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A Portal To Other Worlds: Inside The Last Bookstore In Los Angeles

This independent bookstore in Downtown LA may have only opened in 2005, but inside its unique book vaults and tunnels, and curious nooks and crannies, you'll find endless new ways to travel beyond time and space, to countless other worlds.

The first time I ever read C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, I was awestruck. I've always loved a good portal fantasy, yet I could never quite place why they spoke to me so much until I got a little older and made the connection: it's because that's what reading represents to me. What is a book, after all, if not a gateway to another world? I once read a meme that said reading is, essentially, staring at a piece of dead tree and hallucinating - and it cracked me up, because it kind of is. The fact that we are able to simply put symbols and splodges of ink on a page in the form of words, and that those allow brand new lands, imagined worlds, and entire universes created out of the creative power of the mind's eye - and that this is shared between the author and reader, and all fellow readers who fall into it too - is truly some kind of magic. It's no wonder they call it "spelling", eh?

In The Magician's Nephew, a series of mysterious events causes the main character, Digory Kirke, to wind up in a mysterious sleepy woodland. All around the landscape are pools, of every size and shape - and he soon realizes that each pool leads to its own separate universe (one of which is 1900s London, where he had come from). I won't give you any more spoilers if you haven't read it, but the point here is that the woodland is revealed to be a "wood between the worlds". In our reality, this draws parallels with a library or a bookstore, with each of these pools representing a book - after all, diving into one can not only help to immerse us in a great story, but actually transport us to another world. There is something about a great bookstore that really stirs the soul of a book-lover or story-lover, and it's because a great bookstore is a gateway to countless other universes. Each one is filled with endless opportunities filled with imagination, adventure, emotional ups and downs, and, usually, hope.

It's one of the reasons why I - and many others like me - have found the slow decline of the independent bookstore (and the secondhand bookstore) to be so tragic. Struggling to keep up against everything from big chain retailers to online options like e-tailers, not to mention illegal shares and downloads of books for free (that's a whole other kettle of fish), the independent bookstore can still survive in this day and age, but it has to have a really strong hook, be that a super unique identity or a great niche. And The Last Bookstore - an independent book store in Downtown Los Angeles - has both of those, in spades.

I love the convenience of online shopping as much as the next person, and although it took me about two decades to finally give in, I do now admit that audiobooks have their time and place (in my case, it's when I'm really busy, and grateful that I can at least listen to the books I've really wanted to consume while I'm walking or driving somewhere). However, I still firmly believe there is just no substitute for going to an actual, physical bookstore: no matter how good an algorithm is, or how many curated picks I receive over email, there are few better ways to discover a great new book, author, genre, or something that will wow and excite you.

When I was 15, I worked at an Oxfam charity shop while visiting my sister in Oxford in the UK over the summers. My favourite thing about that job was the days I was assigned to the book floor, where in the quiet hours between customers, I could peruse the stacked shelves. I discovered greats that I'd likely never have stumbled across otherwise like Phyllis Eisenstein's The Crystal Palace, along with classics that I'd loved as a child, like Willo Davis Roberts' The Girl With The Silver Eyes. To me, that tiny shop floor was a world between worlds - and that's also how I felt when I visited The Last Bookstore.

The shop itself has an inspiring story - its founder, Josh Spencer, was left paralysed in a traffic accident when he was only 21 years old, and in the chapters of his life that followed, his childhood love for books eventually led him down his new path. In its initial form, this bookstore was simply Josh selling books out of his Downtown LA apartment, to help pay the bills when he struggled to find a job due to his disability. In 2009, a friend convinced him to open up a brick-and-mortar shop, and by 2011, that 1,000 square-foot space was transmuted into the 22,000 sq ft space that it occupies today. And it is clear, in every single nook and cranny of this store, that the people behind it are people who love books, love reading, and truly appreciate the power of a great tale.

While they aren't technically the last bookstore in the world (phew), they are, according to their website, the largest new and used bookstore in California. When you walk in, there's a Rare Book Annex to the left, where I found a limited-edition copy of The Lord Of The Rings that I'm still dreaming about to this day. If only I could have fit it into my suitcase, let alone my budget - but honestly, it was much more affordable than what I thought it would be. Walking into that room was like discovering a treasure trove of delightful surprises, and as my friend Fifi - an LA-dweller who had kindly driven me there, and loved it as much as I did - and I walked past the glass cabinets containing the really special stuff, we let out audible gasp after gasp.

The rest of the shop is expansive, and if you're heading there for a visit, I suggest you give yourself a solid few hours - we could easily have spent half a day there at least. There's a comic book section, a Sci-Fi section, a horror books section, and sections for every single type of genre you can think of. There's a record store within the store, art studios, craft shops, reading nooks, literal vaults (with books in them, of course), and then there's the decor: the place is a cabinet of curiosities. Going up the staircase from the ground to the first floor will make you feel like you've fallen into a Harry Potter or Alice In Wonderland-esque corner that Salvador Dali would approve of, and you'll find everything from shelves of books arranged in colour-graded order to an entire wall of black- or white-covered tomes. Among the many spots for a great photo op, there are two that are particularly famous: their book circle (a circle cut into a wall of books that you can cheerfully peer through), and their book tunnel - an atmospherically-lit vortex of books that can leave you feeling euphoric. The quirky, artfully-used curios and bric-a-brac made me think that if Helga da Silva Blow Perera - the owner of the wonderfully mad Helga's Folly hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka, who inspired the Stereophonics song "Madame Helga" after founding band member Kelly Jones had stayed there - were to ever open up a bookstore, it'd look a little something like this place.

I was lucky to have my friend drive me there - and even luckier to find a parking spot available in a nearby lot - but there's also metered street parking in the blocks around it, or if you're ready to brave LA's public transport (which can admittedly be a stressful experience, especially in this day and age), the Pershing Square station is a couple of blocks away. There's also Uber, natch. I'm not gonna lie - Downtown LA can come with a sketch reputation and it does have its fair share of crime. The bookstore itself, and the streets directly around it, however, are a beacon of joy, and there is security at the entrance if you're concerned. It might get grim if you wander off too far down into the dodgier streets past it, and act oblivious to what's going on around you, but like venturing out into dodgy-reputation neighborhoods in most big cities anywhere, you should be fine if you keep your wits about you, don't be flashy, and just remain street-smart. The store has even hosted sleepover events in it, which sound like a wildly fun and memorable experience. I mean, getting to spend the night in a really cool bookstore? Sign me up!

It was a bit out of my way and a bit of a drive from the parts of LA that are more well-known for tourism and other more popular attractions, but if you're a book fiend and have the time during a trip to Los Angeles, this epic, one-of-a-kind bookstore is well worth the visit. The building it's housed in is a former bank, and I can't think of a more appropriate use for it than to house and protect the thousands of timeless treasures it currently holds.


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