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The diary that prompted this series makes it very clear that the bookstore in general is in trouble, and I write today about the bookstore that prompted this sentence:

First, there was the outcry when independent bookstores began to sell their locations to large chains, like B. Dalton
Pickwick is the bookstore I meant. But Pickwick was the final gift the bookseller Louis Epstein gave to Los Angeles, and B. Dalton was not the chain that closed it. Below the great orange bookplate for more about both the store and the man who created it.

I first learned about Louis Epstein because the bookseller at the heart of my dissertation, Jake Zeitlin, said that Epstein helped him open his first bookshop in Los Angeles.  Epstein was born in Russia in 1902, emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of seven, and attended the Ohio State University. He went into the book business in 1924 when, while recovering from pleurisy, he bought a bookstore in downtown Long Beach. After five or six months, Epstein grew tired of Long Beach, where he shared space with a gunsmith, and sold the store, but he continued to buy books which he stored in his garage.  In the fall of 1926, to alleviate the fact that his garage was becoming too crowded, he opened the Acadia bookshop on West Sixth Street in downtown Los Angeles, on Booksellers Row around the corner from the Public Library.  

Epstein claims to have learned the business by talking to other book people who would come into his store; Ernest Dawson, the preeminent vintage bookseller in Los Angeles, advised him to put all the books he wanted to move quickly on a sidewalk rack at one price, and reduce the price if they didn’t sell.  Within a few months after opening, Epstein sold this shop to Richard and Ralph Howey, recent arrivals from Nebraska, for an amount he remembered as between $1500 and $2250. Ralph Howey replaced the general second-hand books Epstein had stocked with better books, mostly in English literature. In early 1928, Epstein opened a larger store on West Eighth Street, which he operated until 1940.  

Epstein claimed that he would not have been considered a “bookman,” by which he meant someone with a specialized interest in and knowledge of book culture.  He was nevertheless a successful bookseller because he understood what he had in stock.  He never specialized, and other booksellers knew that Epstein would go out of his way to assist them.  Epstein would sell rarities to specialists like Dawson, and he reported that there were certain collectors to whom he sold through other people.  This sort of cooperation on sales was not unusual in the book district.  Epstein observed, “In this Los Angeles community . . . the booksellers are more friendly to each other than in any other community in the United States that I know of.” Most of the material before 1948 comes from oral histories that the booksellers of Los Angeles left at the Young Research Library at UCLA.

We know that many of the bookstores in downtown Los Angeles survived the Depression through the agency of the motion picture industry, and Epstein provides a way that has nothing to do with the usual business of a bookstore. On one occasion, he reports that twenty thousand of his books were physically moved to the Paramount lot to create an appropriate mise-en-scène as the Glendale Public Library in the film No Man of Her Own, which starred Clark Gable as a crooked gambler hiding out in Glendale and Carole Lombard as the local librarian.  This loan did not keep Epstein from doing business as a bookseller while the books were on loan.  By arrangement with the studio, Epstein’s customers were allowed to enter the set at any time except when the red light outside the studio indicated that actual shooting was taking place; Epstein noted that he even sold books to extras who had been engaged for “atmosphere.”  Epstein reports that he was paid $200 the first week and $100 per week afterward, based on a percentage of the stock valued at $1 per book.

When the Depression made it possible to buy property at low prices, Epstein acquired a building at 6473 Hollywood Boulevard, owned at the time by Bank of America as a foreclosure, where he opened the Pickwick Book Store in 1938.  

In March 1940, claiming that he had become tired of the forty-five minute commute from Hollywood, Epstein closed his store downtown to devote his entire attention to the Hollywood Boulevard location.
 Epstein had great success with Pickwick, which became the leading bookshop in Southern California after the Second World War.  Almost immediately, he attracted Hollywood people:– Charlie Chaplin frequented the store and Charles Laughton would buy large quantities of books and refuse to have them wrapped. Other Hollywood visitors included Orson Welles, peter Finch, Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich and Ray Bradbury.  

Epstein also transformed his business.  Until 1941, he sold only used books, but as other forms of entertainment became limited during the war, he added new books and eventually left the used book business altogether.  After the war, Epstein embraced the paperback book, and added branches until he had sixteen Pickwick stores between Santa Barbara and San Diego; in 1974, the store sold more paperback books than any other bookstore anywhere in the world. The original store in Hollywood became something of a landmark, and it was the scene of major autographing sessions when stars like Lauren Bacall had written books.  As time went by, the stream of celebrities that visited it never seemed to abate.  Here's something very much from the late 1960s involving Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys:

Several days before Christmas 1965 Brian suffers what he considers an acid flashback in the Pickwick Bookstore. It is a totally unexpected experience.

"I couldn't even remember why I'd gone to the store. It was spooky. I walked into the store anyway. The clerk, who knew me, said hello and mentioned that he was crazy about "Barbara Ann," which was all over the radio. Moving slowly into the aisles, I concentrated on reading the book titles and their authors....I paged through books...

"I stared at the pages, tried to read, but the letters all vibrated on the pages and I couldn't make sense of anything. Then I saw the books melting down the shelves, dripping like wax down the side of a candle. The room began to spin. I was in the center of a giant spinning top. Turning, turning, turning. The moment was completely surreal."

"As the buzz subsided into a manageable burned-out sensation, I remembered Loren once explaining that hallucinations were comparable to Zen riddles, mysteries full of meaning. What had mine meant? I had driven to the bookstore, looking for what? Inspiration? Instead, I'd seen books melting, unable to grasp the knowledge contained in them.

If that was a riddle, I wanted to know the solution."

The Dayton Hudson chain, which owned B. Dalton, bought Pickwick from Epstein in 1970 and promised that he could run the store the way he always had after the purchase; in fact, they delayed adding the Pickwick stores to their computer system until he retired two years later. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles, it was a B. Dalton, and I didn't see any real reason to patronize it even if we arrived in that part of Hollywood before Musso and Frank opened for lunch. The bookstore closed in May 1995 after Barnes and Noble had taken over the B. Dalton chain, and Barnes and Noble explained the closing thus:  
"Over the last several years, demographics have shifted, and there just aren't enough people shopping in the area anymore to support a bookstore," said Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Ann Rucker. She declined to provide specific sales figures.
And what's there now? The flagship store of the lingerie seller Frederick's of Hollywood, which had apparently been waiting for that location for decades.

It's ironic that this whole series began with a diary in which I explained that Barnes and Noble was closing a large number of its brick and mortar stores because their customers had migrated online to stock their Nooks. No store/no demand is a lot more compelling than no demand/no store.

NOTE:As with my diary on the Stanley Rose Bookstore, the bulk of this (i.e. anything that isn't linked and isn't obviously for this diary) is from my doctoral dissertation.  Some of this information can be found in Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s, but the bulk is from oral histories and files at UCLA and the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
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Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
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FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
Fri 6:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

9:08 AM PT: Thank you, Community Spotlight!

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue May 07, 2013 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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