The Daily


The Last Bookstore

August 27, 2013 | by


Photography credit Scott Garner.

My father’s father was a carpenter. I never met my grandfather, but I know from photographs and stories that in addition to farming, keeping dairy cows, and working on a cannery line, he earned money by carpentry. I also know from the sawhorses that my father inherited from his father.

The wooden trestles stood ever-vigilant in our garage, ready to serve whenever their nail-bitten, blade-gauged bodies were needed. The sawhorses were two of a few inherited things that reminded me of the grandfather I never met: a pear tree that still stands but no longer grows heavy with fruit in early autumn; a concrete trough he made that my sister, used for her horse’s drinking water; a pitchfork on which the handle had been replaced many times, and that we used for moving straw, hay, manure, or leaves, depending on the season.

Our inheritance felt large, but it was the sawhorses that I most admired, especially when my father put them to use constructing bookshelves for my bedroom. My father was no stranger to construction; he built the log cabin in which I was raised. He inherited not only tools but also skills from his father, so he was able to cut, stain, and install the wide bookshelves on my bedroom walls in no time. The shelves were required to house my growing library, acquired book by book in a thrilling sequence of gifts, purchases, and trades.

The day those bookshelves were installed was both an end and a beginning. It was the beginning of my treating books like objects and the end of my venerating them as relics. The order of the library, the logic of the archive, the structure of the bookstore all faded that day; suddenly, my books were mine to play with and I could do with them as I pleased. I could arrange them by height or by color. I could divide them with whatever objects I wanted: the painted deer skull I had been given as a dream catcher, the glow-in-the-dark vampire mask I had bought on a family vacation, the ornate carousel music boxes I had collected.

8446400930_6cab095877_zThis was before online booksellers, even before we had a dial-up Internet connection we could have used for browsing their inventories. This was a time when you could borrow books from the local library or, with just cause, request books for delivery from one of the better-stocked branches in the state capital. A time when requesting publishers’ titles from the local Hallmark store seemed as daunting as launching a mission to Mars.

I had previously considered books too precious for anything but reading, but now simply reading them felt like the least imaginative thing to do. I arranged my shelves and rearranged them with some regularity. Books were no longer only vessels of art, but art objects themselves. The worlds and characters and ideas in their pages ceased to be real, becoming instead mere reproductions.

I thought of my shelves when visiting the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. What began in 2005 as a small shop in a downtown loft is now an almost 20,000-square-foot cathedral of books. Its current location is at the corner of Fifth and Spring Streets, in what used to be the Crocker National Bank.

If you don’t look up, the ground floor might be mistaken for a regular bookstore. A small coffee bar flanks one entrance, while waist-level bins full of vinyl records border the other; oversized leather couches dot the floor plan, and the space is divided by tall shelves laden with books. There’s a satisfying selection of used books, a few subject-based sections and some areas curated tenderly by staff, as well as a comprehensive array of new titles.

But stray from the center of the store or let your eyes wander to the edges or the ceiling and you notice that the Last Bookstore is something unusual. Books are suspended, their pages spread like wings; mannequins covered in printed letters and collaged phrases stand in corners; a large mural made from wire and paperbacks stretches like a whale shark along the mezzanine level.

Ascend to the Labyrinth upstairs and you feel as though you have gone through the looking glass. Every book on the second floor is only a dollar: new, used, hardcover, paperback, pop-up, spiral-bound, and everything in between. Tens of thousands of books line shelves, stand in tidy stacks on the floor, sort themselves by color, form tunnels, fill vaults, and stretch like scrolls along the ceiling.

The Last Bookstore has some of the most beautiful book art I’ve ever seen. You can wander and wander through this wonderland of cuttings, foldings, installations, and sculptures. Some pages are folded, others torn; the books are shaped into birds and windows, transformed into storyscapes independent of their original stories.

8450607259_85c16d2aff_zBook art might be called an epitaph for our relationship with the printed word. Its power comes almost entirely from the materials that it memorializes. Without the bindings or the recognizable spines, these works of art would cease to invoke their source. And in order to be moved by the work of art, we need to recognize the book, or even the idea of the book.

The setting, the Last Bookstore—apocalyptic, but also an increasingly plausible—makes this association easier, but it still seems clear that none of these works can succeed if they transform the book beyond recognition. The epitaph works only when we recognize its referent. There is both terror and beauty in every work of book art: the printed word mangled, but also memorialized; pages destroyed, but also preserved; books dead, but also resurrected. The Last Bookstore is equal parts mausoleum, shrine, and warehouse. If it were to be the last of the great commercial enterprises we know as bookstores, then it would be a fitting end to the legacy of booksellers, going all the way back to the ancient scribes.

I remember when stories became books in my childhood library. The arrival of those bookshelves, a beautiful gift from my father constructed with precious gifts from my grandfather, made books seem other than what they are. My Dover Thrift Editions seemed less than my expensive hardbacks. Bindings suddenly mattered. The height and width of every book affected how it could be stacked and arranged, distinctions that had never mattered before.

Few people believe that the end of bookstores would be the end of reading, or even the end of browsing or serendipitous encounters with literature. No matter how far into the digital realm literature moves, there are those who will always revere the book. Rare book libraries and manuscript archives will always, and for good reason, keep vaults full of parchment and paper. Artists like Michael Piscitello, David Lovejoy, Jena Priebe, Brady Westwater, Nick Lord, and the many others who have contributed to the Last Bookstore will continue to make art from physical books, while artists and archivists will always devote themselves to the book as concept.

The rest of us, though, will realize it is not books that we have loved, but words and stories. Take those bookcases in my childhood room. It was not the stained pine shelves that I cherished, but the father who made them. Take the sawhorses that my father used to build the shelves. It was not the battered pine sawhorses we prized, but the grandfather who built them and used them for his trade. The charity and hope and utility of the sawhorses and the shelves are what we loved, not the things themselves.

The same, I think, is true of books. Had we come of age in the scroll era, we would be just as resistant to the codex. But here we are, creatures of the book looking for new homes on Web sites and Kindles. The charity and hope of the stories we love are still there in their digital equivalents. Telling a story, communicating an idea, capturing an emotion: these are all possible with words whatever their format.


Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.




  1. Scott Burau | August 27, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Excellent piece – really wonderful to read.

  2. Erik Rollwage | August 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    An excellent essay, that I nevertheless disagree with. Those who argue that ‘digital media’ and ‘print media’ are on equal footing always bring up the word, as the above essay concludes, of ‘possible.’ It is -possible- to tell a story, communicate an idea, capture an emotion. In truth, this is a parry in search of an attack:

    No one, who prefers and loves actual print media as I do, has ever suggested that it is not possible to enjoy a story in digital format. We merely argue that is is inferior, but that, in a culture obsessed with convenience and efficiency, digital media will soon become the ONLY way to enjoy these stories. Because that is, almost without exception, the argument always made to support digital over print media: it is easier, it is more convenient, it is more efficient. As if these were the end-all and be-all of what we should want in the delivery of a story.

    The essay brings up the notion that book-art, and indeed the physical book itself, would be toothless without the underlying stories contained therein. This must be true. Yet I would argue that the relationship is not parasitic, but symbiotic. The story is also weakened when it is removed from what I’m going to call a phylactery – a vessel to contain a soul. A billion billion ideas are discussed and thought on a daily basis – what separates these from the story of a book? The physical shell and the act of making them permanent. There’s something about having an object in our hands that lends it power. Did King Arthur search for a story, or for an object? Did not Adam and Eve require the consumption of fruit – a physical object – to gain their wisdom? Did Genghis Khan invade China and the rest of the world in search of knowledge, or of physical plunder? When you strip a story of its shell, you strip it of tangibility, of heft and weight and texture, you turn it into something easily extinguishable. Imagine Fahrenheit 451 in a digital world: a man takes an axe to a clump of servers or uploads a virus, and it is all done, gone, in an instant.

    No – it is not that we are resistant to digital media. Rather, it is that we support variety, the choice between print media and digital media, a choice that will inevitably become extinct, trodden under by the boots of efficiency and profit.

  3. William J Steinburgg | August 27, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    So very true. Great article books have always been a priority and great company throughout my life and allows us to communicate at any level successfully.

  4. Curious Cat | August 27, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Although I very much enjoyed reading your comment, Erik Rollwage, I don’t believe many people think the way that you do. You speak of King Arthur, Genghis Khan and so on – the point being that these are figures of the past. It’s only in recent years that we’ve had the digital revolution, so I see little point in looking back and saying, “Well – that was how it was done.”

    It isn’t limited to stories and media. Do you need a physical weapon to threaten a nation’s security anymore? We see abundant evidence today that no, you do not. I argue that you could also learn as much about a person from their digital footprint as their accoutrements, what they leave lying around in their home. Your address, your credit card details, your friends, your purchases, what you ‘like’, the websites you visit, the restaurants you visit, ad nauseum.

    Today is a world of Ctrl+F and 1000 books in one slim case. There are some good things about that. Information is more readily accessible and people can share what brings them joy. On the other hand, there’s perhaps too much information, much of it trash. I’ve heard reports of younger people developing shorter attention spans from the ability to surf, skim and switch.

    Unfortunately, I think that it’s happening to me. I’ll be trying to return to physical books, both to anchor myself and because nothing really can replace the weight of a book in one’s hand. For what it’s worth, I’m glad Paris Review is online. Otherwise I never would have discovered it.

  5. Curious Cat | August 27, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    Well, that just proves I’m a 20-something with diminished ability to read deeply. I just reread your comment. We’re in complete agreement. I’d be devastated if physical books became relics. The only way, really, to ensure their continued survival is to use the magical dollar…although I really don’t know if future generations will care to do that. I hope madly physical books won’t go the way of the casette tape.

  6. Sheri A Saperstein | August 27, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    Two words: Peter Wüthrich. If you like this, you’ll love his work. From an L.A. Times reviewof an exhibition in Los Angeles: “Like painters who prefer the refined quality of linen to the roughness of stretched canvas, Wüthrich uses only books with linen covers. Like the best abstract paintings, his works momentarily arrest language, demanding to be perceived and understood visually, not linguistically.”

  7. OJ | August 27, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Books are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep…
    Just finished Melville’s Moby Dick, listening while commuting to work, 45 minutes. Each way! Books are not the only conduit for story telling. They are lovely works of art, lovely Grecian Urns that hold precious liquids inside, some day they’ will furnish our homes and museums, and will be priceless works of art… That’s that.
    ( from my iPAD)

  8. Chris | August 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    The medium has become a matter of taste. Some prefer fine, single-malt Scotch; and some prefer Bud Lite; both will lead to drunkenness.

    My only gripe with the eReader is the onslaught of distraction it can impose. I think, eventually, once ads begin popping up while reading on a tablet, the level of engagement with the text will diminish.

    To the editor: I am curious as to the choice of the comma in this passage: “…a concrete trough he made that my sister, used for her horse’s drinking water….”

  9. chris t | August 28, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    I had the same thought on visiting the Last Bookstore — that it was about the book as object, even more than about the information the books ostensibly contained.

    There’s a segment in Gene Wolfe’s /Book of the New Sun/ that struck me with particular force in this connection:

    “I was sitting there, as I said, and had been for several watches, when it came to me that I was reading no longer. For some time I was hard put to say what I had been doing. When I tried, I could only think of certain odors and textures and colors that seemed to have no connection with anything discussed in the volume I held. At last I realized that instead of reading it, I had been observing it as a physical object. The red I recalled came from the ribbon sewn to the headband so that I might mark my place. The texture that tickled my fingers still was that of the paper on which the book was printed. The smell in my nostrils was old leather, still bearing the traces of birch oil. It was only then, when I saw the books themselves, that I began to understand their care.”

    His grip on my shoulder tightened. “We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no trace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations—books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them.

    “We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here—though I can no longer tell you where—no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other. All these I came to know, and I made safeguarding them my life’s devotion. “

  10. Calder Holbrook | August 29, 2013 at 3:38 am

    Your essay is nice, but the second level is no longer composed entirely of $1 books. Certain categories of more expensive books that had been downstairs were moved upstairs.

  11. Georgia Cummings | August 29, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    As a grandparent who reads to very small children, I have to say that books for children cannot be replaced by a digital equivalent just yet. Children love to feel and turn pages, not just forward but back. They like to point, tear, throw, scribble and engage in other ways with their books. Reading a printed book is simply a different experience to the digital format. The Hungry Green Caterpillar is a book that comes to mind.

  12. OJ | September 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Think of it this way : Before photography became a universal medium, and became as ubiquitous as it is now, oil paintings were commissioned by those who could afford them for portraits. Who would now, in their right mind, or means, afford the rare luxury of having their vacation snapshots painted by hand? Books will follow a similar path…I think. Look at the ecological footprint they occupy: a warehouse as big as this bookstore just to house the books, the amount of paper, and trees downed to produce them, the toxic process used to manufacture white paper, and on and on and on… Whales became nearly extinct because we needed their oil…..If we think about our natural resources dwindling to feed the needs of billions on the planet, it just makes sense to find ways to house a thousand books, in a DVD, or flash card or the “cloud” or whatever other new technology will come next that is not so very resource intensive…… OK, I’m done…

  13. Sal Monella | September 1, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Digital may take over, but for now, and the probable rest of my life, books are wonderfully cheap; millions available for little more than the shipping charge.
    A reader’s bonanza, if tinged with sadness.

  14. Michael Disend | September 3, 2013 at 1:02 am

    The on-line media immensely diminishes the power, effect, vibrancy, and imaginative upheaval that holding a book in one’s hand and being carried away by it does. Why? Because the inherent uniqueness of “the voice”, the author, is now stapled to a grinding immense leviathan implicitly vaster than any human soul, especially the book’s author.

    Book in hand means heart in hand.

    Device not creation is what the Technocracy has thrust upon us.

    Cold, impersonal, and never “you” and “her” or “her”.

    Books offer that, not devices.

    Turning pages is one soul moment followed by another and that’s a direct reminder of who and what we are.

    The Technocracy’s devices are the opposite of that enlivening gift, the book. They’re despicable curses being thrust upon mankind and destroying it in the process. A book is its book jacket, its design, its print, its smell, its touch.

    San Francisco, which until recently had more independent bookstores than any other city and a vibrant literary culture, is now the “new” Silicon Valley. It’s sterile, dull, and packed with black limos for techies. The flaming, loving, rebellious soul force which books conveyed has virtually vanished overnight. Home now to every isolating idiotic tech rubbish known to man, San Francisco is now a mere ghost of its once beautiful self.

    I see no progress here whatsoever. Books, books, books, and bookstores are what lift and nourish my heart, and always will.

  15. Amanda | September 5, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    My friend the bookseller (he owns and works out of a warehouse in Berkeley full of books, mostly poetry but fiction and art and other stuff as well) tells me, re the traditional bookstore, “The wall of books is dead. No one wants to look at it any more.” That makes me sad, as nothing thrills me more (well, very little) than standing in front of a wall of books, row after row, shelf upon shelf, spines facing out, and perusing them at my leisure. Am I a dinosaur, a throw-back, an oddity, a weirdo? Possibly, at least where books are concerned, probably always was. However, the wall of books is dead. No one wants to look at it anymore. But fear not! Here comes the curated book shop, with a few books carefully chosen on the merits of their cover art, if not their contents, and artfully displayed amongst potted plants, posters, old typewriters (beautiful relics), and other merchandise. It’s all very eye-catching. Still, being a dinosaur weirdo, I prefer the uncurated, innocent wall of books, spines facing out, row after row, shelf upon shelf, asking nothing of me but patience and curiosity. What has the digital revolution wrought upon books, except to turn them into objects, which they always were, and with the intent to render them obsolete, which they may well become, sooner or later? A grown-up, I’m not intimidated by a wall of books. But ipads in the hands of children scare the hell out of me.

  16. Michael Disend | September 5, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Amanda, do send me the address of your friend’s book warehouse in Berkeley. I’ll make a trip over from SF to check it out. Thank you:

  17. Books Online | November 15, 2013 at 2:02 am

    You have shared great information about the online bookstores. The convenience of an online bookstore is a major consideration for people living in rural areas where the drive to a large chain bookstore can take an hour or more.

  18. M Davis | December 4, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    The contents of digital books are more easily manipulated. Also, a large part of the world’s population can’t buy devices that might have less altered texts. Digitized articles and books are simply another attack (good word choice) on our attention spans, abilities and freedoms. I’m a writer, I travel and have only my piano music left in hard copy. I wonder when other simple-lifers will find what Orwell predicted? My hat off to the MIC: good show. You’ve done it at last.

  19. tu | December 14, 2013 at 9:31 pm


  20. Ari Vinograd | December 21, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    I remember spending hours in the bookstore with that wonderful smell..

    – Ari Vinograd

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  26. Lee | August 10, 2014 at 6:14 am

    I love books I don’t think anything will ever replace books just from the feeling of a warm comfort you have with them. They feel older then time. I hope to have a large collection of books in a log fire room. Thank you for your article 🙂

  27. Lina | August 10, 2014 at 6:50 am

    When my children finish reading a book they sign their name in the front cover as well as the date they finished it. It is so nice to flip open the cover and see who has read them! Happy Memories.

3 Pingbacks

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  2. […] A gathering place for the local community and visitors from round the globe. Casey N. Cep for the Paris Review described it as a “cathedral of books.” And included the store amongst […]

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