Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop To Close Forever May 31
by Paul Hunt
The Mar Vista area Bookstore is the last big used bookshop in West L.A., located at 12310 Venice Blvd., just east of Centinela. The business started in 1977 on Westwood Blvd near UCLA, but moved to Santa Monica Blvd when the high rents drove all the bookstores out of Westwood, including the huge Campbell’s. The travails of being subject to high rent eventually convinced partner Bob Klein to buy his own building, which he did in 1987. I remember that at the time partner Larry Myers did not particularly like the location on Venice Blvd., and would not invest in the purchase of the real estate. Bob passed a couple years ago and left the building to a long-time friend.
Bob Klein was a great guy, full of enthusiasm about books and literature. He and Larry would visit me at my little shop in West Hollywood almost every week when they first got into business. At the time, I had a shop called “Paperback Jack” in West Hollywood, but I was an active buyer and wholesaled a lot of hardbacks to other dealers. Bob and Larry always found things to buy, Afterwards, Bob and I would go down the street to a Shakey’s Pizza for an all-you-can eat lunch and then spend some time on the new video game “Asteroids”. Larry stayed in the car with his home-made sandwich and a pile of books to read. He would rather skip a meal and use the money to buy a book.
Larry is a knowledgeable bookman, and was usually in the shop when his partner Bob was teaching or out looking for book collections. They were totally polar opposites, Larry quiet and reserved, Bob outgoing and energetic.
Since their website could go dark at any time, I’m reprinting below the story of their shop as they tell it on www.SamJohnsons.com. An interesting note is that both Bob and Larry went to Westchester High School. Another bookman, Jack LeVan also went there. His bookstore, Vajra Books, is still open in Inglewood, barely hanging on. I will ask Jack if he remembers Bob and Larry from school days.
The following is from Sam: Johnson’s website, authored by Bob Klein.
Who We Are
Sometime in the `50’s two kids from Westchester High School found joy in ransacking Los Angeles’ second-hand bookshops together
Larry Myers, the precocious kid who knew all about everything.
Bob Klein, the unprecocious kid who didn’t.
Fired by fantasy, they’d root up whole bookshops hunting rarities by H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood—the list goes on. And what bookshops the city boasted in the 1950’s. Particularly in Hollywood. Pickwick Bookshop had a huge used book section upstairs; Cherokee Bookshop specialized in fantasy; Larson’s, in the ghostly and occult. The magic of THE BOOKSHOP cast a glamour that has not faded.
Some years later Bob went on to become a teacher.
Larry went on to become—but no one quite knows what he went on to become. Probably he is still becoming it.
Years later still, in 1976, in order to augment his meager academic earnings Bob decided to become a bookseller. His girlfriend of the time—the lovely Sheryl (whose hips stopped traffic)—backed him all the way. Otherwise he might have ended up selling aluminum siding. Not anxious to fail alone, Bob browbeat Larry into becoming his partner. For opening stock, each was responsible for amassing 5,000 books—exclusive naturally from the sacrosanctity of their own private libraries.
When their respective closets bulged, their friend Frank Spellman (of Krown and Spellman Booksellers), who had himself decided to decorate the trade, bagged two adjacent empty stores in a building on Westwood Boulevard; one for himself, one for Larry and Bob.
Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop opened to rave reviews (at least Bob and Larry raved) in August 1977 with a stock partially enhanced by generous donations by J.B. Kennedy (of J.B. Kennedy Books), who pitied the two innocents. Another essential bookseller was Andy Dowdy (of Other Times Books), who patiently answered their stupid questions. “Ask Andy,” was their slogan when the boys became pathetically confused, which was most of the time. He never let them down.
What we wanted.
We wanted to sell wonderful books in fine condition and sell them at reasonable prices. And we wanted a constantly renewing stock.
Above all, we sought the Magic of the BOOKSHOP (capital letters all). A place of culture and wondrous surprise. A place to be. The Great Good Place. We wished to have something wonderful for everyone: Affordable rarities for the collector. Solid clean copies of middle priced books for the general good reader. Inexpensive paperbacks for students and the other walking indigent. As well as a Sale Section of good hard bound books, $2 apiece, 6 for $10.
After a rocky week or two, we learned to pay good prices for good books and to have the strength to refuse a book in less than very nice condition.
The Open Boat
The first ten years the bookshop sailed smoothly, except for breakers in the form of landlords anxious to drown. After three years our Westwood landlord amused himself by tripling our rent. So in 1980 we moved to Santa Monica Boulevard, in West LA, two doors from the shop of our friend Gene De Chene, another admirable bookseller. This time two landlords owned the building. So they were twice as eager to raise the rent. After eight years of yearly rising increments, in 1987 Bob decided to buy his own building on Venice Boulevard.
The amenities of Sam: Johnson’s include the owners’ personalities, along with a Steinway piano, a rubber mummy, dummy rats, and a human head emerging from a pot. It is always Hallowe’en at Sam: Johnson’s. In addition we have our own rear parking lot and garden. Above all, we have classical music, sometimes live (remember that piano?), other times recorded. We occasionally offer signings and poetry reading (also mostly live). We’re open seven days and strain to get new stock every day.
To landscape the unparkable parts of the parking lot. To build an arbor with benches for reading. To saturate the area in flowering shrubs and visiting livestock like butterflies.
Addenda and corrigenda
In addition to stocking books we’ve written published by other people, we decided it might be fun to issue our own books.
If sufficiently tantalized, punch up Books we publish.
Bookstores mentioned in Bob Klein’s history of Sam: Johnson’s:
Pickwick Bookshop: The grand bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard. It eventually became a regional chain and was purchased by B. Dalton, who ran it into the ground, all now closed. Check out our stories on Hollywood Blvd. for more background.
Cherokee Bookshop. “The best used book shop West of the Mississippi” according to the great old time book dealer “Doc” Burroughs. Started by Jack. Blum, who like Larry Myers always brown-bagged his lunch, even though near Musso-Franks. Upon his retirement he left the store in the hands of his two sons, Gene and Burt. Burt opened the first comic book store in L.A. in the basement of Cherokee. He and brother Gene got to squabbling and split up their partnership. The shop eventually moved to the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade for a while, but has long been closed.
Larson’s Book Shop. This was L.A.’s premier metaphysical store for some time. It started as mainly a back-issue magazine store, but got into occult and metaphysical. John Larson died fairly early and his wife Louise ran the store. One of our readers recently asked about the store, here’s a link to a rather lengthy reply with some information and gossip about Larson’s:
Frank Spellman (Krown & Spellman). Big Frank Spellman was really a big man, he must have weighed near 350 pounds. His specialty was Medieval History. He later moved from Westwood to the Third Street Prominade into a narrow shop near the south end, where he operated from until his death many years ago.
Other Times Books. Andy Dowdy ran this shop for years on Pico Blvd. His specialty was Theatre Arts and Popular Culture, and he had an amazing stock of books. He was an inexhaustible book scout and about as knowledgeable as anyone I’ve ever met in the book business. He ran the equivalent of a Salon out of his apartment on weekends, where book folks mingled with journalists, screen writers, actors and other literary folk. Gus Hasford often was there while working on various novels and films. Andy took ill some years ago, liquidated the book stock and moved up to Washington to live with relatives. I haven’t heard from him in years. He was a gentleman always and I miss him and his gloriously fun shop.
Gene De Chene. His bookshop was on Santa Monica Blvd. near Sawtelle Ave. At the time, in the late 1960s and 1970s it was a great area for book stores and thrift shops due to the cheap rents. Gene retired and sold the shop to his employee, a nice woman, (whose name I can’t remember), but high rents drove her out. All the shops in the area are now gone, a long list. Even Mrs. Goods Donuts is no longer there. Only the Nuart Theater survives as a monument to the passing of our popular culture.
And now, soon, Sam: Johnson’t will sadly close. The word on the street is that Larry is not in good health and wants to retire. He declined to sign a renewal of the lease, and the owner has put the building up for sale. Larry’s friend David is running the store, and scuttlebutt has it that Larry hasn’t been in the shop for months. Possibly he is unable to do so. There are no plans for a public sale, and there is a rumor that the stock will be offered as one block.
A typed page, a note on the front door tells the last story. A sad ending of not just one used book shop, but of an entire era of culture on the Westside. The Westwood-West L.A.-Santa Monica area was at one time the home to numerious book shops. Most are long gone, pushed out both by attrition and by high rents. One problem is that the younger generation has not gotten into the book business. There’s no young newcomers opening shops. A few places survive, Ken Karmiole still has his rare book business in Santa Monica, but all the used book shops of note are gone, like in other parts of Los Angeles, almost a complete wipe-out. Even the big Barnes and Noble in Santa Monica is gone. What this means in the long term cultural sense remains to be seen. I doubt that anything good will come of it. When a culture loses it’s book shops, its theaters, its art galleries, in effect the soul of its civilization, can it survive?