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Arts and Entertainment

Photos: Inside The Last Bookstore, Downtown's Sprawling Temple Of Tomes

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As downtown L.A.'s landscape continues to evolve, one beautiful and massive bookstore has come to serve as a thriving cultural heart of the neighborhood.

The Last Bookstore—a foreboding moniker in the age of digital downloads—is part new and used book shop, part record store, part gallery and a totally captivating community space. Initially opened in 2009 by book lover and downtown resident Josh Spencer, the bookstore quickly expanded and moved down the block into its current 22,000-square-foot space in the Spring Arts Tower at the corner of Spring and 5th streets. Located in a former bank building, the space is a sight to behold: two stories with rows upon rows of books and large and enchanting sculptures—many of which are made by local artists using books.

Walking into the mezzanine floor of The Last Bookstore can be an overwhelming experience in the best of ways. The sprawling room offers rows and tables of books interspersed among towering pillars, while a wave-shaped sculpture of books ripples above. Well-used couches and chairs offer respite for those looking to peruse potential purchases or perhaps catch a few winks between paragraphs. There's an elevated platform towards the center of the room that doubles as a stage for frequent readings from notable authors, open mic nights, musical performances and other events. Off to the right, you'll find crates of new and used records and towards the back, there's a desk to sell books you wish to pass on to others. In the back left corner, you'll find a children's section and a section with comics and graphic novels known as the Secret Headquarters Dungeon Dungeon. To the left, just as you enter the bookstore, you'll find eye-catching, coffee-table tomes and collectibles in the recently added Art & Rare Books Annex.

Ascending the stairs in the far back, you'll encounter the Labyrinth. Here, you can easily get lost wandering aisles of $1 books or meandering though tunnels comprised of books. You'll also find one of the former bank vaults, now used as a sci-fi hideout. Or you could check out the Gather Yarn Shop, where you can stock up for your knitting needs or take a class. There's also a stretch of intimate gallery spaces like Dove Biscuit, which showcase the eclectic works of local artists and often host shows.

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You can easily lose hours wandering the aisles and exploring all that The Last Bookstore has to offer, and even then, you'll have barely scratched the surface of this cultural bastion for book, music and art lovers.

LAist spoke with the store's owner, Josh Spencer, to learn more about what the space offers visitors and how it has evolved over the years.

What inspired you to open The Last Bookstore and what were you doing before that?

Like many products or businesses I admire, I opened it to create something that I didn't see in the world yet—or at least not in L.A! Before opening the store, I sold books and tons of other things on Amazon and eBay for 10 years or so. Before that, I was a surfer, snowboarder, and semi-pro ladies' man while getting a college degree I've never used. Before that, a straight-A student and comic book and sci-fi/fantasy geek. Before that, just a boy riding BMX bikes and playing war in the woods with my friends. I started out as a little kid building sandcastles on the beaches of Oahu. My life so far, in 5 sentences.

How did the shop evolve over the years?

We started in a small space in 2009 a block away, then moved into our current space in 2011. Records came in a few months later. Expanded to the mezzanine level in 2012, with Spring Arts Collective galleries opening around the same time. Secret Headquarters Dungeon Dungeon moved in 2014, I think. We expanded next door into our Art & Rare Books Annex June 2015. I think we might have used up all available adjacent space now, I'm sad to say.

How does the space inform the experience for visitors and how does the artwork play into that?

It's a 100-year old-bank with vaults, huge pillars, old tile floors, and so forth. We tried to design around that to create a nostalgic feel. The artwork is meant to stimulate the imagination and creative juices, just like the books much of it is made from.


Through the book tunnel (Photo by Sai Mokhtari/LAist)

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What challenges have you faced over the years of developing and running the bookstore?The usual...staffing issues, cash flow, inventory systems, parking, point of sale headaches, etc. Tedious retail business challenges. Everything is a challenge! Being downtown we deal with a crazy amount of shop-lifting and vandalism and acts of craziness from some street people, which costs us thousands of dollars a month. But each challenge is gratifying in its own way and helps me and my staff grow as human beings who can treat every fellow human with dignity and do anything we put our minds to.

What have been some of the most exciting or memorable moments?

Helping customers find the books they're looking for—that never gets old. When those customers often end up being favorite actors or musicians who my staff looks up to (since many of them are aspiring film people or musicians themselves), that's always exciting.

What do you feel the space offers the community?

During the week when it's quieter, a place to relax and soak in the written word. During the busy weekend, a place to see and be seen while surrounded by amazing books and art! At all times, a place to find that book you didn't know you were looking for.

How have you seen downtown L.A. evolve in recent years and what do you see for its future?

I moved downtown in 2005. The first year I mostly saw drug use and homeless sex in the streets, and even a couple dead bodies. There were no businesses or restaurants around and only a few respectable residential buildings. Now I still see drugs, less sex, and a lot more employed people, tourists, and interesting businesses mixed in. It's a big melting pot, which makes it all the more interesting. Gentrification will continue and more employed people are pouring into all the new buildings being built all around, but we'll always have the crime and the grime with Skid Row a couple streets away. Maybe that's part of the attraction, that sense of danger and the doses of rock-bottom reality constantly propelling people to get their shit together.

What are some of your favorite books about Los Angeles and why?

I can't say I've read many books about L.A. Mostly rock bios of L.A.-based bands. Of those, Turned On: The Biography of Henry Rollins by James Parker is my favorite. Parker is now an editor for The Atlantic and he's just a great word stylist regardless of the subject matter. I'm re-reading it, hoping it will rub off while I write my own memoir of all the crazy stories I lived on the way to building the Last Bookstore.

What can we look forward to from The Last Bookstore in the near future?

Better and bigger events, more bookshelves and more books, some new art...and later on, maybe some book publishing of our own or even our own film. Who knows?

Do you think one day you may be the very last bookstore left or is there still hope for others?

Tons of new bookstores are opening all over America, so our name has definitely proved to be tongue-in-cheek for now. For anyone who loves books more than money, there's always hope.

The Last Bookstore is located at 453 S Spring St, Downtown, (213) 488-0599