Stories of hope, community and social justice from LA’s bookstores

Margot Heron/The Occidental

Throughout the pandemic, LA’s bookstores have closed, transitioned to curbside pickup and finally, partially reopened. Despite financial stress and other pandemic-related challenges, the bookstores in and surrounding NELA have continued to serve their communities in various ways.

While reduced sales have briefly threatened to close Vroman’s Bookstore in September, Skylight Books has sold books online and in-person throughout the pandemic. Alias Books East stopped selling books completely after closing its doors in March before opening up again in May for customers to browse through their stacks of used books in-person. Meanwhile, Pop-Hop bookstore opened in July and has reimagined  its role in the community by adopting a nonprofit revenue model.

Vroman’s Bookstore: ‘An overwhelming and heartwarming response’

Since its foundation in 1894, Vroman’s has sold books and hosted a variety of literary events in Pasadena. According to Vroman’s chair and majority owner Joel Sheldon ’66, the pandemic has been the most difficult period in Vroman’s 126-year history. Between March and August, Vroman’s sales fell by approximately 40 percent.

“In late September we announced to the public that unless our sales improved, we were not sure that we could get to 2021,” Sheldon said. “We announced to the public that we needed their support and help — largely by shopping with us again — and since that time, there’s been an overwhelming and heartwarming response.”

The community responded to the shop’s calls for help, according to Sheldon. In the last four weeks, sales have exceeded the seasonal revenue in previous years. 

However, Vroman’s has had some difficulties fulfilling the orders that were placed online.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Sheldon said. “We’re not at all structured to process that type of business, so we’re weeks behind on delivering on those orders.”

Skylight Books on meeting the demand for racial justice titles

Skylight Books has been open since 1996 on the former site of Chatterton’s Bookstore in the shadow of Griffith Park. According to Steven Salardino, manager and partial owner of Skylight, it has two storefronts on North Vermont Avenue and carries a wide variety of books.

Skylight closed for a month and a half due to the pandemic, but still fulfilled online orders with the help of a distributor. Luckily, Salardino said, Skylight was able to pay its employees during the closure through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program loan for small businesses. Skylight is currently open with a maximum capacity of 10 masked customers.

According to Salardino, Skylight experienced a large influx of orders for books on racial justice, Black history and other titles related to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests following the death of George Floyd.

“Some of the most popular books were older classics that we might sell like 25 copies a year, and now we’re getting 100 copies of the book ordered a week,” Salardino said.

According to Salardino, the publishers and printers were unable to supply those titles, because those businesses were also forced to close during the pandemic preceding a sharp increase in demand for certain books.

“People were talking about how hard it was to get toilet paper, how hard it was to get groceries, but those kinds of things came back right away,” Salardino said. “A lot of books were behind schedule and the orders had to wait three or four weeks.”

Alias Books East, a ‘labor of love’

Alias Books East is a 1,200-square-foot used bookstore in Atwater Village. According to the owner Patrick Paeper, the bookstore does not sell any books online and instead relies on customers browsing and buying books in-person. 

The offline business model of Alias Books East has been especially difficult to maintain throughout the pandemic. According to Paeper, his store would have gone out of business if his landlord had not recently cut his rent in half. 

While used bookstores like Alias Books East do not rely on author or community events to promote new releases, Paeper said used bookstores attract a special community of book lovers.

“It’s about coming across super interesting things that I wouldn’t be thinking of so to speak,” Paeper said. “If you’re just ordering off a list of best sellers — there’s nothing wrong with it — but it does limit you somewhat. There’s just so much out there, and it’s a lot of fun to come across things that that you either weren’t thinking that or were things that you’ve never seen before.”

Paeper said his customers appreciate the store’s variety, quick turnover of inventory and the experience of browsing. His customers also value the material quality and specific editions of books, which make individual used copies special. Older editions include different paper stock and illustrations. They also smell and feel different, Paeper said.

“They become less replaceable,” Paeper said. “When some books have been around for hundreds of years, they’re pretty special in that sense.”

According to Paeper, while the pandemic has been financially stressful for his bookstore, there has been a silver lining. Before the pandemic, Paeper kept his store open for nine to 10 hours each day, but now it is only open for six hours. Paeper does not foresee ever going back to the longer hours.

“I’m really happy about that, because I’m able to spend more time with my kids and show up for dinners that I wasn’t able to before. I put so much time and energy into the store, and it’s a labor of love,” Paeper said. “COVID allowed me to step away from it and see the things that are truly important.” 

‘Knowledge is going to move a revolution’: Pop-Hop nonprofit bookstore

This July, Pop-Hop on York Boulevard reopened as a nonprofit bookstore, specializing in social justice, community education and the arts. A group of four artists and educators took over the bookstore in July from its former owner Robey Clark who ran it for the past 10 years. Rosario Calatayud-Serna, one of the current owners, said the group has been reimagining what a bookstore can be and how it can best serve their community. 

According to Calatayud-Serna, Pop-Hop will continue to carry books, but its inventory is shifting to specialize in social justice, art and education materials. When it is able to do so, the shop will also host events to educate the community and amplify marginalized voices.

“We all carry this idea that knowledge is going to move a revolution,” Calatayud-Serna said. “Our collective, we want to hold space for POC, and for artists and for marginalized voices. That’s really what we want the space for.”

In order to fulfill their goals of social justice and to provide a space for community education and organizing, the new owners have transitioned to a nonprofit revenue model. According to Calatayud-Serna, this allows the shop to take donations, benefit from tax incentives and apply for grants to support events while maintaining some income from selling books, zines and artisan goods. 

PopHop also sells books online through Bookshop, which is an organization that works with individual bookstores to send books to customers. Pop-Hop has its own page with book lists that customers can order from. According to Calatayud-Serna, Bookshop is especially helpful for small stores that can not afford to hold inventory.

“I think the community is constantly changing,” Calatayud-Serna said. “And community should be constantly changing — but changing in a way where we recognize the past, and we’re able to move forward understanding what the past means in the present and for the future.”