No, this is not an ode to Steve Martin (although I do believe him to be the single funniest writer I’ve ever read). This is a story of a trip. A story of how uncomfortable a person who is, at heart, an east coaster can be in southern California. And of one terribly comforting moment in a strange city.
I was recently in L.A. for a wedding. As much as I complained to everyone before I left that I had no hope for enjoying anything about the trip due to the short period of time we had out there and the activities of the wedding that would dominate our few days I had some hopes for an escape of some kind. Not a real vacation, but comfort in the knowledge that work and all if its stress were over two and half thousand miles away. It was not the escape I’d hoped for.
We did have one good day, I must admit. I can’t say for sure that the La Brea Tar Pits are the only worthwhile tourist attraction in L.A. but I can’t help but think that they might be. They are, without a doubt, the most remarkable geological encounter I’ve ever had and I’ve never seen so many fossils in one place. But if given the choice would I plan a trip out there just for that? No.
And the rest of the trip was as bad as I could have anticipated- cocktail parties with strangers and my unending inability to make small talk with them. More activities than I could have predicted which kept my boyfriend occupied for hours while I sat back in the hotel room wondering how much I could hate one wedding. (Being the date of a best man is not as fun as it might seem.) And the characteristics that make up L.A. smacking me in the face every other minute.
I know that some people love L.A. I met a few of them. They had a fierce defensiveness for their home and loved all of the things about it that drove me crazy. The constant sunlight, the endless urban sprawl, the landscape (which I must admit is remarkable in comparison to what grows out here), the new-agey consumerist vibe of everything, even the Hollywood back street seediness. None of it’s for me.
And this hatred of all things L.A. dominated most of my thoughts while I was there. Especially one long afternoon when I ventured out into downtown L.A. because I wasn’t about to kill the hours I had to spend alone while my boyfriend was at the church rehearsing the ceremony stuck inside the hotel room watching bad t.v. So I went down to the street and started walking.
I knew my way around to some extent because our non rehearsal dinner diet had consisted almost entirely of sandwiches from a 24 hour Subway which was a few blocks from the hotel. (The one fast-food edge L.A. has over the east.) And my boyfriend had pointed out the small used bookstore on the way, so I figured I’d check it out.
I love books. Ever since I became able to read (which took special education in the second grade for me to master and thus did not come easily) I’ve loved losing myself inside the mind of a character. Not murder mysteries or stories about things or events- I could never get into those. No, I prefer first person narratives that allow you to see the world through another person’s eyes. I lose myself in them so much that years after I’ve read them I still hold a fondness for them. Like old friends.
It is for this reason that I never really got into libraries. Why, after connecting with a story- loving the characters, feeling their emotions, bonding with them- would I want to let them go? I can’t bear the thought of it. This is why I am a book buyer. It doesn’t matter if I ever read the thing again- knowing it’s there, sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to come back and reconnect- is comforting.
Thus, I am attracted not to libraries but to Barnes and Nobles, Borders, and small, independent bookstores. And the used bookstores? They are a treasure like no other. Where else can you find out of print pulp fiction novels and collections of short stories from the sixties and seventies written by truly brilliant writers way before their time? And where else can you find that smell? The smell of old, used books.
I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if the glue in the rib breaks up and decays, I don’t know if paper ages like cheese, I don’t if the dust on the shelves collects in such a way as to release that odor but I love it. To me, the smell of old books is the smell of knowledge, the smell of creativity, the smell of words themselves. Whatever it is, I love it.
It is partially because of this that I was so taken with this particular small bookstore- that smell greeted me as soon as I walked in the door. The Caravan Bookstore on South Grand Avenue in L.A., specializing in “Old & Rare Curious Books” and a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America was a treasure. Not just because of the smell and the volumes of old books ranging from classic literature to non-fiction on everything from African cooking to Russian history. But because of what I found there.
It caught my eye as soon as I walked in the door- the only brightly colored cover in a sea of dark green and dark blue books with faded gold print on the covers. Strange to find a new hardback on the front table of an antique bookstore, but there it was. The title struck me like something I’d seen in a billion redundant romantic comedies: Love, or Something Like It. But I opened a few pages in and read a paragraph and instantly loved the writer’s style. I could get inside this character’s head and stay for a while. Forget about my overpriced hotel room or how long it would be till I could go home and get a good night’s sleep. It was exactly what I needed.
I tucked it under my arm and went on perusing the rest of the books. It was a small store so it didn’t take long. Plus, as much as I’d like to pretend that I am really interested in nautical history or the political tactics of the Third Reich I’m not really that kind-of girl. I love history, yes. But I’m not about to spend 46 dollars on an out-of print historical account of Stalin’s right-hand man, no matter how good it may smell.
I lingered mainly because of that smell, and because I didn’t want to miss an unexpected treasure hiding in the back of the store behind the globes and other dusty antiques. And because the only thing waiting for me was an empty hotel room. The only other thing I found that I wanted was another new book: Michael J. Fox’s Always Looking Up exploration of optimism which I’d been meaning to buy ever since he did his special about it on ABC a few months back. So I grabbed it, jumped at the shockingly low price, and made my way to the register.
An elderly man wearing a pair of glasses that looked to be about as old as I am asked me a polite “Did you find everything ok?” as he made his way to his antique print-out calculator. I said yes, and that I loved his store to which he gave a quick ‘thank you’ without looking up. He must have been able to tell that I wasn’t a real enthusiast based on my selections, but what did I care? It’s not like I was ever going to see him again.
He rang me up and pulled off a sheet of brown paper which he began to wrap my books in as I signed my receipt. And I walked out with a neatly wrapped brown package of books, marveling at how I’d never had such an interesting shopping bag. I got a kick out of walking around downtown L.A. with what appeared to be a package of shirts wrapped by a woman in a New York apartment in the forties who ironed and starched white collared shirts for her wealthier neighbors.
The book, it turned out, was better than that first paragraph would have suggested and I plan on finding other stories by Deirdre Shaw when I’m finished. But the book was not the treasure of the afternoon, only a token of it. The treasure was that in the city of L.A. which I’d judgmentally concluded had nothing to offer me, I found a reprieve in a small, dusty bookstore tucked in among the Starbucks and Jamba Juices and over-priced clothing outlets. In a terribly large, terribly discomforting city- I found a friend.