It’s been a very busy year of traveling for me! My family closed out the summer with a week-long trip to sunny California, where my older brothers have lived for almost four years now. This was our first time traveling there as a family (minus one sister, sadly) and my first time ever. From what I saw, California is the perfect combination of cities, beaches, and lovely mountain views. I adored it, and I already can’t wait to go back.
We stayed in the Greater Los Angeles area for the duration of our trip. I made it a point to visit some local bookish spots, including the famous Last Bookstore in Downtown LA, known for being the largest independent bookstore in California. We tried to go to the Iliad also, a well-known shop in North Hollywood with a remarkable exterior shaped like rows of giant books. Unfortunately, however, they were closed on the only day we were free to go. Whenever I return to Los Angeles, it’ll be at the top of my list.
1. Small World Books, Venice Beach
Tucked away between a sidewalk café and a tacky souvenir shop, Small World Books has been a hidden gem on the Venice Beach Boardwalk since 1976. It’s stocked with a variety of popular and rare books, including contemporary and classic. It has the vibe of local bookstores I’m familiar with at home. Narrow aisles, maybe a copy or two of each book. Independent publications as well as commercial pieces. Friendly staff. And, arguably of most importance, a store cat!
The store is certainly limited in space, but there’s a decent selection of literature even still. The interior is charming, with an exposed brick wall and warehouse-style windows, as well as original artwork. I didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, but I’m glad I stopped in for a bit.
2. The Last Bookstore, Downtown Los Angeles
We came to Downtown LA just for The Last Bookstore, and in my opinion, it was well worth it. As a history buff with a love of old buildings and appreciation for intricate architecture, I loved the place before we even stepped inside. It’s located in the Old Bank District of LA and occupies part of a building that first opened in 1914 as a Citizens National Bank. The store still boasts its iconic marble pillars and even vaults, which, rather than certain valuables or cash, now house various collections of rare and vintage books.
The store spans two sweeping levels, and in addition to books, carries magazines, comics, and vinyl records. I first heard about this place years ago when I saw an image online of their famous book arch. Throughout the store, there are other creative displays, including one corner in which books have been tied from the ceiling on invisible string to give the impression of flying. On one wall hangs a giant woolly mammoth head. High along the opposite wall hangs a flowing sculpture of books and wire made by a local university student. These artsy and clever details, in addition to the vast selection of books and music, are enough to make the trek downtown worth it.
3. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino
If you come to The Huntington specifically for the “Library” part, you’ll likely be disappointed. I had very little idea of what to expect before coming here, but the name made me think there would be an old library building stocked full of stunning books for us to peruse and admire. Unfortunately, many of the buildings on the grounds are closed for safety, due to COVID. We could only see the library from the outside, but it might not have made much difference had we gone in anyway. My brother assured me that the library has a limited number of books on display, most encased in glass. From what I’ve heard and seen in pictures now, it’s more of a museum than a library, in the traditional sense.
In spite of missing out on the books, however, I still enjoyed The Huntington. It’s best known for its sprawling grounds, which span over 130 acres and feature 16 themed gardens. As someone who loves plants and flowers, the views were certainly satisfying. Plus, to please literature lovers outside the library, one themed garden is a Shakespeare Garden. It features certain flowers referenced in Shakespeare’s work, which knowledgeable fans (or “bardolaters”) may recognize. All in all, whether the buildings are open or not, The Huntington is a beautiful place to spend hours wandering among flowers and plants from various regions of the world, and, rather than looking at beautiful books, perhaps pretending you’re a character in one.