Once Upon a Time in Mar Vista

Last Memories of Sam: Johnson’s Bookstore

PhotoStory by Paul Hunt

The Bookstore was once the Mar Vista Library. I found this flyer stapled to the side of a shelf.

This nice color photo of Bob Klein was stapled to a shelf. RIP

This bookmark was in one of the books I got at the sale.  The website is still active this June day but will soon disappear into the internet ethos.

Just before the final sale there were about 10,000 wondrous books snuggled into shelves.

 

 

The Dollar Sale – fabulous bargains to those in the know.

 

The shelves started getting sparce, but this was a store where there was not a bad book to be found. All relevant and clean, dust jackets were protected with plastic brodarts.

 

Then, as time ran out, all remaining books, about 5,000, were free.

 

Finally, all shelves were cleared, the last book went out with a happy customer.

And so ends the story of the last big bookstore on L.A.’s West Side.  All the books have found new homes with loving owners who are grateful and excited to get them.  Some folks returned to get some additional shelving.  Many thanks to Richard, Janet, Petee, and Julie for help with this story.  To Bob Klein and Larry Myers:  Salute.  You achieved much to educate and change the world for the better.

Goodbye Bookstore Friend.

Archives Bookshop Relocates In Pasadena

Large Store Now Open In North Pasadena

Archives Bookstore, a long-time fixture in the Pasadena area has once again been forced to re-locate.  The good news is that owner John Wipf found a great location in the warehouse district of North Pasadena.  With plenty of free parking and a beautiful large store with great lighting, it is a pleasant place to shop.  Archives specializes in Religion, Theology,  Philosophy, Christian History and Christian Studies, and many related subjects..

Plenty of parking at the new location at 1232 N. Fair Oaks, Unit 10-B, Pasadena.

The entire long back wall is filled with Bargain Books at large discounts.  Plenty of light in this store makes browsing easy.

Another view of Archives massive inventory.  Congratulations to John and his crew for creating a great bookstore.

Archives Bookstore

1232 N. Fairoaks, Unit 10-B

Pasadena, Ca. 91103

Phone: 626-797-4756

Website link click here.

 

 

L.A.’s Westside To Lose The Last Large Used Bookshop

Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop To Close Forever May 31

by Paul Hunt

Westside’s Last General Used Bookshop

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

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 Myers

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.

Intentions

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?

Distant Lands Travel Bookstore in Pasadena Closing

High Rents, Competition From Mega-Corps Cited

Store Has Been in Pasadena 29 Years

Distant Lands Window Sign

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.

20 South Raymond is near the heart of Pasadena Old Town

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.

The Store-wide sale is starting now.

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.

Notice the old airline seats.

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.

The Cardinal and the Corpse

Driff Took Part in This Iain Sinclair Film

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.

How Book Folks Can Save 20% on Paper Costs at Home

Booksellers and Book Readers Love to Print Out Stuff

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.

The Mysterious Bookbinder Who Roamed Hollywood Blvd Looking For Tattered Tomes.

Robert G. Cowan:  An Extraordinary Life in the Shadows of History

by

Paul Hunt

The Mysterious Book Binder

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.

 

Bill Chase, Manager of Gilbert’s Book Shop

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.

Robert G. Cowan at work in his bindery, 1985. Photo by Paul Hunt

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!

Robert Cowan with Ted Miller, Manager of Avon Book Shop, Burbank, CA.

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.

William Andrews Clark, Jr

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.

RGC getting award at the Lummis house in L.A.

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.

Robert E. Cowan, Bookseller and Bibliographer. RGC’s esteemed father.

 

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.

RGC’s Autobiography

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.

Bucks on the Bookshelf Radio Show June 2, 2018

Host Steve Eisenstein and Paul Hunt Discuss Topics Including:

The Mystery Surrounding The Vanishing Erle Stanley Gardner Museum

Gus Hasford, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Legal Responsibilities of Book Dealers Who Buy From an Estate

Rare Guest Book From Tokyo Medical Conference in 1905

and much more on this 2 hour show.

This show was recorded from WDBF Tune-In radio.  The show is every Saturday 9am-11am Pacific Time.

Click Here to Listen to the show: