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More from my dissertation. This time, a history diary, because, for one, I don't have time to write anything de novo, and second, because this is likely to be a corrective to whatever you thought about Los Angeles as a center of culture before the film industry set itself up there. Ernest Dawson, one of the more eminient sellers of used and antiquarian books in Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s, wrote an article about the booksellers of Los Angeles at the turn of the century in 1947, and I contextualized it, going back to the earliest bookstores in Los Angeles. I used his taxonomy too, since he grouped the stores (and the history) into three phases: 1) the "pioneer" booksellers, 2) the generation of "educated" booksellers, and 3) the bookstores that could express the culture of the city. This diary deals with the first two phases.

The critic and entrepreneur Guido Bruno, a key figure in Greenwich Village just after World War I, observed that every city has book streets where bookshops “grow like mushrooms in dirt” and little competition existed between the shops because dealers differed in emphasis and selection of second-hand books. Book streets and districts in the United States have followed this pattern since the beginning of the Republic.  By 1801, the twenty-two booksellers of Boston “were congregated in what seems [to modern observers] an incredibly small space” on one single street. New York, until very recently, has had defined book districts as well, and even in Atlanta all the important shops, of which there were six in 1926, were within one block of the intersection of Peachtree and Whitehall Streets downtown. The booksellers of Los Angeles were no different.  Although many of the neighborhoods in Los Angeles would have their own bookstore by 1930, downtown Los Angeles had a distinct book district by 1890 and the book district downtown followed shifts in the location of the central business district through the 1930s.This will be important to remember when we look at the department store as a major part of the book market in the 1920s.

The first booksellers in the Western hemisphere were in operation by 1600. The publishing cycle in Spain had been geared to produce the first printing of a new book in time for the annual fleets to ship it to the rest of the Empire so Mexico City and Lima would receive it at the same time as Madrid. A shipment of seventy-two copies of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, published in Madrid in 1606, reached the bookseller and merchant Miguel Méndez in Lima, Peru, by May of that year. Booksellers were among the first retailers to open in a new city in British America as well, and the book trade became a national business as the railroads spread throughout the country and made the efficient shipment of books possible.  

According to the book historian Madeleine Stern, Los Angeles developed slowly as a book market when compared to other cities in the West. The first booksellers in Northern California appeared immediately after the start of the Gold Rush. By early in 1853, San Francisco’s first daily newspaper, Alta, could observe that the book trade had become “a highly prosperous and ably constructed branch of daily business.” By contrast, as the bookseller Ernest Dawson (you'll meet him soon after I do a little more research) reported in an article, Los Angeles Booksellers Fifty Years Ago, published in 1947, that Los Angeles received its first bookshop in 1854 when Samuel Hellman and his brother Isaiah opened a book, stationery, dry goods and shoe store on Main Street. Hellman advertised a subscription library in the Los Angeles Star in June 1859, and operated the book and stationery business as a separate establishment in 1862. Before 1880, books could also be bought at Harris & Jacoby’s retail establishment and at Brodrick & Reilly, who opened the first store exclusively devoted to books and periodicals adjoining the Post Office on Spring Street in 1871.  These merchants represent a first, “frontier” phase of bookselling. We're going to look at the first two phases of bookselling today

The proliferation of bookstores in Los Angeles began when the boom of the 1880s brought the city both highly literate migrants and its first generation of booksellers who devoted the major part of their business to the sale of books. Between 1880 and 1890, the population of the city grew fourfold, from 11,163 to roughly 50,000.  Like other American cities, Los Angeles grew as a result of migration, but the focus by historians on the scale of migration from Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the way in which internal migration has been reduced to consideration of the frontier tend to overshadow the fact that Americans continued to move within the country just as frequently as Alexis de Tocqueville had suggested they did during the Jacksonian era:

I have spoken of the immigration from the older states, but how shall I describe that which takes place from the more recent ones? Fifty years have scarcely elapsed since Ohio was founded; the greater part of its inhabitants were not born within its confines . . . yet already the population . . . is proceeding westward, and most of the settlers who descend to the fertile prairies of Illinois are citizens of Ohio.  These men left their first country to improve their condition; they quit their second to ameliorate it still more, fortune awaits them everywhere, but not happiness
Thus, unlike other American cities, especially those in the Northeast, the migrants who came to Los Angeles arrived from points within the United States. The population of the city showed a fairly even balance between men and women and a relatively low proportion of young people between 1880 and 1920. Through the mid-1880s, most of the people who arrived came from the northeastern states or points within California; during the late 1880s and 1890s, migrants tended to be wealthy residents of and prosperous farmers from the Midwest who brought their cultural institutions with them as an essential requisite of community life. Given the preponderance of evidence that suggests that migrants necessarily bring the cultural patterns of the place they left to their new destinations with them, it is not surprising that the cultural institutions of Los Angeles at the turn of the last century, particularly the bookselling practices, would resemble those of the larger cities of the Midwest.  

When Ernest Dawson arrived in Los Angeles from San Luis Obispo (he had worked at J.A. Goodrich’s bookstore there) in 1897, he found that the city supported both bookstores specializing in new books and relatively well-stocked second-hand bookshops downtown in a district centered roughly at Broadway and Second Street. The men who ran these bookstores have been described as representatives of a second phase in the development of the book culture of “provincial Los Angeles,” the growing city’s first generation of educated booksellers whose businesses concentrated on selling books, and, in C.C. Parker’s case, “new books only.”  

The proprietors of these stores, some of which would survive through the 1940s, arrived from points east and brought bookselling as it was known east of the Rockies with them.  Frederick Jones, a graduate of Haverford College and apparently the only early Los Angeles bookseller to get a college education, opened Jones’s Bookstore, in January 1887 at 45 South Main Street and incorporated it in 1904; Dawson described him as a good merchandiser of second hand books although he was not a rare book dealer. Jones employed J.W. Fowler and W.A. Colwell (Fowler’s brother-in-law), who had arrived from Iowa three years earlier. After a year with Jones, in February 1888 they opened Fowler and Colwell, the third “new book” store, which specialized in books on surveying and engineering and Bibles and other religious books as well as stocking some second-hand books. Their success in the business allowed them to open what Dawson described as “a fine new store” in 1897 where the used books were consigned to the basement and later sold off altogether. In 1900, Robert A. Fowler, who had been with the store since it opened, bought out Colwell’s interest, and the firm became Fowler Brothers, which catered to a general market with new books of all kinds.  In particular, they served the members of a growing number of women’s clubs who found the books necessary for their cultural programs.  In February 1908, Fowler Brothers moved to a larger, more modern store at 543 South Broadway, and in September 1913, they occupied three floors at 747 South Broadway, moving south to locate near the new department stores which opened in the area.  

Charles C. Parker, invariably referred to as C.C., whom Dawson described as “by all odds the Los Angeles bookseller” arrived from Missouri, where he had been a teacher in a girl’s school, during the early 1890s. By 1895, apparently after inheriting a considerable sum of money, he opened a bookstore at 246 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Parker’s stock consisted of best sellers, classics, reference books and standard literature; Zeitlin and Dawson agreed that C.C. Parker carried the best general stock of new books of any bookstore in the country because his intention was to have every good book published in the United States that was in print on his shelves; we will revisit Parker later in this series, also after more research.

James W. Smith, the first of Dawson’s sellers of second-hand books, was the first dealer in Los Angeles to emphasize Californiana; he handled “thousands of paper covered novels” at “The Eclectic Book Store,” which he opened in 1892, but nevertheless had a “flair” for valuable books.  When Smith died in 1901, his widow took over the shop, which she ran for some years with Henry Collins, who had spent seventeen years in the rare book trade in London, as manager.  Henry Ward, a dealer in second-hand paper-covered novels and dime thrillers who had arrived from London in 1891 and settled in Los Angeles in 1894, was a great hand at “ticketing” books and may have been the first bookseller in Los Angeles to install a rental library on his premises.  Ward provided Ernest Dawson with his first job in 1897, and Dawson learned many of the merchandising methods he used from Ward.

I have already introduced you to two "third phase" booksellers: Alice Millard and Louis Epstein. There will be more as I need to compensate for, well, the fact that online book buying may have affected how we even think about brick-and-mortar bookstores, and the impact that probably has on getting people to write for this series.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Oct 01, 2013 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Los Angeles Kossacks.

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