There’s a rich, storied history of independent bookstores in Southern California, from Pasadena’s Vroman’s to Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village (which has welcomed everyone from Howard Hughes to Aldous Huxley and Nat King Cole, which first opened in 1940) .
With some consumers fed up with buying books online from anonymous companies, a new generation of community-focused stores is springing up all over Los Angeles, giving life to writers and readers in diverse neighborhoods.
In Pasadena, there’s Octavia’s bookshelf; in Highland Park, North Figueroa Bookstore; in Mid-City, Palm Grove Social; in Santa Monica, Zibby’s bookstore. All serving vastly different audiences with unique and carefully curated stock, LA’s indie bookstore movement is a reminder that print isn’t quite dead yet.
NORTH FIGUEROA BOOKSTORE
This store opened in 2022 in Highland Park, which manager Mads Gobbo describes as “a super-literary neighborhood,” adding that customers “discover many backlisted titles on our shelves. LA classics like City of quartz are definitely at the top for us.” Founded by independent book publishers Tyson Cornell (Rare Bird) and Chris Heiser (Unnamed Press), the store has a growing section of local authors from “people straight from the neighborhood,” says Gobbo.
“I notice that our customers are very well-read. They’ve read all the mainstream stuff. So the things that are at the top The New York Times bestseller lists are not the things that really sell well for us,” says Gobbo THR. “Actually, I think people are discovering a lot of backlist, older titles on our shelves. LA classics like City of quartz are definitely at the top for us.”
Cornell and Heiser are both local NELA residents and longed for a place they could visit often – housing the kinds of books they were drawn to as readers and publishers. “We just felt like the area didn’t have a real independent bookstore,” says Cornell. “(And) before we became publishers, we were independent booksellers. We missed that environment and lifestyle; of course we love shopping in the big bookstores in the area, but we also wanted a place of our own to hang out and just get out of the publishing bubble.
There are about 3,000 titles in the store, and 10 to 15 percent of those titles come from the bookstore’s four partner publishers: Rare Bird, Unnamed Press, Grove Atlantic, and MCD Books. But the general interest selection has been carefully curated by Gobbo and the team of other booksellers. “We’ve been working really hard on our California literature section. We’ve got both fiction and nonfiction in it — just sort of an overview of all the great work that’s come out of and about our state,” says Gobbo. There are also notable translated literature, children’s and comics/manga sections. “We’ve built out our section for local authors, which has been pretty hyper-local. It is many people from the neighborhood, who live a few blocks away, who have poetry, chapbooks, zines, children’s books or unclassifiable works of literature.
Gobbo was Skylight Books’ former event manager, so programming is ingrained in the store’s infrastructure, too. These community events are “a little outside the scope of a traditional book event,” she says, such as a love letter writing workshop for Valentine’s Day and a tarot card collecting experience.
“What I like about the programming that happens here at the store is that it’s topic driven and it’s community driven. It’s not just about what new book comes out,” says Cornell. 6040 N. Figueroa St.
PALM GROSS SOCIAL
Since 2022, this hybrid cafe, bookstore, and art gallery in Mid-City, a fast-growing destination for Los Angeles’ creative community, has been hosting book signings and solo exhibitions. Palm Grove and Cast Partner founder Ben Sealey says, “We kind of lean into shows associated with book signings… (and) the idea of having books curated was always connected to the cafe.” And since the space also houses Cast Partner, a casting consultancy that often holds live castings there, “we have all kinds of people coming to our building all the time,” says Sealey.
The space features an outdoor patio, which can be rented for events, and a strong coffee program. “The idea of having great coffee that’s connected to art and books and music and culture, and a location where people can come and sit and relax and hang out without pressure is really appealing to us,” says Sealey.
Recently, the creative hub hosted a solo exhibition celebrating the release of the self-published debut photobook by Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist Jester Bulnes DENTROand showed British photographer Laura McCluskey’s Ray 001: Moroccan light in association with London-based publisher Guest Editions.
“We ended up with a very deep, broad community — in Los Angeles, in the US, and all over the world really,” he adds. “I’m in love with LA, and always have been. The idea of (Palm Grove Social) is to have a space that can support my vision of being able to hold events that are inclusive of everyone, not just invite-only or VIP-based, and support (creatives) in that way . ” 4660 W. Washington Blvd.
OCTAVIA’S BOOK GAME
Named after the celebrated science fiction author Octavia Butler, this bookstore in Pasadena (the late author’s hometown) was founded by another Pasadena native, Nikki High. “I got a little obsessed with Octavia Butler when I first read it related and I was about 16 or 17 (years old),” High tells me THR. “I wanted to honor our hometown legend by naming the store after her because I just felt like she was so ahead of her time (and) she was so brave.”
Octavia’s Bookshelf’s success has been rapid and enduring since it opened last February; Prior to its opening weekend about 10 weeks ago, High’s inventory was 4,000 books deep. After two days she barely had 100 left. “I sell out of (Butler’s) books, like every two days,” High shares. Titles by Bell Hooks, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston have also proved popular.
“Pasadena has such a huge reading community,” says High. “It’s weird because I know all the reading places in Pasadena. And I spent a lot of time in those spaces. But I always longed for a place where I could more easily find books by BIPOC authors.” To meet this need, High (an avid reader and former corporate marketer for Trader Joe’s) traveled to Los Angeles to visit the independent Leimert Park-owned Eso Won Bookstore before it closed late last year after more than three decades .
High’s clients often reach for her curated selection of cookbooks, mature romance, and young adult titles, along with “books about healing,” she says.
“I think the other piece that’s been so satisfying for me is people coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I want to be a better ally. Can you help point me in this direction?’ and being able to help people select books for the purpose of educating them, but perhaps also to challenge their preconceived notions. 1361 N Hill Ave.
An outgrowth of author and entrepreneur Zibby Owens’ popular podcast, Mothers don’t have time to read booksZibby’s Bookshop is a new destination in Santa Monica with books for children and adults.
“I’ve always wanted to open a bookstore,” says Owens THR. “But it was always just a dream.”
When she first looked for a space to realize this dream in New York City in 2020 (where she lives, though her family also spends time at their home in Pacific Palisades), “it just didn’t feel like the right fit.” or the right time,” says Owens. But when an Amazon bookstore closed in Palisades Village, she felt it was time to fill that gap on the west side. “I felt like there were already so many great bookstores in New York City, and the distance between them is so small, that opening a new one didn’t really fill an unmet need, while opening a bookstore in Santa Monica…that would really give the community something they needed and had missed.
At Zibby’s Bookshop, there is a daily story time for kids, as well as three to five book signings and author interviews per week. Katherine Schwarzenegger recently visited Pratt for a story reading of her picture book Good night, sister.
The bookshelves are curated by Owens (a regular contributor to Good morning America) and her team, and are arranged by area of interest: the music lover, the knowledge hunter, even boards based on an emotion. “My taste probably reflects our criteria for selecting books for publishing, which are books with a strong sense of voice and place, propulsive storytelling, and beautiful writing,” says Owens, adding, “I don’t read by genre, I read based on the author or story.
The bookfluencer’s literary ecosystem now includes a publishing company called Zibby Books, a publication called Zibby Mag, podcast network Zibby Audio, education platform Zibby Classes, and several community events.
“We actually exceeded all our expectations. We are almost double our weekly sales forecasts, our number of visitors is probably three times what we expected,” shares the founder. And in terms of the bookstore’s Hollywood connection? “They come to mine our content,” says Owens. “It’s real storytelling that unites film, TV and books.” 1113 Santa Monica Blvd.
This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.