On the Road with the Cotsen Library: or, Some Independent Bookstores Are Alive and Well

My father used to talk about taking a “busman’s holiday” –that is, doing pretty much the same thing on vacation that he did at work (and no, he wasn’t a busman himself, but rather someone who worked in an office).  A great phrase, as I hope you’ll agree!

With that in mind, have you ever wondered what a bibliophile or a librarian who is interested in children’s books does while on vacation?  Well, some of us like to look at bookstores and libraries (along with doing other things too, I hasten to add!).

Thus, the recent ALA Annual Conference and Rare Books & Manuscripts “Preconference” in San Francisco and Oakland, respectively, provided a jumping-off point for later sight-seeing — and, in the process, happening upon some amazing small bookshops, run by real book-lovers, by pure serendipity.  (For all the great aspects of having the world of books accessible via online shopping, nothing quite compares to just stumbling upon a bookstore or catching a glimpse of an attractive book cover or dust-jacket you’ve never seen before, does it?)

First, there was Village Books, in Ukiah, California, about 100 miles North of San Francisco.  We spotted this small shop across the street from our lunchtime retreat from 100+ degree heat.  As soon as we entered, I knew we’d found a great bookstore!  Even the check-out counter was covered with books, as you can see:


Village Books, Ukiah, California

That introductory “prologue” was certainly borne out by another look around:



Books from floor-to-ceiling, convenient reading spaces throughout… a bibliophile’s delight… mostly used books, but some new ones too.

Of particular interest to me were the sections with children’s (and young adult) books, packed almost to the rafters:







And especially eye-catching was a dedicated children’s reading area, clearly meant to welcome young readers into a comfortable setting and encourage them to sit and read books of all sorts:





But this is a bookstore after all, not a library, so what did we buy?


Upper cover of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with color-printed paper onlay (Harper & Bros., 1911) author’s collection

To name just a few, some nice French-language children’s books (for a YA reader learning French), a vintage copy of Lord of the Flies (bought by an adult for aforementioned YA reader, since Lord of the Flies seems to have fallen off the assigned list of books for middle schoolers), and a very nicely illustrated 1911 edition of Tom Brown’s School Days, with artwork by Louis Rhead, and a paper onlay on the upper cover that reminds us reminded me just how much work went into late 19th- and early 20th-century publisher’s bindings.

Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) is one of those “children’s classics,” hugely-influential and once widely read, but seldom read by child readers any more.  (Actually, a surprising number of “children’s classics” fall into the category of well-known but not much read now.)  It’s a landmark example of a “school story,” fiction focusing on children or adolescents within a school context (usually a boarding school), a genre especially popular in England from the mid- to late-1700s through the mid-1940s.  Some other prominent examples include: Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749) and Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899).

Think school stories are utterly passé?  Well, think again… J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels drew heavily on the genre — Hogwarts, focal point of the action, is, after all, a school, and most of the main characters are students or masters there — and many critics have discussed how Rowling both made use of and extended the school story genre.  Like Tom Brown, Harry Potter comes somewhat timidly to a new school, has to learn the ropes, and undergoes various trials and bullying in the course of making moral choices, learning about himself, and growing up.


As that venerable and learned poet…says


Poor old Benjy!

Although Tom Brown is set in Thomas Arnold’s reform-oriented Rugby School of the 1840s, the story details quite a bit of unruly hijinks by the boys, as well as a lot of fighting and some harrowing bullying — all of which no doubt fascinated boy readers, at whom the book seems clearly aimed. Rhead’s full-page illustrations in  this edition compellingly depicted many of these events, and in addition, he provided small historiated letters at the beginning of chapters, which I particularly like. A real window onto another era.










But time to move on… How about continuing our bibliographic travelogue and moving from Northern California to Seattle … and from school stories to Wonderland?

Again, serendipity plays a major role in the story — sometimes you find bookstores where you would least expect to find them, as was the case for us in Seattle.  Seattle’s Pike Place Market is famous: the usual tourist souvenirs, fresh fruit and veggies, and lots and lots of fresh fish, including “flying fish,” tossed around by energetic fishmongers! (This fish-tossing is so renowned that it serves as the subject of a movie titled “FISH!,” which is about improving customer service, workplace morale, and motivating workers. If you don’t believe me, do a quick online search!)








A fun place to visit — but hardly a place you’d expect to find a bookstore…  But tucked away in a downstairs corridor, around the corner from a cookie shop, a coffee bar, and a take-out food place, we happened to see a brightly-colored bookstore wedged into a space not much more than ten or fifteen feet wide: Lamplight Books.


A glimpse inside the shop…


Lamplight Books, Seattle Market.








Cover of Through the Looking-Glass (Dodge & Co., 1909?) author’s collection


Sightseeing again took a back-seat to book-browsing, as we went through the hidden garden gate or down the rabbit hole into another magical world of books…

Among the books we discovered was a hard-cover second printing of one of Durrell’s Alexandra Quartet novels, well-read but still with its original dust-jacket — and still cheaper than a new paperback edition elsewhere — and an even more well-read 1909 edition of Through the Looking Glass by American publisher Dodge & Co., which interested me for several reasons.

First, the illustrations by Bessie Pease Guttmann present Alice as a dark-haired girl — quite unlike Tenniel’s depiction, but much like Carroll’s own artwork in his original Alice manuscript edition — with the Queen of Hearts as the blondie — and one looking very much like Tenniel’s chess piece depiction in Looking Glass, not a playing card or Queen Victoria parody a la Alice in Wonderland.









But even more arresting were the unique markings and colorings in this copy of the book, presumably made by a child-reader. As we see on the pictorial endpapers, printed in a blue-outlined pattern, an apparently quite young reader has “embellished” things!  (I’d say she/he was young, based on the roughness of the coloring.)


Blue-printed patterned endpapers colored by child reader.

And this embellishment continues throughout the book, whose blue-printed outline borders were apparently irresistible to the reader.  Sometimes, the child embellisher fully colored the illustrations on an entire page, and sometimes he/she has focused in only on details apparently of particular interest to him or her, as we can see in the instances below:


Instances of selective coloring by child reader

This is pattern of varied “levels” of markings in children’s books is something I’ve observed before and discussed here on the Cotsen blog.  Was the reader of this book simply focusing on things of particular interest to her/him, or responding to the story and somehow trying to foreground characters and aspects discussed on particular pages by coloring them in there — in effect providing a reader’s commentary of sorts?  Of course, there’s no way to be sure. But since identifying agency by child-readers and making sense of reader-response is certainly a topic of considerable interest to those analyzing child readership today, I wonder if patterns of marking like those found in this book might conceivably shed some light on these areas of inquiry?

This copy of Through the Looking Glass also manifests evidence of another possible  sort of reader “appetite” on quite a number of pages, as we can see on the example below:







It’s a little hard to tell what these are? Bite-marks?  If so, made by a child?  By several different children?  By the family dog?  Or just marks of rough handling?  They certainly look like bite marks to me!  And if so, what might this suggest to us about the reader(s) of this book or child readers, in general?  Along with the markings, this definitely suggests that this copy of Through the Looking Glass did indeed “find its reader” who extensively handled and “interacted with” the book in several ways, even if we can’t be sure that he/she necessarily read the text on the pages.

I think the signs of book use here also underscore an important aspect of children’s use of books; it’s frequently unpredictable — often spontaneous and unplanned — and thus it can be hard to “interpret” what this “evidence” means, as well as dangerous to read too much into this by adults who are coming along later and trying to investigate child reading.  Child readers leave a lot of clues, but how can we be sure that we’re “reading” them accurately from our adult critical vantage-point?  There’s always an element of speculation in this critical approach, isn’t there?

Apart from an opportunity to think about children’s marks in books and talk about a couple of interesting editions of children’s “classics,” I guess the broader “moral” of my story here is really to highlight that independent bookstores — and great ones too! — can still be found out there, sometimes when and where you least expect them.  There’s real pleasure to be had in browsing them with no particular book or aim in sight, especially if you’re a book-lover. Sometimes you find amazing things that you had no idea you were looking for! There can be real serendipitous pleasure in simple serendipity…

Tour The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles

For twenty years, Los Angeles Times has hosted the largest book festival in the country in the City of Angels, but when people call LA an industry town, we all know the industry isn’t publishing.


The one and only Pickwick on Hollyweird Blvd.

No matter what New Yorkers say, we do walk and read books in LA.   And Los Angeles has been home to some great independent bookstores.  As a child I remember going with my parents to Pickwick Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard.  While they transacted their business, I headed back to the children’s department.  I used to sit on the floor in front of the bay with all the books in the Wizard of Oz series, with the wonderful designs on the dust jacket spines.  When my mother took me along with her to UCLA, sometimes we would swing by Campbell’s Bookstore before getting on the freeway to go home.  She probably bought textbooks for classes, while the future rare book curator snuck off to admire the stuffed Winnie the Pooh characters made in England.  They were so expensive that I knew better to beg for one, not even for a Christmas present.   Of Dutton’s in Brentwood, which occupied a building originally designed by a notable local architect as a small office complex around a central courtyard, novelist Carolyn See said,  “If you weren’t the drinking kind, you could go there the way you would a bar.”

last bookstore bonaventure

Looking up in the Bonaventure lobby.

These three bookstores are gone, along with Acres of Books, one Mr. Cotsen’s  early hunting grounds, but the tradition lives on at The Last Book Store on downtown’s South Spring Street, a stone’s throw away from the Westin Bonaventure, where I was attending a conference last spring.  It bills itself as the Golden State’s largest new and used book and record store.

After listening to papers for two days, it was time for some retail therapy in the children’s department of The Last Bookstore, whose motto is, “What are you waiting for?  We won’t be here forever!”  It currently occupies a space that once was a bank building.  This is a bird’s eye view of the store from the second floor where the vault used to be.  Thanks to my colleague, Col. Scott Krawzcyk, for taking these great interior photos, which were beyond my Samsung Galaxy…

last bookstore  2nd Floor sk

I’ve been in a  Pasadena restaurant with book walls, but they were nothing like this.  I’d commission one for Cotsen but there would be issues the first time a book was paged for a patron.  So much for creative solutions to rare book storage…

last bookstore book arch sk

I forgot to ask the name of the artists who dreamed up the store’s book sculptures, but they have a standing invitation to visit our Bookscape gallery.

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I doubt I would find this monograph about Mary Blair, who worked for Disney, on the tables of art books in any self-respecting Northeast indie bookstore, even if this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. 

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Here is the back wall of the children’s department.  It was nice to see several parents reading with their children around the pleasant, cavernous space.

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These, and other books with even more inappropriate cover designs juxtaposing food and fashion, were sitting on top of the bookcases where the picture books were shelved.

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Proof that BabyLit board books, which were highlighted in a post earlier this year, are a bi-coastal phenomenon.  I had not seen the Damien Hirst ABC before and was pleasantly surprised that did not reek of formaldyhyde unlike some of his works.

last bookstore board books

A shelf of classics, with Lauren Child’s quirky cover for Anne of Green Gables prominently featured.  Somebody with a sense of humor put Touching Spirit Bear next to The House at Pooh Corner.  Milne is probably rolling in his grave.

last bookstore classic kidOf course there was a lot of Francesca Lia Block in the YA section.  That cover for Weetzie Bat looks way too wholesome.

last bookstore francesca lia blockThe congenial bookseller efficiently rang up my pile of loot for Cotsen.

last bookstore booksellerAnd the nymph by the exit–who could resist this siren call to come back again real soon?    Gotta love her, gotta love The Last Book Store.  It’s sooooooooo LA.

last bookstore mannequin