Chevalier’s among independents that actually care about books

| October 31, 2019 | 0 Comments

CHEVALIER’S BOOKS on Larchmont Boulevard.

Articles on the death of bookstores have appeared so often over the past decade as to become a kind of genre — complete with a conventional theme, predictable structure, and prevailing tone. But these elegiac notices of passing shouldn’t obscure an important fact: independent bookstores that remain are doing quite well.

Of course there is no denying the entire retail landscape has radically changed; there is no going back to days when a single neighborhood could support several excellent and varied bookstores, as Westwood Village did through the ’70s. But that diminishment granted, it seems more accurate to reframe discussions of the bookstore’s current state than to wholly discount its viability. After all, many people still demonstrate a preference for the old ways in book buying.

The stubborn survival and even occasional resurgence of the independent bookstore is instructive. As a recent “New York Times” article points out, the last remaining American chain, Barnes and Noble, is trying to rescue itself by acting less big, less corporate and more local. Their leadership is only now realizing what Vroman’s in Pasadena, Book Soup in West Hollywood, The Last Bookstore downtown, Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Diesel in Brentwood Village, Iliad Bookstore in North Hollywood, Counterpoint Records and Books in Franklin Village and Chevalier’s in Larchmont have long known and never forgotten: books are tactile, distinctive and personal objects. Booksellers who understand that won’t try to be what they are not. And they will always cultivate a staff that cares about books as much as the people who come to buy them.

A successful independent bookstore also attends to the particularities of its neighborhood. Because of that, each store has its own character — its own attractions. Counterpoint (a used book and record store now marking its 40th anniversary) has, like most independents, a stable and knowledgeable staff. When those staff members buy used books for re-sale, they do so with a clear sense of what their customers want. Of course, stores that sell new books don’t work from the same purchasing model, but distinctive patterns still show. Chevalier’s, for example, has obviously paid attention to families that stroll through Larchmont. You’ll find at this, the oldest independent bookstore in Los Angeles, a necessarily small but thoughtfully cultivated collection that plays smartly across generations. Everyone in the family will find engaging displays. While the sheer size of a corporate store has some advantages, its scale and purchasing power too often results in books laid out like sweaters on a sale table.

In addition to neighborhood-specific displays and collections, independents proudly foreground their own distinctive passions. A quick walk through any of the area’s independent stores underscores the modifier — independent. The impersonal top-down model of the failed chains was built on the notion that people can be told what to read. That is to say, customers are incessantly directed to buy what big publishers most need to sell. In contrast, Book Soup’s respectful support of small presses, The Last Bookstore’s impressive collection of used science fiction and fantasy, and Chevalier’s expertly selected offerings of graphic novels stand out as special. And while independents also need to diversify, their focus remains on books — not games, coffee or themed T-shirts.

Ultimately, a book centric approach to marketing suggests something about what constitutes a reading culture. Independent stores that both survive and thrive know that people want not just books, but what books offer — that books are experiences as well as objects. That understanding accounts for the popularity of author events and reading groups. Chevalier’s, a small independent, produces events significant for their number and their quality. October, for example, brought to Larchmont no less an author than Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation with no less a screenwriter / filmmaker than Ryan Coogler. And Chevalier’s (in keeping with their across-the-generations approach to collections) also schedules ongoing staff-led book discussion groups in four areas: fiction and non-fiction, young adult literature and children’s literature. All such gatherings take books off the shelf and put them in the hands, hearts and minds of readers.

“Fahrenheit 451” first appeared 68 years ago; that’s 11 years after Chevalier’s opened in Larchmont, 24 years before Book Soup appeared in West Hollywood. It’s worth remembering that Ray Bradbury’s novel linked reading to talking. And by talking, Bradbury didn’t mean empty chatter; he meant conversation about ideas and feelings. And he then connected that kind of talking to political, social and personal health. His hero Montag turns to books and book readers to battle a sickness that has enveloped his world. Independent bookstores understand that they can endure by offering something people not only want, but need. That’s a great service. While Bradbury’s “what if” retains a disturbing power, it also remains a speculative fiction.

By Bruce Beiderwell


Category: Entertainment

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