Surf, Sun and the Scene at 3.5 Iconic California Bookstores

In English Language by Edward Nawotka

Henry Miller Memorial Library

Inside the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur on Independence Day 2015.

Edward Nawotka takes in the sights and smells of iconic coastal California bookstores on a summer drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

I have a bit of travel advice I’d like to share: if you can, avoid trying to book a last-minute hotel room in San Francisco in the summer and during a major conference, particularly when that event coincides with the annual PRIDE parade and, especially, if that happens to be in the same year that the Supreme Court upholds the right of gay couples to get married. You might just end up in a halfway house, just like I did during my recent visit to California to attend the American Library Association’s annual conference, as well as the CODEX Hackathon.

But honestly, if you do, you should know it wasn’t half-bad. For $75 a night (plus lots of CA taxes) you get a room the size of a monk’s cell, a single bed covered with a plastic sheet, a small TV and sink, and access to shared bathrooms and toilets. Yes, you do have to sign a five-page form promising not to relapse into all sorts of malfeasance or bad behavior (drug use, prostitution), and you have to hand over payment in cash (no rubber checks or hot credit cards, please). While I did have several gentle knocks on my door from “curious” neighbors, it was all surprisingly clean and well-located on the edge of Chinatown, steps from the Transamerica Pyramid. (A gruff “go away” sent my other-side-of-the-door late-night visitors scurrying…)

The Clay Street location was a brief 20-minute stroll to the Moscone Center and, even better, about 10 minutes to one of America’s landmark literary gathering spots: City Lights Bookstore.

City Lights Bookstore

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 4.28.52 PMThe California bookstore hosted an after party for the Sunday festivities at ALA and gave me my second-chance to explore what is one of the most iconic and legendary book retailers left in the US. And yes, as you would expect, it is filled with plenty of poetry, alt-lit titles and just the sort of books you would hope to find at a store associated with the Beats and ’50s and ’60s counter-culture.

It is, like its owner and founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a survivor. Opened in 1953, it sprawls over three stories (if you include the basement) — and is huge for San Francisco, which battles New York City for the most expensive dollar-per-square-foot real estate in America.

For our purposes here as an international trade magazine, it is interesting for the way it divides up literature into sections based on language, culture and region. Want the latest Ferrante? You’ll find it in a section clearly marked “Italian”  A Manchette thriller published by, natch, City Lights? That will be in the French section, sir. Looking for a copy of The Invention of Morel? Well, that you’ll find another annex covering the “Rest of the World.” (Hey, it’s still a modestly sized store by mid-American, big box standards).

Among the publishing luminaries in attendance were Melville House’s dapper Dennis Loy Johnson, Open Letter Book’s translation statistician-in-chief Chad Post, New Vessel Press’ hairy-chested Ross Ufberg, as well as City Lights Publisher and Executive Director Elaine Katzenberger, who was playing host to the assorted librarians and other literati grazing on baklava and browsing the shelves. Katzenberger was also overseeing a book signing by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl, the author and illustrator of Rad American Woman A-Z, a title which has become a surprise bestseller for City Lights Books and now has 50,000 copies in print. Next year, look out for the sequel, Rad Women of the World A-Z. 

Bookshop Santa Cruz

Bookshop Santa Cruz

With Los Angeles in my sights and a few days worth of meetings looming before the July 4 holiday, I checked out of my halfway-house, rented a one-way drive from Alamo (Pro tip: Alamo/National doesn’t charge a levy for dropping off in LA) and pointed the car south on Highway 1 toward Santa Cruz, where my next stop was — naturally — Bookshop Santa Cruz.

I’d heard about this store for years. Its owner Neal Coonerty is a legendary dude — bearded and bespectacled, opinionated and respected — so much so, he even served briefly as mayor of this coastal mecca for surfer hippie chicks and the biker gangbangers who love them.

At 20,000 sq.-ft., the bookstore is surprisingly large. And also solidly literary, particularly for a town that has become synonymous, for better or worse, with surf and skate culture. It is a top destination for touring authors and this fall will see the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Karen Joy Fowler, Christopher Moore and Lauren Groff. It is, one must not forget, almost equidistant from two of the wealthiest communities in the United States: Silicon Valley and Monterey/Carmel.

Henry Miller Memorial Library

The Henry Miller Memorial Library

But honestly, unless you have start-up you need financed or have several billion dollars of your own to blow in boozed-up boredom, skip a visit to Silicon Valley and Monterey/Carmel. Spend a day or two in quaint Carmel Valley and then, if you’ve got the stomach for it (more on that later) take the literal winding high road through Big Sur up-and-down and up-and-down to the Henry Miller Memorial Library.

Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin’s lover, the literary pornographer — has a memorial library? Sure, if you want to call it that. Today, it is more of a bookstore cum camp site cum performance venue. But if you blink, you might miss it as you cruise past some of the most astonishing coastal landscapes on Earth. (Can you become blasé about breathtaking beauty? No, you cannot, try as you might while trying to prevent your rented Toyota Avalon from careening over a series of knife-edge cliffs.).

On the day I visited — July 4 — Miller’s “place where nothing happens” was open to browsers like myself who wanted to catch a whiff of the dirty old hipster, but instead found a rather pleasant tumble down home outfitted with a ping-pong table (he liked to play against young, often naked, ladies) and tables of books and journals for sale: Miller’s and those of his contemporaries from Europe and America, as well as a seemingly random assortment of new titles as well — including several from Sweden (the manager of the library is Swedish).

It’s worth a stop, if only to get a whiff…after all, even with all the fresh air blowing over California off the nearby Pacific, it may be one of the few locales in the region that isn’t redolent of marijuana and/or urine.(I’m looking at you San Francisco..seriously, you’re swimming in a silly amount of Silicon Valley cash. Can’t someone hire a team of street sweepers once in awhile?).

Inside Book Soup, LAX...yes, that is Rob Lowe lookin' at ya.

Inside Book Soup, LAX…yes, that is Rob Lowe and George Lucas lookin’ back at ya.

Book Soup (LAX Edition)

As I mentioned, the drive along Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles takes you through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the United States. It also takes you to one of the biggest scams in American tourism: Hearst Castle. Seriously, avoid this place. Bypass it, skip it, haul ass down the coast as fast as you can. Why? Well, for $25 you get a chance to tour a total of four rooms in the so-called “castle.” For another $25 you can see a few more…and another $25…a few more. It is absurd. What’s more, if you have luck like I did, you’ll get stuck with a tour guide who won’t even tease you with a mention of Patty or Rosebud. Scam, scam, scam…even the famous Neptune Pool was “under construction.” Nonsense.

And, if you have luck like I did, you might also pick up a wicked flu bug there. (Revenge for my cursing your name, Mr. Hearst?) I don’t know how it happened, but it did, rendering the rest of my intended itinerary moot as I nursed myself barely back to health in both Santa Barbara (the waves splashing on the sand outside the bathroom window sounded, well, pleasant, but did not help) and then another hotel room in Venice (ditto).

No, I didn’t get a chance to visit Skylight Books, or Hennessey + Ingalls, or Vroman’s, but I did manage to stop into the outlet of Vroman’s-owned Book Soup located at LAX terminal 8. And, no surprise, what you get is a very nicely stocked and curated selection of books, well beyond what you might find at a typical Hudson Books airport outlet. (I know, the terminal 8 location isn’t iconic, but the original Book Soup location on Sunset in West Hollywood sure is.)

As you would expect from a bookstore that caters to Angelinos, there were plenty of books on Hollywood — histories, hagiographies and how-to-get-ahead-in titles. Want that tell-all memoir by Johnny Carson’s one-time best friend? They’ve got it. The Entourage-tie-in coloring and sticker book? Sure, that too. (Okay, I made that up, but isn’t publishing driving dangerously close to that particular cliff edge?)

And so it goes. Five days, 3.5 bookstores and a few tips for the book-hungry summer traveler to coastal north and central California. Take the time if you can on your next visit to a) reserve your room early b) stop and take in the surf and scenery and c) visit some of these wonderful bookstores.

And San Francisco…street sweepers. Seriously. It’s just good manners.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.