…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.
This 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…
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