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826LA at Largo

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It’s easy to forget that there’s a thriving literary scene here in LA. It’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that there are people who are committed to doing good, making change and making the city a better place for the next generation. 826LA manages to combine all of these things at once.

The brainchild of hipster deity Dave Eggers, the family of non-profits now known as 826 National was originated in San Francisco as 826 Valencia, with the goal of helping kids ages 6 to 18 with their writing skills. They now have seven locations nationally, including local chapter 826LA.

Volunteers at the organization provide one-on-one after-school tutoring every day, morning field trips for students, and tutoring help in classrooms throughout LA.

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Located in Venice (and soon to be in Echo Park as well), the folks at 826LA make the trek to Hollywood each month to hold a benefit called Book*Smart Nightclub at Largo, a restaurant/bar on Fairfax.

As a (ahem) somewhat low-profile volunteer, I got the email about Wednesday’s Book*Smart from Co-Director Amy Orringer. Wanting to do something to show support, I headed down to Largo for the event at around 8:45pm.

The place was about three-quarters full when 826LA Co-Director Mac Barnett took the stage. He introduced the evening’s program by reading an amazing story by an 826LA student named Eric, a kid who apparently shows up for tutoring in his pajama pants. The story told the tale of two dinosaurs, T. Rex and Greg, who in the end fought the age-old battle of good vs. evil. Not bad for a 9-year-old.

Mac then introduced the first act of the evening, Cindy Guidry, an 826LA volunteer and author.

Normally I feel like I have more than enough mother/daughter stories of my own, so when I know another woman is going to tell hers, I kind of tune out. But Guidry's short story, "For Sale by Owner," was colorful and wry, a compelling story about her parents selling their New Orleans home of twenty years. She even managed to avoid the traps that writers tend to fall into when reading their work, of seeming either completely detached from it or overly pleased with their own wit.

Morgan Murphy was next, a comedian from Portland, Oregon. Murphy looks a little like a female Carrot Top, which I only mention because her incredible amounts of curly red hair atop her tiny frame are difficult not to notice at first. The long, uncomfortable silences between her first few bits made me wonder if maybe she was drunk, but that only lasted a few minutes. Once she started talking about the now-infamous house on the 101 freeway, she hit her stride with the following line, "Barham - who needs it? If you're going to Burbank your life is over." Nice.

Once Morgan wrapped it up and we reached the hour and a half mark, I began to lose focus. Judging by the number of other people who started slinking out the door around that time, we needed something rowdy to end the night.

Unfortunately, the last performer, Grant Lee Phillips, was not that. His music, while pretty, was slow, repetitive, and simplistic. It wasn't even depressing enough to be interesting, like a Townes Van Zandt or an Elliott Smith. No, it was just slow -- even the song he prefaced as being upbeat was just a bit quicker in tempo, and nothing more.

According to Orringer, the Book*Smart Nightclub events tend to do well, and support from artists like Fiona Apple, who performs regularly at Largo, doesn't hurt the cause.

Check out their website, www.826LA.org, for information about upcoming events and ways to get involved.

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Photo by Jessica