‘People need books’: NELA couple keeps the doors open at Read Books

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read books
Sign of Read Books store on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 27, 2022. Avery Ferrier/The Occidental

Read Books, which owners Jeremy and Debbie Kaplan said can be pronounced either ‘red’ or ‘reed,’ is a small secondhand book store tucked next to a psychology clinic on Eagle Rock Boulevard. It is a cozy space, and every surface is home to an organized stack of books. Signs on the shelves advertise sections dedicated to philosophy, fiction and art, while the owners’ dog, Florence, sleeps beneath the bestsellers. The Kaplans founded Read Books in 2007, and said the ongoing financial crisis made it a scary time to open a business.

“Everyone thought we were crazy,” Debbie Kaplan said.

Despite the risks, the Kaplans said they were drawn to the idea of owning their own bookshop. They said neither of them wanted to have or be bosses, and owning their own business would allow them to live comfortably while doing something they enjoyed. Their only employees are their sons, who work at Read Books occasionally, they said.

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Shelves inside Read Books on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 27, 2022. Avery Ferrier/The Occidental

“We had both worked at bookstores before and actually met each other working at Book Soup,” Jeremy Kaplan said. “So we both spent a lot of time in used bookstores and had a good idea of what kind of bookstore we liked.”

The Kaplans said their experiences with bookshops guided their vision. Rather than selling every used book that comes their way, the Kaplans said they try to offer quality books people actually want to read.

“The size of the place meant we had to make decisions about what we carry, since used bookstores tend to have a ton of books, but a lot of it is stuff no one particularly wants,” Debbie Kaplan said. “Our plan was to not have that, and just have good books.”

This means the shop has prioritized providing great books over the aesthetics of the space, something the Kaplans said they appreciate in bookstores they visit.

“It’s about the content more than anything else, because some stores specialize in certain things, while other stores look cool — which, I guess, is better for Instagram. But that’s not [what] we were ever interested in,” Jeremy Kaplan said. “Every once and a while someone says, ‘You remind me of a really, really small Powell’s.’ I’ll take that.”

Customer Ely Henry said he appreciates the Kaplans’ commitment to providing quality materials.

“I’m a sucker for a charming neighborhood bookstore, and Read Books is one of the best,” Henry said. “They got so much of what you might be looking for and then a whole bunch of weird and wonderful books you didn’t know you needed to find.”

The Kaplans said they have developed a consistent customer base over the past 16 years, but that newcomers are also discovering the shop — some, even, that live close by.

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Shelves inside Read Books on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 27, 2022. Avery Ferrier/The Occidental

“We have a fair amount of people come in and say ‘I didn’t know you were here!’ And they live in the neighborhood,” Debbie Kaplan said. “Book people tend to seek out bookstores, so they usually eventually find us.”

After COVID-19 caused many businesses to pause in-person sales, the Kaplans said they transitioned their focus online. According to the Kaplans, while they had offered online shopping beforehand, sales increased once the pandemic started.

“A lot of people started going to used bookstores more conscientiously because people started thinking, ‘Who do I want to support to make sure they’re still around?'” Jeremy Kaplan said. “We had a lot less people coming in, but a lot more people buying stuff.”

The Kaplans said they also saw a boost in sales during the summer of 2020, following increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. Read Books had sections dedicated to Black history and many books written by Black authors, the Kaplans said.

“People wanted to educate themselves,” Debbie Kaplan said.

Going forward, the Kaplans said they plan to keep doing what they do best. While they are open to hosting events in the shop, their main focus is on continuing to provide book people with good books.

“There’s not enough bookstores! People need books,” Debbie Kaplan said.

Henry said that people especially need the unique selection of used books that stores like Read Books offer.

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Shelves inside Read Books on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 27, 2022. Avery Ferrier/The Occidental

“I think that’s what makes used bookstores so special — they’re full of all kinds of incredible things that once meant so much to someone, that can now find new life with another person. It’s beautiful, damnit!” Henry said.

The Kaplans said they remain committed to keeping the specialness of used bookstores alive.

“Used bookstores are never going to be about the majority of people because if they were, we would be rich,” Jeremy Kaplan said. “We wanted to preserve something that was kind of fading away, since people still need that.”

Read Books, 4972 Eagle Rock Blvd., Los Angeles, is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Contact Eliza Kirk at ekirk@oxy.edu.