Alternative Bookstores

I wrote of my favorite bookstore in Los Angeles when I lived there in the ’60s, Papa Bach. I still have a bookmark from the store that I cherish but periodically misplace in some obscure book I never finished, but Papa Bach has not been around for many years. In 1994 a similar local alternative bookstore in the L. A. area was nearing the end and an article in the LA Times reported this in a rather poignant way. At least we still have City Lights and Gotham (although Gotham is much more literary and less avant-garde).

For our historical reference, here is the article about the Chatterton bookstore in its last days:

Don’t Write Chatterton’s Finale Yet : Landmarks: The bookstore may have fallen on hard times, but fans and employees refuse to give up.

At its zenith, it was dubbed many things: City Lights South, Papa Bach East. As alternative bookstores go, a veritable shower of supreme bohemian accolades. But of late, Chatterton’s Bookstore in Los Feliz rests precariously on its hard-earned laurels, cushioned only by its memories. Loyal customers have been polite enough to ignore the empty shelves, the scaled-down staff, the quiet deterioration. Community commentary is often succinct, rhetorical: “Seen Chatterton’s lately?” a waif in granny dress and monkey boots asks her dreadlocked lunch date over a pot of jasmine tea at the neighboring Onyx cafe.

In a neighborhood that in the early- to mid-’80s threatened to metamorphose into a scaled-down, west-of-the-Mississippi version of Greenwich Village–a string of cafes, restaurants, flower shops, a live theater space and movie house–Chatterton’s Bookstore sat at its heart.

It was a jam-packed treasure trove on the northern stretch of Vermont Avenue at the foot of the Los Feliz hills, brimming with everything from hard-to-find Zen volumes and little-house presses to underground self-published pre-‘zines.

But in the last decade it began to take that hairpin turn many independents have had to negotiate. Stock began to slim around the middle. A receding magazine rack, vanished bookcases and grimy floors began to show for the world to see.

Persistent signs of life suggested otherwise. From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. familiar faces still offered spirited repartee from behind the counter just as they had for more than 20 years.

But the latest blow to Chatterton’s was the passing last Saturday of its founder-owner, William Koki Iwamoto, after a long battle with AIDS.

“He wanted to start an alternative bookstore like Papa Bach (a now long defunct Westside bookstore and gathering place founded by John Harris). He felt we needed one over here,” says a longtime clerk who wished to remain anonymous. “He wanted to make it more than a retail venture. He wanted it to be a community thing. For a while we had live music here, readings. Coffee and tea. There were always lots of people. It really was a part of the community.”

And that it still is. But now with that stretch of Vermont in the throes of its own transition of sorts, Chatterton’s serves the community in a different sense.

On a recent morning, visitations begin early. A longtime customer drifts in, asks for the time and place of Iwamoto’s memorial service, then requests a piece of string–for one of the homeless men outside. “He’s having a time keeping his pants up.”

Another transient wanders in, picks up a free newspaper and then doubles back to reveal his true purpose: a request for the keys to the bathroom.

Other customers slip inside to browse the spare shelves. A woman, runway-model-tall, in a blue sun dress and blue lace-up sneaks, asks for “L.A. 411.” None in stock, the clerk politely informs her, but suggests another shop where she might explore, including precise directions.

All the while the phone rings incessantly.

It is a testament to the Chatterton’s staff, many customers and locals agree, that the store has survived this long. As one independent bookseller after another has taken a fall–victims of a plummeting economy, superstores such as Crown, Bookstar and Barnes & Noble or just plain fatigue–Chatterton’s valiantly pushes on, has brave designs on going the distance.

But the story is not totally sad because out of the ashes grew Skylight Books.

2 thoughts on “Alternative Bookstores

  1. What a great bookstore Papa Bach was. I remember it being in the Sawtelle neighborhood on Santa Monica Blvd in the 70’s. Great memories.


What are your thoughts on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s