide to L.A. earthquakes, casting off the ones with battered covers and setting some aside to donate to hospitals and schools. The stacks never get squatter, the warehouse foreman says. Deliveries arrive in a steady stream.
Sometimes, Spencer says in the film, the staff finds “buried treasure” tucked between the pages: money, love notes, and, once, “a pressed pot leaf in a Song of Solomon book.” A flimsy, photocopied dust jacket—one of the Harry Potter installments—blindfolds a much different book beneath it: The Miracle of Cosmetic Plastic Surgery. “You see all kinds of weird stuff like that,” Spencer says.
Spencer moved to L.A. in 2002, in the midst of a personal crisis. His family and love life upended, he also lost his job and lived on food stamps and welfare. He started selling books on eBay from his cramped apartment. A few years later, he found a space available across the street. “It was busy from the minute we opened our doors,” Spencer says in the film. Two iterations later, the store has grown to a 22,000-square-foot space stocked with more than 250,000 books in Downtown L.A., on 5th and Spring.
His brick-and-mortar gamble paid off, he says, because bibliophiles aren’t willing to let the printed word go down without a fight. “People just don’t like to lose something they’ve loved for centuries,” he says. Meanwhile, L.A.’s Downtown area is, Howitt says, seeing surging growth, both residential and commercial.
Spencer doesn’t think e-books have to trounce the printed word, or that hardback tomes have to vanquish their sleeker competitors. “There’s room for both, I think,” he says. Then he smiles and laughs, like a short cough. “I hope.”
And there’s no digital equivalent of a bookstore’s sense of community and promise of serendipity. Browsers pull shopping carts loaded with paperbacks over to tufted leather armchairs, or stack piles on the floor. In the film, Spencer describes how he wanted to conjure the sense of a living room. The store has “definitely become a refuge for a lot of people,” he says.
Passersby can turn in from the L.A. sidewalk and chisel out a spot to be alone together: they can “read their book privately in this big private space, because once you’re in the book, you’re in your own little world,” Howitt says.
Howitt insists he wasn’t trying to opine on the importance of brick-and-mortar shops in an increasingly digital world; he didn’t want the film to feel preachy. But, he adds, there is something magical about these spaces. “The smell of the paper, it’s almost like a new car smell,” he says. “It’s not something you can replace or find anywhere other than a bookstore.”