Bye-bye, Brand Bookshop

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Brand Bookshop is one of my favorites, both for what it is and where it is. It’s a great used bookstore, open since 1985, with personality and a deep selection of 100,000 books. And it’s located on Brand Boulevard in Glendale, the downtown drag, with shops and restaurants all around and, across the street, the grand 1925 Art Deco Alex Theatre and a second used bookstore, Book Fellows. Best block in SoCal? Well, it’s not, but it’s in the running.

Brand, alas, is closing next month. Owner Jerome Joseph, who’s in his 80s, suffered a fall last year and can no longer run the business, according to a sad story in the Glendale News-Press, and his son, Noriaki Nakano, who’s 66, is ready to retire.

The store, at 231 N. Brand, never really made the transition to the Internet age, and up until a year or two ago still contacted customers (like me) by postcard to announce sales. I only visited once a year or so, but I usually bought something and sometimes sold something.

Joseph was a bookstore owner of the old school. He knew his stock well and had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. He referred to employees, even his son, in gentlemanly fashion as Mr. or Ms.

“Mr. Nakano!” he would call out. “Do we have” — and he would name a title. “We do, Mr. Joseph,” his son might say.

A small touch, but the store sold handmade bookmarks made from laminated foreign postage stamps. I think they sold for $1 from a basket in front of the register; Joseph once gave me one with my purchase. It’s lovely (see picture at bottom) and I still use it.

One that got away: a vintage slipcased set of the then-three “Dune” novels by Frank Herbert was on the paperback SF shelves about three years ago for $15, or maybe $12. I saw it, thought about it, walked away. Ten minutes later, having persuaded myself, I walked back to claim it and it was already gone.

One example of the store’s personality: the copious number of categories. The LA Times says a master list was available at the counter and bore “1,500 highly curated categories,” citing a few: Papacy & Vatican, ESP, General Military Aviation, Sea Adventures, Gold Rush and Shrubbery. The ones I loved were in the sociology area, side by side on the same shelf: Hoboes and Elitism and the Rich (see below).

Passing by on the 101 on June 5, I stopped at Brand for old times’ sake. Books are 50 percent off the marked price. Shelves were starting to empty, although they still had tens of thousands, and to slip into alphabetical disarray.

I didn’t buy anything as I’m on a book diet, but I’m glad to have stopped in to say goodbye to paths I have trod many times: graphic novels to classics to science fiction to mystery to fiction and then through the doorway to the store’s far side: books on books, humor, music and California. In retrospect I wish I’d bought a second bookmark.

Bookfellows (238 N. Brand) is arguably superior, at least for genre reading, and I’ll still visit it on days when the Alex (216 N. Brand) screens a classic I want to see, but I’ll miss having that other store, Brand Bookshop, the third leg of a great cultural triangle.

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Column: ‘Pomona A to Z’ now in convenient book form

Sunday’s column has my first mention in print (i.e., not on my blog) of my upcoming book, “Pomona A to Z,” and details about the launch party this Friday. And there’s an awesome photo.

I had originally figured I would write a whole column about my book, but modesty got the best of me. Instead, the column continues with four Ontario items and five Culture Corner items, as well as a plug for this blog.

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Farewell to a reader’s friend

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This pillow chair, useful for reading in bed, was one of those cheap objects that prove incredibly useful and durable. My parents bought it for me for Christmas when I was about 15 and I used it ever since — until earlier this year, when I decided the poor thing had supported me, or at least my back and my reading habits, long enough.

Mine was purchased by mail order (probably Sears), and in the intervening years I never saw another one until relatively recently, when I found them at Target. Wow, they still make these things! They’re known alternately as chair pillows, pillow chairs, bed rests and reading pillows.

I resisted parting with mine, though, even after sending it through a giant washing machine at a laundromat, which got it clean but also worsened splits in the fabric. Bits of orange foam kept popping out. This thing had stuck with me and I was sticking with it. And, on 90-degree summer nights, to it.

After a couple of years of this, I finally decided to buy a new one.

I did, for a mere $10, at the Target in Pomona, and wondered why I hadn’t done this earlier. The old one went into the trash with little regret. I guess I needed to wait until the time felt right. I like the new one too. It’s a comfortable way to sit up in bed without messing with pillows.

Above is the tattered old one with what I think was the last book I read with it: Neil Young’s “Waging Heavy Peace.” Farewell, old friend, and thanks for the support.

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Reading Log: June 2014

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Books acquired: none.

Books read: “All the President’s Men,” “The Final Days,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; “President Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer.

“Doonesbury” repeats this spring reminded me that Nixon resigned 40 years ago this August, and that made me think this would be a good summer to read the two Watergate books on my shelves. So I did.

I really liked “President’s Men,” which was published in early 1974. Told in the second person, it follows the two reporters as they chase leads, hit brick walls, knock on doors, meet a source in a parking garage and occasionally flub a story. These were two intrepid guys, and they were far more dedicated than I am, or any reporter I’ve ever known. Another thing I learned: Woodward was a registered Republican. Rather than trying to bring down a president, he and Bernstein were both shocked and disturbed that the trail of Watergate led as high as it did.

With that finished, did I want to read the 500-page “Final Days,” an inside look at the last months of Nixon’s presidency? I thought I’d read it a while and see. Well, I thought it was fascinating, and there was no question of not finishing it. In this one, private meetings and conversations are quoted as if they’re unfolding in front of us, reconstructed either by interviews with the participants or with people they shared their version of events with. It’s a neat trick that allows for privacy-invading scenes like Nixon forcing Kissinger to pray with him, and if asked Kissinger could plead that he wasn’t one of the direct sources.

Normally I’d say these sort of books aren’t my thing, but the subject was one that has always held an interest for me because Watergate occurred on the edge of my consciousness, being 9 and 10 at the time, and I was glad to finally know more about it. (I’m likely to write a column about it in August.)

Obviously I read “President Fu Manchu” the same month as something of a joke. But it legitimately was the next book in the series; I’d left off with book 7 a couple of years ago and I was overdue for book 8. In this one, the only volume set in America, the evil genius (and here I’m referring to Fu Manchu, not Richard Nixon) is pulling the strings of a populist candidate for president who would institute a dictatorship. Online sources say the 1936 novel pulls from real events involving Huey Long and Father Coughlin. So that’s neat, although the novel is otherwise the least distinguished so far.

One weird side-note: Fu has a lair reachable by a river tunnel under New York’s Chinatown, and the hidden entrance is referred to as his “water-gate.” You can’t make this stuff up.

I don’t recall where I got any of these three books, although I’ve had “Final Days” for maybe 10 years, picked up “President’s” maybe five years ago, and “President Fu” around the same time, all used.

What were you reading in June? Speak a little louder, I’m not sure my secret taping system is picking you up.

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Reading Log: May 2014

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Books acquired: “The Gateway Arch: A Biography,” Tracy Campbell; “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway.

Books read: “Gently Down the Stream,” Bill McClellan; “The Farther Shore,” Robert M. Coates; “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne; “Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: How Deep is the Ocean?” Paul Williams; “Coming Up for Air,” George Orwell.

Ahoy, readers, it’s time for another post about our reading habits of the past month, which in my case all involved water-based titles.

(I came up with a bunch of such “theme” groupings three or four years ago, fresh from having typed up the title of every unread book on my shelves for a master list, and with connections echoing in my brain. I get to them as I can. Turns out there are only 12 months in a year. Who knew?)

“Stream” is a collection by a St. Louis columnist; “Shore” is a 1950s out-of-print novel about a bachelor who really should not marry, but does, with unfortunate results (telegraphed in the first sentence or I wouldn’t bring it up); “Leagues” is, of course, the famous novel about a submarine voyage led by a captain without a country; “Ocean” is a compilation of essays and interviews about the surf group; and “Air” is a novel about a middle-class Englishman who, with prewar jitters, is seized by the notion of escaping the city to his childhood village.

“Shore” came to me in an unusual way that may illustrate the happenstance way we sometimes read. I’d read two short stories by Coates in anthologies edited by my boy Ray Bradbury, loved them, especially “The Hour After Westerly,” which would have made a good “Twilight Zone,” and wanted more. He published two books of stories, it turns out, as well as several novels and a memoir; he was the New Yorker’s art critic for a time. I couldn’t readily find any of his books at used bookstores (yes, yes, no doubt I could find them online, but I wasn’t frantic for them, I just put them on my want list as something to hunt for on book expeditions). The first thing I found was “Shore,” at a St. Louis store maybe four years ago, and decided to buy it — it was only $4 — even though it was a novel. Last year, at Powell’s in Portland, I found one of his story collections and bought it. I almost put “Shore” into my “sell” box, but opened it up and saw the first page involves a guy eating in a diner. So I read it. And it was pretty good.

“Air” was my favorite of the month, though. The narrator at first seems like a dope, a guy strangers tend to call “Fatty” who sells insurance and finds his children a nuisance and his wife a bore, but his mordant sense of humor and realistic view of things set a tone unlike any book I can remember reading. The whole thing was kind of extraordinary. I was led to this book in another odd way, by an extended mention in one of the “33 1/3″ books on the Kinks album “Village Green Preservation Society.” Any book similar to one of my favorite albums was likely to be worth seeking out, and it was.

“Leagues” was both fascinating and tedious, as anyone who remembers reading it can tell you. I’d read it as a boy but had meant to reread it ever since “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics made Nemo seem like an amazing creation. Not surprisingly, much of that is only implied in the original. I’ve owned this copy since elementary school. The others came into my hands more recently: 20 years ago in the case of the Beach Boys’ book, the past five years for the rest.

I should mention, too, that I began and abandoned one book this month: “The Sea” by John Banville. (You can see part of the cover in the photo above.) It was too literary for me. I could have finished it had I chose, but I cut my losses about 40 pages in. A part of me thought I should read it, as the hype proclaims that it won the Man Booker Prize. Then I thought, well, am I making a survey of Man Booker Prize winners? I’ve got a lot of books around the house I want to read more than this. So into the “sell” box it will go.

That’s all from me. How was your May? Let us know what books you’ve been paging through, finishing or abandoning.

Next month: Watergate. Wait, would that have fit in during May?

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Reading Log: April 2014

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Books acquired: “Urban Tumbleweed,” Harryette Mullen.

Books read: “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop,” Lewis Buzbee; “The Red Pony,” John Steinbeck; “Darker Than Amber,” John D. MacDonald; “The Green Hills of Africa,” Ernest Hemingway; “The Green Hills of Earth,” Robert A. Heinlein; “Outlaw Blues,” Paul Williams.

Six books read in April, each with a color in the title. What a reading rainbow, to quote a phrase. I’d plotted out potential titles three or four years ago, which made finally reading them all the more satisfying as well as something of a relief. Also, some of the books go back quite a ways.

I was supposed to read Hemingway’s “Green Hills” back in college for a Hemingway class but didn’t make it. Years ago I abandoned the other unread one on the syllabus, “Death in the Afternoon,” out of disinterest in hundreds of pages of nonfiction on bullfighting, but I did always hope to read this one, about a safari. The first chapter is where Hemingway’s famous comment about all American literature springing from “Huckleberry Finn” comes from.

Well, I learned that hunting is hard work: Even when Hemingway kills an animal, he might have to track it for hours and then never find it. Not without interest, especially some of the nature descriptions and the byplay with his father-in-law. He undercuts his own myth. But he also reinforces it, and despite the rigors he’s privileged and oblivious. A little boring, a little sad. This wasn’t for me.

I hadn’t read a Heinlein in two years so this seemed like a good month to read his “Green Hills,” a collection of short stories from the 1940s. I liked it. Most have a cheerful optimism about space flight, human relations and the promise of the 20th century that, while dated, scratches a certain itch. The final, and longest, story, “The Logic of Empire,” is an anti-slavery allegory and a worthwhile early attempt at melding politics and SF.

“The Red Pony” I’d read as a teen, but I read it again as part of a Steinbeck omnibus of short novels that I bought in 2009. All I’d remembered was the birth scene. I liked it this time, and even found it reminiscent of Bradbury’s (later) “Dandelion Wine,” particularly the section about the old man who’s a little like a time machine.

Buzbee’s “Yellow” is a memoir about his days as a bookseller and publisher’s rep in the Bay Area, as well as about his lifelong love of bookstores and books. He sprinkles in a history of books and bookselling. Unexciting, but a gentle, reflective tome for those who like bookstores and the sense they impart of being alone among others.

“Amber” is the seventh Travis McGee mystery novel. As with Heinlein, it had been a couple of years since I’d read one, and I’m glad to have finally cleared whatever mental block had kept me from progressing. That said, this one had its unsavory aspects, so that even though I like the series, this may not be among the better entries.

Lastly, “Outlaw Blues” is a collection of writings circa 1967-68 by the man who may qualify as the first rock critic. Offers a look at how a segment of hippie rock intellectuals viewed the scene, when each release seemed to be advancing the youth movement: Loved the Byrds, Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Beach Boys and the Doors, had no use for the Beatles. Idealistic, woolly-headed, charming.

As mentioned, Hemingway’s book dates to college, although I’ve switched editions since then. Williams’ was bought at a used bookstore in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury perhaps 15 years ago. Heinlein’s is of more recent vintage, also used, as was MacDonald’s; and Buzbee’s came from a visit to Powell’s in Portland in 2010.

Your turn: What have you been reading?

Next month: In which I’m all wet.

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Reading Log: March 2014

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Books acquired: “Who I Am,” Pete Townshend; “Walkable City,” Jeff Speck.

Books read: “Silverlock,” John Myers Myers; “Tales From the ‘White Hart,’” Arthur C. Clarke; “The Woman in Black,” Susan Hill.

Only a three-book month here. Is that better or worse than a three dog night? Regardless, all three of my reads last month had significance for me.

“Silverlock” I’ve owned since the early 1980s but never got around to reading. For one thing, it’s 500 pages; for another, the hype that helped sell it — separate introductions by SF heavyweights Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle — also inhibited actually reading the thing. “You’ll get drunk on ‘Silverlock,’” “an odyssey of the human spirit,” etc., etc. I could never bring myself to read it, yet I could never bring myself to sell it either.

Now that I’m back to taking my bookshelves seriously, I read it, and you know, “Silverlock” was darned good, a picaresque adventure in the Commonwealth of Letters in which nearly every character is taken from literature or legend: Don Quixote, Paul Bunyan, Robin Hood, Leatherstocking, the Green Knight, and dozens more. Great fun, and recommended if you’re well read, or if like me you can fake it.

That book consumed nearly four weeks. I managed to squeeze in two short books on vacation, a collection of scientific shaggy dog stories by Clarke, told by a tall-tale spinner in a London pub, and Hill’s Gothic horror novel, set in England, from 1992. I liked both of those. (The latter was made into a slightly creepy, slightly silly movie in 2012.)

They meant a little more to me because in London two years ago I’d stumbled across a White Hart pub in the vicinity of the one Clarke frequented; research shows that this one is modern and Clarke’s hangout was really named the White Horse, but no matter, I wanted to read the book ever since. Hill’s book I bought during that trip at Foyle’s; I used the receipt as my bookmark. Happy sigh.

Clarke’s book was bought used at a Bookmaster in Arizona some six years ago, and “Silverlock” came from a used bookstore of my youth, the Double R Book Nook in Olney, Ill.

All three books have a color in their title, and I have so many more of these that April looks likely to have more “color books.” I’m wrapping up a yellow and have started a green, with a red, a blue and an amber in the wings, and a white, a black, a gold, another blue and another green probably out of reach unless April has 60 days.

Of my two acquisitions this month, the first was a birthday gift and the second was bought at BookPeople in Austin, my first book purchase of 2014. I’m trying to cut down.

What have you been reading? And has anyone read, or even heard of, “Silverlock”? It’s kind of a cult classic, hence the hard-sell introductions in my 1980 edition, but deserves to be better known.

Next month: a riot of color.

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Reading Log: February 2014

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Books acquired: none.

Books read: “Ubik,” “Ubik: The Screenplay,” Philip K. Dick; “Waging Heavy Peace,” Neil Young; “The Swerve,” Stephen Greenblatt; “Stranger Passing,” Joel Sternfeld.

Welcome back to my monthly recap of what I read the previous month, as I navigate among the shocking number of unread books on my shelves and share the results.

As the shortest month, February would have been a good time to devote to extremely short books. Instead, as it was the month before my birthday, I opted to read books friends gave me for my last birthday.

(I’m terrible at reading books gifted to me, I’m ashamed to say, and I could profitably spend five or six months catching up on past gifts stretching back a couple of decades. Well, here’s a month, and that will have to suffice.)

Three of my books this month were gifts: “Ubik: The Screenplay,” “Waging Heavy Peace” and “The Swerve.”

Sensibly, first I read “Ubik,” the novel on which the unproduced screenplay was based. Even more shamefully, this is another of the books I’ve owned since I was a teenager and never read. Is my entire reading life about guilt? Anyway, this month provided an excuse to read it, and I’m glad I did, because it was the best book all month, one of Dick’s wackiest, full of humor and contemporary-seeming concerns about privacy in a world in which telepaths are everywhere.

You know it’s going to be great when a CEO, confronted with a vexing problem, tells his underlings, “I’ll consult my dead wife,” and it’s only page 2. He does it, too: The dead are kept in glass coffins in “moratoriums” — ha! — and awakened upon request for conversation. The plot involves a group of people who find the 1990s fading around them as 1939 re-emerges. Is reality changing, or does it only seem to be changing because they’re actually dead and don’t know it? It’s the usual mind-bending stuff. Dick’s screenplay wasn’t as good as the novel but made for a good companion piece.

Neil Young’s memoir hops around in time and place as the muse takes him. Similar to Dylan’s “Chronicles,” in that it’s not a straight autobiography but a book that focuses on random moments; dissimilar, in that it’s shaggy, off-the-cuff, overlong and kind of a mess. Young comes off as a big dork with his Lionel trains and other geeky projects and yet as far more normal than you’d expect. Refreshingly relaxed, but at 500 pages, maybe too relaxed. A sequel is promised/threatened.

I’d never heard of Lucretius or his poem “On the Nature of Things,” so everything in “The Swerve” was new to me. Yes, yes, the subtitle (“How the World Became Modern”) is awfully bold, but then, it’s a subtitle, meant to hook you to buy the book. Personally, I got the book as a gift (maybe the subtitle hooked the friend who bought it for me) and, as it’s not the sort of thing I normally read, I was dubious. But I’m glad I read it: It was fascinating.

Lastly, “Stranger Passing” was loaned to me by a friend last month. Random-seeming portraits of people around the country, doing whatever it was they were doing: shopping, sitting, buying gas, nursing a child. The individual photos didn’t make an impression on me, but collectively it’s a portrait of America. All the subjects retain a certain dignity, even the shopping cart wrangler on the cover.

(That book was so large I couldn’t fit it flat on a shelf for the obligatory spine photo, so I propped it up. The weird cover deserves to be seen again anyway.)

So that was my February in books. How was yours? As always, you’re encouraged to share your own reading below.

Next month: 31 days of colorful books, i.e., with a color in their title.

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Column: Betsy-Tacy writer embraced Claremont and her fans

Sunday’s column follows up Wednesday’s, on Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy children’s books, by recounting her years as a Claremont resident, from 1954 to her death in 1980, and gathering up stories from a couple of people who met her. They contacted me after my Jan. 1 column asking for information about her. I’m glad I did, because this whole thing worked beautifully.

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