Featured image credit: vagueonthehow
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” No, that’s not exactly right. “We were somewhere around LA on the edge of downtown when the drugs began to take hold.” Interesting, but no – still not it. “The man in black fled across the city, and the bookseller followed.” Closer, but still missing something. It’s so much more difficult to start a tale than end it; you have to get that first line just right. Of course, you wouldn’t know it if you asked Josh Spencer, the founder of LA’s iconic The Last Bookstore.
His epic journey required little to no foresight. In fact, its beginning is a bit of a blur. Yet, it’s an epic journey spanning several volumes and spin-off tales with a revolving kaleidoscope of characters all centered around our reluctant hero. More Bilbo than Frodo, Spencer would rather read a book than sling them in Downtown LA. But something called to him. And the city is all the richer for it.
Dreaming Between the Pages
The beginning seems as good a place as any to start a story. But Spencer himself struggles to find where his own story begins. When gangs of neighborhood children would pound on Spencer’s door when he was just five years old, he’d ask his mother to send them away. How could he wile away his days riding bikes and swinging bats when the dictionary sat there with answers to all the questions he never knew to ask. He’d pore through the seemingly inexhaustible army of words, a glutton for vocabulary.
At some point, Merriam-Webster found pleasant enough company with Frank and Joe Hardy, Nancy Drew, Frodo Baggins, and Sam Gamgee. Enchanted by fantasy, enthralled by mystery, Spencer lost seasons and found lifetimes between ink-stained pages. He particularly enjoyed epic journeys; stories that would unfold over volumes. Each chapter further defined a world familiar enough to navigate but unmistakably alien. It would be painfully practical to assert that Spencer dreamed in those days of opening bookstores. Rather, he simply dreamed. And books just so happened to be a crucial piece of the ritual that allowed him passage into these dreams.
The First Last Bookstore
A few decades and five bookstores later, Spencer’s passion for reading hasn’t dulled in the slightest. He admits that it’s been more physical work than he anticipated. And he’s still struggling to connect with people as seamlessly as he does the written word. But most bibliophiles would consider Spencer to be living amongst an embarrassment of riches.
Los Angeles can relate. Of Spencer’s five bookstores, three have opened in LA. The first was, ironically, The Last Bookstore. But not the last Last Bookstore. The first one. To clarify, before Spencer opened the iconic location for the Last Bookstore that everyone knows today, he was selling books out of the trunk of his car. It doesn’t sound like a business model that could be sustainable, let alone successful.
Yet, his impeccable taste paid off and soon he was fulfilling online orders from a downtown loft. And its success resulted in the opening of the first Last Bookstore at the corner of 4th and Main. This was in 2005 which is strange considering how deeply ingrained The Last Bookstore feels in LA’s pantheon.
The Last Last Bookstore
Six years later, The Last Bookstore moved to its current location at the base of the Spring Arts Tower at 5th and Spring. “I wanted it to be the ultimate bookstore that people fantasize about,” Spencer recounts. “A place out of time that seemed like it had been here for ages.” And to anyone even passingly familiar with the downtown staple, it would seem he succeeded.
Entering The Last Bookstore is akin to undertaking your own Hero’s Journey as popularized by the late modern authority on mythology, Joseph Campbell. There’s the initial call to adventure. The point of traversing worlds as you pass through a literal tunnel of books. And then, the shelves stacked high with temptations and illuminations that return you to the known world a changed person.
It’s an epic journey as far as bookstores are concerned; a sprawling 22,000 square foot kingdom of possibilities. Populated by product collections, donations, and carefully curated new books, The Last Bookstore satisfies casual readers and tome raiders alike. Though they don’t go out of their way to hunt down rarities, they come across enough to keep their Arts & Collectibles Gallery stocked.
But Spencer confesses that his favorite spot in the store is the Horror Vault; an old bank vault converted into a sanctuary of spooky stories. With its combination of substance and spectacle, it’s no wonder the people of Los Angeles ate up The Last Bookstore when it first opened its doors. But Spencer didn’t know what would happen in those early days. He just kept turning the page, all curiosity and no expectation.
Following the Story
Looking back, Spencer recalls that his path almost seemed preordained. He recounts a story in which a random stranger approached him in the lobby of a downtown building, proclaiming, “I’ve been looking for you for months.” Perplexed, Spencer continued listening as the stranger continued, “LA needs a bookstore and I’ve been told you’re the guy to do it.” It was during this auspicious encounter that Spencer first contemplated making a living for himself by selling books.
Through this mysterious stranger, Spencer eventually found the massive space at 5th and Spring. It existed beyond his dreams, his budget, and the awareness of the rest of the city (the spot wasn’t advertised). Divinity may not be the right word, but he felt guided forward by something beyond his understanding. And though he worked at it harder than he’d worked at anything, he found that his dream made the most sense when the pieces fell neatly into place as though through no action of his own. “I like to dream up things and bring them into existence,” he says with an unexpected nonchalance for describing such potent magic.
Los Angeles Embraces The Last Bookstore
In its first incarnation, The Last Bookstore was a homogeneous community in which Spencer knew each customer. These days, he’s no nameless faceless corporate entity by any stretch of the imagination. But he’s still leagues away from where he started. And having precious little time to simply sit down and enjoy the books he collects, he has even less time to meet and greet the public. Yet, the larger community of Los Angeles has bonded just as strongly to the store itself.
“My biggest surprise was how quickly it took off,” he says through remembered astonishment. “We had crowds coming in from the moment we opened the doors. It blew my mind.” Who could blame him? He’d spent most of his life in the predominantly solitary pursuit of the written word. Coming out of a state of near total introspection to find that so many people were just as passionate about the same material was nothing short of a revelation for Spencer. In the end, it wasn’t ambition that spurred him onward. It was this strange new mass connection with LA’s book-loving community; a connection that honored introspection.
“Los Angeles is key to The Last Bookstore because it’s such a melting pot,” explains Spencer. He’d understand this better than most. The Last Bookstore stands in a twilight area within blocks of downtown’s swankiest spots and Skid Row. But the juxtaposition makes perfect sense to him. “The Last Bookstore is like a library,” he continues. “By default, there’s this sense of belonging among so many perspectives and so many stories.” Collectively, The Last Bookstore offers the story of what it’s like to be human. Spencer knows that anyone can walk in off the street and find their story on his shelves. But he hopes that readers use his store to expand their mind with novel experiences and new understandings.
Don’t Judge a Bookstore By Its Facade
Spencer’s already helped to shift people’s expectations of a bookstore. Over its brief history, The Last Bookstore has been the site of weddings, photo shoots, culinary displays, celebrity pet meet-and-greets, art installations, and more. He recounts a particularly powerful evening in which two Auschwitz survivors spoke of their experiences to a fully transfixed crowd. “That was the biggest event we ever did,” he points out, voice marked with reverence.
Beyond The Last Bookstore
Though Spencer describes The Last Bookstore as “all things to all people”, he wasn’t sated by opening the world-renowned shop. While living in Oregon, he opened Big Story, a bookstore that carried a kindred spirit to The Last Bookstore into new territory. It’s since been sold, but Spencer carried on his work, opening Skull-Face Books and Vinyl in Hawaii, the state from which he originally hails. Skull-Face is distinguished by a decided focus on Spencer’s personal interests, which he describes as “darker, edgier, weirder… geekier.”
But Spencer’s latest effort is a collaborative bookstore with his wife, Jenna. “The Last Bookstore is an iconic massive presence so people know what to expect,” she explains from the verdant, pastoral retreat of the couple’s latest passion project, Lost Books in Montrose. “Most people don’t know that Lost Books is related, so they don’t know what to expect.”
Lost Books tends to lean into that quiet mystery. They don’t have a website. They don’t even have a sign. But they do have something that’s a true rarity in Los Angeles: a tranquil respite from the city’s hustle and bustle. Guests traverse a lush and living tunnel of 365 plants to find a quiet, contemplative retreat. And when they’re ready to return to the world, they can do so with a book in one hand and a plant in another.
Lost Books was born more from opportunity than planning. The Spencers saw an open space and did what they’ve always done. They began to fill it with their dreams. Today, Lost Books is more than a store where you can buy books and plants. It’s a secret garden offering the refuge that’s always been at the core of the Spencers’ dreams.
Selling Books in the Digital World
Back at The Last Bookstore, another Amazon truck passes by the window; a muffled trumpeting from the elephant in the room. Do people still buy books these days? Stores like The Last Bookstore and Lost Books work in LA, where seemingly any interest has a devoted audience. But could they thrive in the rest of the country?
Josh Spencer doesn’t seem worried in the slightest. But he’s also realistic. “It’s definitely harder to sell books in the digital age,” he admits. “But bookstores are still necessary. We’re human beings and we like physical things.” He’s preaching to the converted as far as the bibliophiles are concerned. There’s no tablet that can compare with the fragrance of an old book; no screen that could fill the void left by the heft of a well-worn paper brick.
Amazon may be convenient, but it’s not meticulously curated. You need to know exactly what you want. At The Last Bookstore, you’ll find avid readers guiding avid readers down unexplored avenues. Spencer highlights bundles that they offer to address this demand. Like cosmic horror in the vein of Lovecraft? They’ll sell you a bundle with similar works and complementary authors. Perhaps you’re more interested in noir-style mystery. Count on The Last Bookstore’s staff to look beyond the Chandler classics and serve you up some deep cuts. No matter what you like, they’ve got a recommendation. And that’s something that you can’t reliably find on Amazon.
But at the heart of these recommendations and creative curations stands a community… even if it comes from a place of introspection. Reading is such a deeply personal journey. Yet when you visit The Last Bookstore, you meet people who have traveled those same distant roads. Not screen names or lists on blogs, but genuine people who have extensively toured the written worlds. They may still prefer introversion. But here, in this sacred space, if only for a moment, they can share.