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Finding (and not finding) Books Out West

Molly Kane, Head of Teen Services and Emerging Technologies

When I was still a classroom teacher, September was the most stressful month of my year. Since becoming a public librarian and only sometime classroom teacher, September is actually my first chance to catch my breath. It’s also the month where I get to take vacation! This year my husband and I did a Western United States road trip, hitting Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Palm Springs, La Jolla, and Los Angeles with stops in Red Rock Canyon, Joshua Tree, and San Diego for good measure.  It was great to see another part of the country  and since I was unable to completely take off my librarian hat, we experienced quite a few bookish things!

My favorite literary experience was visiting The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. It’s housed in a 22,000 sqft, three story converted office building in the infamous Skid Row neighborhood of LA.  It’s definitely the largest bookstore I’ve ever visited, but also the most eclectic. They sell new, used, and rare items with special focus on graphic novels, science fiction, and fantasy. Where The Last Bookstore really shines, though, is in their displays. They capitalize on the 2016 impulse to take and share photos of everything, luring people into their stacks with outlandish book sculptures and a book labyrinth on the second floor. The horror section is housed inside the building’s former vault – Stephen King and Clive Barker take up shelf-space where confidential documents and daily money bags were once stored. It’s truly a magnificent bookstore…with one exception. Posted near every comfy chair and every highly polished table are strongly worded signs reminding customers that The Last Bookstore is NOT a library and that they’re only welcome to sit and read for an hour before they *could* be asked to leave by staff. I found this incredibly off putting and my negative feelings were reinforced when I was asked to leave immediately after making my purchases. (Something else caught my eye right after I handed over my cash, but I was told that I needed to exit the building instead of inspecting it further, and, possibly, making an additional purchase!) They reasoned that it helped cut down on theft, which I can appreciate, but it made me feel like lingering to take photos was more encouraged than taking the time to decide what books to buy!

last-bookstore

My most confusing literary experience came about inadvertently when I tried to find a bathroom in Palm Springs, CA. After striking out in multiple stores and cafes, I had a ray of hope when I saw the familiar blue library reader sign just under a traffic light. We followed the arrows and found ourselves walking though the doors of the Welwood Murray Memorial Library. At first it looked like a library – there was an information desk, a bank of public computers, and a handful of tables and chairs perfect for lingering over a book or homework. We turned left and made our way past the computers only to be stopped by a security guard. No problem, we retraced our steps and  turned right at the information desk, only to be stopped by a second security guard. That single room (with a handful of conference rooms just out of sight) was the entirety of the Welwood Murray Memorial Library! No books, no magazines, no children’s area, no librarians, and, most urgently, no public bathrooms! Later on I visited their website in the hope that maybe I missed some hidden door that would have taken me to the books, but no, this branch is book free except for some historical documents relating to the Palm Springs Historical Society. This is especially confusing because although they do host book groups, the members have to either buy the books or visit another library to get the books for the discussions!

palm-springs

I’d like to think that the movement away from leisurely  book browsing (whether it’s on shelves or in a chair!) is unique to California or the West Coast, but I’m afraid it isn’t. Books just take up too much space that can be used for other purposes. And while I contribute to this problem (my phone was filled with eBooks and eAudio from Overdrive and Hoopla for this very trip!) I do hope that there will always be places for readers to hide away and turn physical pages, whether they are in bookstores or libraries.