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After 20 Years, Skylight Still Bets On The Book

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Walk past the stores along Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz, and Skylight Books may stand out as being one of the anchors in this menagerie of establishments. The status isn't unwarranted; the store turned 20 this month, and its longevity says a lot about how Skylight has worked to stay relevant as major booksellers (hi, Borders) have wilted under the pressure.

This is all the more impressive when you consider how the store has always maintained a homey atmosphere, even when it became big enough to draw marquee authors like David Foster Wallace for readings. Take a look at the store's blog (where employees of past and present jot down their memories of the store) and you'll see that the people-first ethos is something that comes firsthand.

As current manager Steve Salardino tells LAist, Skylight's success isn't the result of any business wizardry; the bookstore simply relies on our desire to read.

How did Skylight come about, in a nutshell?

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There was a bookstore here before: Chatterton's. That business closed down because the owner passed away. The person who owned the building at the time wanted to get a bookstore in here again. So he hired Kerry [Slattery] to put the bookstore together. She continued to be the general manager for the first 18 years.

What do you think is the secret to Skylight's ability to stay in business for all these years?

There's a kind of magic recipe that creates a successful bookstore. Part of it is that we've always had a fantastic and knowledgeable staff. That staff is also very particular to this neighborhood—it knows what the people in the area want. You could have a very knowledgeable staff, but, if they don't fit in with the neighborhood, it just wouldn't matter.

Also, our location on Vermont is important. It's very much a walking area.

Of course, you get a lot of foot traffic.

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Yes, compared to other parts of the city. L.A. isn't always viewed as a walking city.

And there are a lot of things around us that complement us, like diners, cafés, stores, and movie theaters. Also, our book buyer [Charles Hauther] has been working here since the beginning. He curates a selection that fits with the neighborhood. We're not as big as, say, Vroman's in Pasadena. But we're very particular about the books that we carry.

Earlier this year, The New York Times did a write-up about The Strand bookstore in New York, and how they use a notoriously difficult quiz to hire new employees. Does Skylight have a system like that?

We get a ton of résumés here, maybe a couple a day. When we go through them, you can pretty well figure out, just by looking at the résumés, if this is someone who could fit in with the store. We may look for some sort of bookstore experience, or some mention of a particular thing that catches our eye. And during the interview process we do talk about what the person reads, and we see if that matches up with our customer base. So, basically, our process isn't as formalized as the Strand's.

I don't mean to give this away to our readers. But is there a certain author that an applicant should mention? One that would catch the store's eye?

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No, I don't think there is. But, because we are in Los Angeles, it's nice to have a background in L.A. history. But that's also something you can learn while you're here. We've hired people from New York and other places. They come here and they want to learn about Los Angeles literature. Maybe they haven't read John Fante yet when they get here.

But no, there aren't particular authors we're eyeing. Literary fiction is one of our strengths here, so yes, that is something that we do look for. Obviously, our literary fiction section is much larger than, say, our health section or computer section.

When e-readers began to explode in popularity, did you wonder if it would have come implication for the bookstore?

That's definitely something we wondered about. Now, actually, you can buy e-books off our website through Kobo, which is an e-reader company. But, instinctually, we always felt that physical books had a place. We felt that e-readers weren't going to replace them. This is because of a number of reasons; the waste of electricity, for one thing. Also, screen burnout can happen pretty easily—you have people working on their screens all day long, and now the e-reader is another screen they're looking at. Plus they're on their phones all the time too.

So having something tactile is perhaps a welcome change of pace.

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Yes, I think that all kinds of things that don't involve screens are getting more popular today. I read somewhere that, in the last two years, we saw some of the biggest jumps in people visiting national parks. We have all these forms of entertainment and we may never have to leave the house. But it seems that people actually are leaving the house, because they want to get away from their screens. I think books also figure into that.

How did the "arts annex" come along?

We expanded in 2008 and went into the space next door. It was good timing, at first, because the space became available and the store was bursting at the seams. But then we moved in there and immediately the recession hit. So there was a weird period there when we were scraping by with two spaces. But, as the economy improved, we kind of figured all that out. Two years ago, we moved the arts annex one space over, as a sort of favor to our landlord, who wanted to move in an existing client.

Was there always the idea of starting a space for art books?

When we opened the space next door, we didn't know exactly what we were going to put in there. Was it going to be a children's books store? Or maybe a comic books store? But the arts annex made the most sense because there are so many people involved with the arts here, and in all of Los Angeles, really. A lot of our clientele come from different art backgrounds. We see people who go to CalArts, or SciArc, or AFI. Or we get people who work in Hollywood or the music industry. And there's the whole gallery scene here, too.

Of course, Skylight hosts plenty of readings. Were there certain ones that stand out in your memory?

For the the ones that feel the most electric, it's not always because something outrageous happened. Sometimes it's just that, for some reason, there's a connection going on between the author and the audience. Paul Beatty, for example, had a very memorable reading. I remember when the The Sellout first came out in hardcover, a year ago or so, and he did a reading with Danzy Senna. You could just tell that the book was going to be a big deal and that it was going to go places.

You felt that a certain wave passed over the audience?

Yes. the book was tapping into the zeitgeist at the moment. And it just seemed to totally work. [Note: The Sellout would go on to win the Man Booker Prize on October 25].

And, of course, we had other events, like when Patti Smith did a reading at the store. She ended up playing music, and having a Patti Smith concert in a bookstore is pretty incredible. I also think back to the readings where a young author dropped by, and in ten years or so they become a big deal. For example, Zadie Smith will be coming by [on January 9]. We had her here in the past, when White Teeth had first come out back in the day. The book was already getting a lot of praise, and we were excited to have her. But there were maybe just 20 people in the audience or so. It's great to see how far she's come now.

I'm sure there'll be a line out the door if she came today.

Definitely.

Do you feel that the novel is especially important today? During a time when opinions are being diced up into sound bites? And when the internet has shortened our attention span?

It's definitely important. But I feel that it's been important at all times. I think what's happening is a change in how people are being entertained. We're entertaining ourselves on a much spur-of-the-moment way. Every time someone has to wait in line, or eat alone at a restaurant, they're checking their phones.

But I think that, with fiction, what we're realizing is that these new forms of entertainment won't be replacing the book. I think people still crave and want books, and there's maybe some surprise that this aspect hasn't changed or has been surpassed entirely. For a while people are talking about doing multimedia books, but that hasn't really taken off. Even if it had, I doubt it would have changed the way people feel about books. Contrast this with CDs, which did change the way that people thought about records. Digital music totally altered the way we listen to music.

Vinyl records have made a comeback, tough.

Sure. But it's also true that most people listening to music aren't doing it through vinyl.

So you feel that the novel—the physical book—will always stand as its own singular thing, and that there'll be a place for it.

I can't speak too far into the future; that's a little risky [laughs]. I do think that the children born today will have a different relationship with the printed word. But I do feel that, as people discover all these different forms of entertainment, and find new ways of reading or watching things, they'll also realize that the book is still important. That it's something that gives them an experience that is different.

The people that come into the store to buy books are of all ages. We're selling novels to 14 and 16 year olds. It's not like they don't want to read.

While Skylight has wrapped up most of their 20th anniversary celebrations, they have plenty going on in the near future. Author Dave Eggers will drop by on November 5 to read from his new novel, Heroes of the New Frontier. Also, on November 26 the store will be participating in "Indies First," a national celebration of indie bookstores. Salardino says that authors will be dropping by to help customers make book selections, and that there will be food and drinks. As always, check the Skylight Books website for information about upcoming events.

Interview has been condensed for length.