Show Returns to Glendale, California
by Paul Hunt
Bill Nelson from Oddball Books gave me his worn copy of Pulp to read while I was recuperating from a recent medical incident. He knew I was at the old Los Angeles Free Press during the days when Bukowski was writing his column “Notes of a Dirty Old Man.”
A lot of the young writers at the time loved Bukowski. He was a fresh voice and we couldn’t wait to see his latest outrage. Although he was loved by a lot of the writers of that era, none of us thought that the public at large was ready for him. We were wrong, and a few years later, a big chunk of the literary community had latched on to his rising reputation..
Pulp is a fun read, but it is not just another private eye book and Nicky Belane is not just another gumshoe, he is “Hollywood’s greatest private dick.” He is also a world class drunk. He is drinking on every page, everywhere he goes, which includes every dimly lit bar within shouting distance. Bukowski was having fun with this, mocking every private eye mystery in every way possible. Private dick Belane drank so much that about half way through the book I briefly thought about heading out to an AA meeting just to keep my sanity. Luckily, my old friend Sol Grossman was on my mind.
Sol was a partner in the California Book Fairs that I was involved in. He had also operated a mail order business dealing in private eye novels called “Mainly Mysteries”. In his personal life, he was heavily involved in the AA movement. He wasn’t just a friend of Bill’s, he was Bill’s long-lost twin brother. Sol was on my mind as I read Pulp, because he had just died the week before at the young age of 92. I started laughing out loud just thinking about what a gigantic rant he would have gone on if he had read Pulp. He was passionate beyond belief against drunkenness, and would wave his big cane around in a profane-laced rant at anyone perceived by him to be a drunk, even a fictional character. Sol was the main sponsor of AA meetings in Ventura, where he lived.
Even while drunk out of his mind, private dick Belane takes on an odd assortment of clients. One hires him to find Celine, the long-dead French writer, who was seen frequenting a Hollywood bookstore. Belane knows deep down that this is crazy, Celine had been dead for years, but off he goes to Red Koldowsky’s bookstore to check it out.
“You know Red. He likes to run people out of his bookstore. A person can spend a thousand bucks in there, then maybe linger a minute or two and Red will say ‘Why don’t you get the hell out of here?’. Red’s a good guy, he’s just freaky. Anyway, he keeps forcing Celine out and Celine goes over to Musso’s and hangs around the bar looking sad. A day or so later he’ll be back and it will happen all over again.”
Anyone not familiar with Old Hollywood might think that Red’s bookstore is just another fictional creation of Bukowski. Red was, however, very real, and Bukowski knew him well. His real name was Sholom “Red” Stodolsky and his bookstore was Baroque Book Store on Las Palmas Avenue, just a half block south of Hollywood Blvd. An article I wrote back in the 1970s and expanded and printed here on Bookstore Memories, called “Hollywood Blvd. Bookstore Follies” lists most of the bookstores in Hollywood at the time Bukowski was prowling around the area. Here’s the listing:
Lastly, we come to BAROQUE BOOK STORE, which almost adjoins Universal News. Owner Sholom “Red” Stodolsky specializes in modern literature, literary criticism, music theater, film, poetry and first editions. You can get an added thrill to that exciting out-of-print tome you find by reading it while strapped into the electric chair that sits in the middle of the store. Don’t worry about the volts, it’s only a make-believe mock-up from a movie set. (Who said that book dealers are eccentric?)
As I remember Red in those days, he was about 5 ft. 10 in. had thinning red hair, a small red mustache, and a small belly paunch, the kind older men frequently acquire for free later in life.
Some of Red’s remarks from Pulp:
“Can you believe some of them come in here eating ice cream cones.?”
“Hey you” he yelled “get the hell out of here.”
“I can tell when they’re not going to buy.”
Was Red really that way, yelling at potential customers to “Get Out” or was this just a Bukowski exaggeration?. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s Hollywood was declining. This was mostly due to the greed of developers, banksters, and their handy tool, Mayor Bradley. A Redevelopment area was created and plans laid for a billion dollar boondoggle of building, which is still going on to this day. But in order to drive property values down to the low level that they could then be acquired by huge developers, services were cut, the police cut back, and the area of Hollywood got worse every year. Bukowski called it “skid row Hollywood.” By the 1990s the only three places that he thought were still viable were Red’s bookstore, Musso’s (Musso and Franks) and Fredericks of Hollywood. The rest of Hollywood was repulsive even to Bukowski.
As the years wore on and crime increased, the booksellers had an increasingly hard time coping with an onslaught of thieves, the unwashed, the rude and the crude. Some of the book dealers could cope, others like Red were deeply offended at the incivility of it all.
Curmudgeon: a crusty, ill-tempered person, usually an old man.
Bukowski, writing Pulp, certainly was aware of this and described Red that way, maybe actually understating it. L.A.Times writer John McCormick described being booted out of Baroque around the 1980s.
“Are you going to buy anything?” asked Red
“I don’t know” said McCormick.
“Then get out.”
Now retired bookseller Fred Dorsett remembers Red as “curmudgeonly a human as I have ever met. In fact, he is the benchmark against which all curmudgeons are measured.”
Fred tells of a book scout who occasionally would bring in some lit to sell to Red. They had a cordial relationship, until a strange incident occurred. The book scout picked up some signed sports books, totally out of Red’s area of expertise. The scout sold them to Gene at Cherokee Books on Hollywood Blvd. Somehow, during some gossip, Red heard about it, and the next time the poor Book Scout stopped into Baroque Book Store Red yelled at him, accusing him of the grandest and most foul type of betrayal, and told him to get out and never come back.. The book scout was still trying to figure that one out years later.
Trolling through the internet blogs relating to Bukowski and to Baroque sheds some more light. A few remember Red fondly, and said they were always treated with respect, and that Red would often give them something extra with a purchase. Some other comments weren’t quite as kind:
“A cranky old fucker.”
“He was a type of eccentric character that seems to be dying off, along with the rest of his generation.”
“I was treated like shit.”
Bukowski, however, got along just fine with the real Red. He was impressed that Red was a huge fan, and had gone out of his way to stock a ton of both new and used Bukowski material. In 1989 Bukowski wrote a poem about Red, and it was published in a limited edition of 50 copies
Good luck trying to find a copy to purchase, the last one I saw was around $1700. If you are diligent, you can find the actual poem on the internet, but you will have to look hard for it, maybe even hire Nicky Belane, Hollywood’s greatest private dick to give you a hand. Hey, don’t laugh, he found Celine, didn’t he?
Red Skodolsky died in 1998 at the age of 82. The bookstore was closed and the stock liquidated.
Charles Bukowski died in 1994 not long after he finished Pulp. The one case that he had taken early on in the book was to find “The Red Sparrow.” Through thick and thin, he could never solve that until the end of the book. It’s an interesting ending, which you will enjoy, especially when you figure out who or what the Red Sparrow is.
Time for a glass of wine. Cheers to the old Hollywood.
A plaque at the site of Red’s old bookstore on Las Palmas.
The wonderful travel bookstore and outfitters in Pasadena, Distant Lands, will close its doors by the end of December, possibly as soon as Christmas Eve. The Store, located in trendy Old Town Pasadena at 20 South Raymond, has faced increasingly high rents since they started in business 29 years ago. As with other bookstores, when the rents go sky-high it is impossible to survive selling general books to the public.
Other factors in the closing this month include the intense competition from huge internet operations in the travel business itself, which has led to many travel agencies around the world to close their doors. The large internet corporations achieve a near-monopoly status and discount fiercely, making it nearly impossible for smaller agencies to survive. Another factor might be that large parts of the world are unsafe for travelers at the moment, due to wars, famine, and political turbulence.
Distant Lands carries a large stock of books on travel, as well as maps and other informative information. Everything is on sale, including travel gear, fantastic back-packs and even some display items like funky old suitcases and trunks.
The store has a Facebook page and also a website, www.distantlands.com. The owner said he will probably continue business online only in some fashion, but right now he is concentrating on their store-wide sale.
For many folks, Distant Lands was the starting point for an adventure of a life time. The store could guide you and help you plan your travel to many remote and exotic places. Your memories of these travels and adventures remain forever. It also attracted a large and constant stream of foreign tourists, who came to get information on where to go in the Los Angeles and Southern California area. Pasadena is a mecca for tourists, the yearly Rose Parade attracts people from around the world.
First – Here’s The Mural and the Artist As I Filmed it in 2015.
The Mural, at Kingswell and Vermont in East Hollywood was painted in 2015 by Nathan Anderson, a local L.A. artist. The person who evidently commissioned the mural was none other than Hollywood bookseller Alan Siegel’s daughter, who was trying to open a “Bukowski” bar a few feet east of the Mural. Alan ran Hollywood’s biggest bookshop for years. He also had another huge store out in Burbank, and a 10,000 square foot warehouse in NOHO. His daughters were raised in the book stores, and I heard it was Marcie who was opening the bar, which I don’t think got off the ground. If anyone has any information on this let us know.
I was sad to get this message from my Facebook friend Robert Ready:
“Hey Paul! I wish I had been mistaken, but that Charles Bukowski mural on the south side of Kingswell at Vermont in Los Feliz *has* been painted over–with an ugly and pointless brown pigment. Oddly, the mural of his books is still up, just a few yards to the East…”
Here’s the latest photos Robert sent us:
The physical destruction of old Hollywood continues, with countless buildings and entire blocks being torn down. Billions of dollars pour in to build monstrous complexes. And the homeless population seems to increase by the day.
The average monthly profit at the stall, after rent, salaries, and other expenses, is about $511. U.S. Their method of stacking allows them to jam in a huge number of books in a small space. Notice that most of the books are trade paperbacks, which are “square”. If you stacked hardbacks like this, because of the spines, all the books would soon be warped or “shelf cocked” as we say. They would have to be put in a book press for a month to get them back to normal.
An improvement might be to have very thin ply board in between the stacks to keep the books in one stack from intruding on the books in an adjacent stack, making it easier to pull out a book without snagging others that are adjacent. Notice in the recently posted film “The Cardinal and the Corpse” that Driff has them stacked this way, (I call it the Mumbai Stacking System). Notice that Driff has many hardbacks in his stacks. Any other comments on this?
I was surprised to find this on youtube, a treat from writer Iain Sinclair. Driffield, the infamous publisher of the old UK guides to used bookstores, took part in this. In the 90s I went to London to track down Driff, but his short-lived magazine had closed down and he was evidently (according to various used booksellers I spoke with) in hiding from creditors. I searched high and low, book shops, book stalls, book shows, pubs, no Driff, although once in a while some bookdealer would report a sighting. More on Driff and the great Iain Sinclair at a later time.
by Paul Hunt
Book people like printed stuff. They usually read real books and don’t like reading too much material on a computer screen. I know that a lot of us will print out an article from the internet and read it from paper rather than trying to read it on a computer, tablet, and especially a cel phone.
The rub is that we use a lot of paper. I have found that if I print out an article, not only can I read it later, but I can save it for reference and actually find it instead of trying to find it on the computer as a cryptic .pdf file. I also noticed that almost every article I print out has wasted or mostly blank pages at the beginning or the end. Part of this is caused by scaling from various website design software. Also, many articles have comments at the end of the article, or ads, or just blank sheets.
So here’s the tip: Before you hit the final “Print” button, look at the preview. In a 7 page story there might be 2 blank pages, so select only the pages that are necessary for the article. You can usually ditch the comments and the bottom ads and jibberish. Then instead of the default “Print All”, type into the magic box only the pages that you want to print, like “1-5”. I have found that I save at least 20% of paper use by doing this. You will have more money to buy more books!!
Bonus Tip Most of us have noticed that printers are cheap, but the ink is expensive. The printer companies will almost force their way into your home, hold you hostage, and brazenly install an ink jet printer to your computer so that you will then be their economic slave for eternity and have to buy their overpriced ink cartridges. For years I have used a system that hooks up larger ink tanks to my Epson printer, allowing me to buy ink cheaply in large bottles. This has saved me thousands of dollars over the years, but it is a bootleg system and does have it’s annoyances. Now Epson has come out with an actual “Eco-Tank” system that will save you a fortune in ink. It has built in ink tanks so no more little plastic cartridges that are so over-priced. The Epson printers are great quality and are very reasonable, so I recommend the Eco-Tank to save you even more money. I bought mine from Amazon because it was the cheapest deal and even though they said it would take 5-7 days, I ordered it on Saturday and it arrived Monday morning. Their price was better that Target, Best Buy, Walmart, and all the rest. Happy Printing Book Folks.
Adam Parfrey Meets the Satanist’s Daughter
Stanton LaVey’s Wild Memories
by Paul Hunt
Stanton’s memoirs of Adam sort of begin when Adam was visiting Stanton’s mother Zeena in Los Angeles in 1988. Adam was re-issuing Anton LaVey’s book “The Compleat Witch, What to do when Virtue Fails,” with a new title “The Satanic Witch.” He had asked Zeena to write the introduction to the new publication. With Adam visiting Zeena at night they began to do things loudly in all night failed virtue routines, causing Stanton to have to turn the volume all the way up on his television to drown out the sounds of “moaning and creaking of the box springs against my bedroom wall.” His entertaining article goes on to mention his interaction with other pop culture icons, Boyd Rice, Nick Bougas, Nikolas Schreck, Richard Lamparski, Crispin Glover, Zeena LaVey, Radio Werewolf, and of course his Satanist grandfather Anton. His dealings with Adam Parfrey span years and cover Stanton’s days as a bookseller.
Sometime around 2000 Stanton opened a book shop on the Sunset Strip, just west of Gardner Street, a block from the famous Guitar Center. He called it The ODIUM. Filmmaker John Aes-Nihil, Stanton’s friend, and noted chronicler of the Manson Family, called me to help accumulate some shelving and showcases. John supplied a truckload of video to help stock the shop. Stanton made a deal with Adam to sell “returns” of his Feral House book inventory. The shop was painted and decorated in bright red from floor to ceiling, the main room portraying what a bookstore in Hell would be like. The stock consisted of books, CDs, Video and DVDs on every form of underground Kulture, Satanism, Serial Killers, Charles Manson Family materials, Music, Magick, the strange, the unusual, the esoteric. There was nothing like it in the entire world.
Adam Parfrey made an especially interesting presentation there one night. He had returned from a trip to Indonesia and had brought with him posters, books, t-shirts and other memorabilia that glorified Osama Bin Laden. This material he later put into a book called Extreme Islam, which was certainly spot on for the time period. He pointed out in his lecture how the Muslims in Indonesia considered Bin Laden to be a great hero and his support and adulation was huge in that country. Stanton had an off duty LAPD cop and heavy security as a publicity stunt out on the street in front of the shop, but in fact there was a possibility of some Islamic extremists to try something nasty. Think, an American Satanic leaning bookstore scorching the Muslim warrior Bin Laden. Sure to rile the vile in the radical world. The presentation was a big success for Stanton, a packed house, some sales and a boost to Adam’s creds as L.A.’s up and coming troublemaker, even on the international scene.
The thread of history leading up to that moment of time on Sunset Boulevard at The ODIUM is an interesting one. None other than Ted Gunderson, head of the Los Angeles F.B.I. Office, revealed that the CIA and top administration officials had brought Bin Laden to Southern California to raise funds for the Jihadists in Afghanistan as they battled the Soviets. Gunderson was in a meeting that was meant to introduce Bin Laden, under the cover name of “Tim Ossman” (get it – OSS Man) to Southern California law enforcement leaders. The CIA wanted them to know that Bin Laden was “our guy” and to leave him alone in his fund raising to arm the Jihadists. His Al-qaeda group was named by the CIA and meant “the Base”, referring to their database of fighters they had enlisted in their secret war in the mountains of Afghanistan.
We are a long way from that night at The ODIUM, when Adam Parfrey sounded the alarm about “radical Islam”. The United States is still there waging war. We long ago dumped our “friend and surrogate” Bin Laden, making him a boogie man as an excuse to invade Iraq, and finally assassinating him (if you believe the Pentagon’s raid story.) History and time move on. Parfrey is gone, Gunderson is gone (2011), Bin Laden gone, the mighty Soviet Empire is gone, The ODIUM long gone. Only the Pentagon, the very symbol of Satan, and it’s vast armies are still there, bombing hospitals and wedding parties, killing civilians, fighting new enemies and “terrorists” on the same blood-soaked territory many years later. Is this all the intense drama of an ongoing Occult War? Or is the U.S. just stuck in a groove, unable to move as the record spins around the turntable of the Gods, until someone, or something, gives the armature a little flick?
Stanton LaVey’s funny, articulate, lurid article on Adam Parfrey can be read on his website BaphometX.com, click here to enjoy the memories.
Also check out John Aes-Nihil’s site click here.
Hanging around the old Atlantis Book Shop in Hollywood in the 1970s was the first time I heard about an old bookbinder who came into Hollywood once a week and made the rounds to the book shops and picked up books that needed repair and dropped off the finished books from the previous week. “ Doc” Burroughs, the owner of Atlantis, told me his name was “old man Cowan.” He repaired a lot of books for Atlantis. The repair jobs were always distinctive because Cowan often used wallpaper for end-paper, which was colorful but looked down upon by the rare book dealers who pointed out that wallpaper was usually made from wood pulp and highly acidic.
The reason Cowan had so much business was that he was really reasonable and his repairs were sturdy and lasting. Because he was around doing this he saved thousands of books from being tossed out. Every book dealer runs across books that have a detached cover, or weak hinges, or a missing end paper. A normal book bindery or hand bindery would charge something like $75 on up at that time to do a proper repair. Cowan would do it for $3-$5 dollars on average. He had his own methods to tackle some of the jobs that needed to be completely re-sewn. His technique was similar to that of William Hawley, the orientalist who published “Culture Charts” on Samurai Swords and Japanese language and dealt in books on Japan and China. Hawley lived in a house on a hill in the Silverlake district and it had about 100 steps to get up to it. I went there many times to buy his “Culture Charts” that I sold at the swap meets and military shows. In the basement of the house was a bindery, and he explained how he repaired books without using a sewing frame. I will save the general reader boredom and not go into detail on this.
Mr. Cowan used a similar technique to avoid actually having to sew the books. Between the time that I met Hawley in the early 1970s and the time I met Cowan in the 1980s I had been to UCLA’s bookbinding school for a couple semesters and learned the proper way to bind books. The teacher was the great Margaret Leckie, an internationally recognized rare book binder. Any thoughts I had of becoming a book binder vanished while taking that course. It requires so much time to sew and rebind a book that making a living at it seemed impossible to me. A few of the students were sent to the school by the Getty to learn how to bind and repair books because they had the income to hire and train folks to maintain their massive collections. Unless one can become a master book binder in order to work only on rare and expensive books, it is impossible to make a living repairing $10 and $20 dollar books for book dealers. Although I decided not to pursue the trade of binding, I learned a lot, and by the time I finally met Cowan I had a grateful respect for what he was doing, although at times wincing at the wallpaper he used for end paper.
Robert G. Cowan was really a character, a one of a kind man who had done many things in life. I greatly admired him and was very fond of him. I finally met him in the mid-1980’s. I got his phone number from Bill Chase, who was working for me at that time. The glory days of Hollywood Boulevard were almost gone, and shops were closing up or moving to Westwood. Bill Chase had run Gilbert’s Book Shop at Hollywood and Vine. This was formerly known as Satyr books, and was around the corner on Vine Street and I think this was run by Stanley Rose. When Rose moved to Hollywood Blvd next to Musso and Franks, Mr. Gilbert took over the store and later moved around the corner on to Hollywood Blvd. just east of Vine Street.
Gilbert was married to one of Edgar Rice Burroughts daughters, and had an extensive collection of rare Tarzan books. Unfortunately a fire at his home did a lot of damage to his books, including the Tarzan books, and he sent boxes of them to Cowan to repair. Cowan had by then (mid-1980s) stopped his weekly trips to Hollywood Blvd to pick up and drop off books. He was doing that in his 80s, but as he approached 90 years old he would no longer drive, so if you wanted some books repaired you had to find him in his house in the steep hills of Silverlake. When I finally connected with him he was still repairing the damaged books for Gilbert, a time consuming job because many of the books were really badly damaged from the fire and the water used to put out the fire. I could see trying to save some of the rare Burroughs titles but many of the books Gilbert had sent to Cowan were very common books, and not worth fixing. However, it was job security for Cowan, who had a nice bindery set up in the basement of his hillside home.
I was at the Book Castle at the time, and we got in an enormous amount of books. A fair amount of older books would need some of Cowan’s repair expertise, and I tried to take him a box of books every other week. I had solved the “wallpaper” problem, at least for myself. Back in the 1970s I had an antique store with another guy down in the old Ramparts section of Los Angeles. One day I heard about an old bindery that was going out of business, down near 11th and Rampart, and I went over and bought a fair amount of equipment and tools. I also got a few big rolls of printed end papers with a couple of different designs but mainly blue background with tiny little gold fleur de lis, so I dug these out of storage and gave Cowan a bunch of rolls so that he could put on decent end papers on my books. No more wallpaper for me! The drawback, however was that all my repaired books screamed Vive la France!
Cowan was reasonable in his pricing. He saved a lot of good books that we could sell that would have otherwise been thrown out. I often took my manager Ted Miller with me to see Cowan, he enjoyed talking to a “living legend” as Ted called him. On other occasions I brought along Western Americana collector John Riordan and also Janet Jarvits who had worked at the Arthur Clarke Company, publishers and booksellers of fine Western Americana. Cowan had been one of the authors of the authoritative “Bibliography of California with his father Robert E. Cowan. There is so much that could be said of Robert E., a famous book man who had a book shop in San Francisco before the terrible earthquake and fire of April 1906. Cowan worked with libraries and books all his life, and his son Robert G. followed much of that. The family lived for years on the William Andrews Clark estate, which later became part of U.C.L.A. The Cowans cataloged the books that Clark had purchased, and were actually private librarians.
On occasion I was RGC’s guest at meetings of the Los Angeles Corral of the Westerners, a fine group of historians, authors, scholars, educators, and collectors of Western Americana and Californiana. These meetings were held at the famous French restaurant on Sunset Blvd., Taix, established in 1927.
At one point in the late-1980s, Mr. Cowan fell down the outside staircase on his way down to work in his bindery. He was in the hospital for a few weeks, and he was sadly confined to a wheel chair after that. Most people in their 90s would just give up and head for the old folks home. Not Cowan. He was a survivor. He hired a lady to come in a few times a week and help him with household chores. The nice lady was from Belize, and she would often fix a great meal for Mr. Cowan and some house guests he would have over for dinner, drinks, and a lot of fascinating book talk. I was privileged to be invited to a few of those dinners and listen to the stories of his legendary father Robert E. Cowan and his pursuit of rare books around the State.
I went with Cowan to an event at the Lummis house in downtown Los Angeles. Cowan was in a wheel chair then, but he had a great time. He was given an award by a local history organization, and he showed me around the old adobe house. He later gave me a receipt that his father had written up when Lummis purchased $15 worth of books around 1898. The receipt is signed by Lummis (see photo).
Above: Receipt for books sold to Charles Lummis, 1898.
Robert G. Cowan had a life full of fun and excitement. He was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1895. His father’s side was Scotch. His middle name was Granniss, not a name from Scotland, but interesting as to how he got it. His father, Robert E. Cowan, was acquainted with a Col. George Granniss, who worked for Gen. Grant’s Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck. It seems Halleck had been a partner in one of California’s premier law firms, Halleck, Peachy & Billings. They had handled most of the old land cases in early California days. The firm also did business with the Army. So Halleck ordered Col. Granniss out to San Francisco to close up the law firm, send the appropriate papers to the Army, and dispose of the “civilian” papers that the law firm had accumulated. At one of the dinner parties, Mr. Cowan told me that the files were primary source material for many of the important land transactions of the early days. Col. Granniss gave all these files to Cowan’s father, who later sold them to Collis P. Huntington on behalf of the University of California for something like $3,000. This gave Robert E. Cowan enough money to plunge into the book business, and he gratefully put Col. Granniss’ name on his son. In his book, Foibles, Fun, Flukes and Facts, Mr. Cowan referred to himself as “RGC” to differentiate himself from his famous father, Robert E. Cowan.
RGC’s aforementioned book goes into great detail about his life in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th Century, including the horrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. He spins tales of his life in the bay area during the teens, his experiences at school, at work, and outdoors camping with friends. How different things were in those days. Also included in his autobiography is his diary of his days in World War 1, kept in secret against orders. He served overseas in France with a unit that transported artillery shells to the artillery units during many of the crucial battles that led to the end of the war.
After the war, RGC returned to the bay area and worked at several jobs, including the Southern Pacific Railroad. His father, meanwhile, was spending half his time in Southern California, working for William Andrews Clark, Jr as a librarian. In 1926, the Clark Memorial Library was finished and Clark wanted Robert E. Cowan full time. He hired his son, our RGC to move down to Los Angeles and work on the library, so the Cowan family moved all their belongings, including Robert E.’s massive collection of books (2 Bekins Vans full) down to the Clark property, where Robert E. had been assigned a house to live in. RGC and his wife found a small house nearby, and this started his odyssey in Los Angeles.
I have jammed this little article with photos, there is not much on the internet about the life and adventures of Robert G. Cowan, and his wide range of interests. How many folks today would start a new business when they are in their 80s? You have to admire him, scurrying up and down Hollywood Blvd. and building a stable business binding and repairing books for all the Hollywood book dealers. He was an authentic California pioneer of the 20th Century. The first person to shake hands with him when he was a child was the flamboyant Emperor Norton. I was probably one of the last to shake Mr. Cowan’s hand before he passed, age about 98.
Using his autobiography and other material as a guide, I compiled a list of all the houses that RGB build or lived in. What I didn’t know during the time that I personally knew him was that he was the architect on several of his houses, and also the contractor on at least two. He also on one occasion showed me photos of a sailboat that he built in his backyard, he still had all the plans and blueprints neatly rolled up in a cupboard. He built the boat entirely by hand, over a period of years, going through an elaborate process to bend the long pieces of lumber to fit the design. This was done by wetting the boards and bending them a little at a time, until just the right bend angle occurred. He said the Cowan family spent many pleasant hours sailing in the Pacific.
Above: Paul Hunt and Robert Cowan at the Lummis House in the Mid-1980s.
Out of curiosity, I started a google map search, and much to my surprise, most of the houses in Los Angeles and two of the Victorians in San Francisco, were still standing, although slightly altered in some cases. With my partner Julie Webster, and armed with cameras, we set out on a “RGC House Hunting Safari” to find and photograph the existing houses that Cowan occupied. The results are given below, including the San Francisco Houses that are still standing according to Google maps.
Above: Robert E. Cowan’s house, 321 (now 3229) 20th St., San Francisco, CA. This is where Robert G. Cowan was born. These Victorians are still standing.
Above: 867 Treat Ave., San Francisco. This became father Robert E. Cowan’s residence around 1899 and also the book shop, which was on the ground floor, (known as the basement in those days.).
Above: 1321 South Redondo Blvd., Los Angeles. Robert G. Cowan lived here from 1927-1942. RGC was the architect. Note he used the attic for his books and the skylights are visible on the right hand side of the roof. This house had 3 bedrooms and one bath. Current value on Zillo is $1,278,000.
Above: 2151 W. 20th St., Los Angeles, CA. This is in the Jefferson Park area. This is where RGC’s father Robert E. Cowan lived after leaving the Andrews Clark Library. When he died in 1942, RGC sold the Redondo Blvd. house and moved in here. The house was packed with books. His father had the habit of buying books and leaving them wrapped up in the original packaging, so RGC had the fun of opening hundreds of these, finding great treasures. The house was a huge old craftsman (circa 1911) and RGC lived there until 1950. It has 5 bedrooms and 3 baths. Zillo value is over $1,200,000. It is used by studios for filming often.
Above: 5522 Harcross Drive, Los Angeles, CA. Windsor Hills area. RGC was both architect and contractor. The large attic was for his books. He built this house in 1949 but was only here for a short time, as he and his wife Georgia separated in 1951. 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, current Zillo value is above $822,000.
Above: 1650 Redcliffe Drive, Los Angeles CA (Silverlake area). RGC was the architect and contractor. He had to raise the roof in order to fit in a massive glass front case that came from the Clark estate. The bindery was entered on the right at street level. He lived here from 1952 until his death. The house was last sold in 1994 for $132,000. The estimated Zillo value today is over $1,533,000. This is the house that RGC fell down the front stairs, putting him in a wheelchair.
Above: The Philharmonic Building. Demolished 1985.
In 1933 RGC became a partner in a Stamp and Coin business, called La Cal Stamp Co. During the depression years stamp collecting was huge. Within a few months, he was the sole owner. RGC did well, the small shop was near 4th and Main. He later moved into a storefront in the magnificent Philharmonic Building at 5th and Olive. I assume he got that shop because William Andrews Clark, Jr founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Society and built the building. Sadly, it was demolished around 1985 without much outcry. With the coming of WW2, the country became more affluent, and RGC found it harder to buy collections. His lease on the shop was coming due and because of inflation a large rent increase was coming. He decided wisely that it was time to sell his business, and although he does not give a date in his autobiography, it might have been 1942 around the time his father died. His next business venture was buying up small apartment courts. He eventually had 18 units which he said gave him an adequate income, plus exercise as he did the maintenance himself
My latest information, thanks to a fellow book researcher, is that Robert G. Cowan died on August 3, 1997. This would make him around 97 years old, a ripe old age. I would note that although I never saw him smoke, he did have a couple of shots or a couple glasses of wine most nights. He missed the great Los Angeles earthquake on January 17, 1994 by about 4 months. Better to have lived through only one of these shakers.
He lived to see incredible changes in California. He saw the last of the west, two world wars, and the rise of a modern civilization. He was a down to earth gentleman, and I treasure the time we spent together in his bindery or at his dinner parties. I only wish I had met him much earlier, back in the 1970s when he was a mysterious old guy who roamed Hollywood Blvd. Bookshops looking for tattered books to repair. As I discovered, he was so much more than just an old book binder. He was a Veteran, an Architect, a Contractor, a Bibliographer with his father of the great Bibliography of California, a Bookseller, an Author of several books, a Stamp and Coin Dealer, a Real Estate apartment landlord, a Boat Builder, a Sailor, and an owner of a Model T Ford. The most fascinating man I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
Above: Robert G. Cowan at about 90 years old. Photo by Paul Hunt.
Rare Guest Book From Tokyo Medical Conference in 1905
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