L.A.’s last used bookstore west of the 405 may soon disappear after 32 years on Venice Boulevard
By Jeffrey Stanton
Stanton is a local historian and author of the book “Venice, California — Coney Island of the Pacific.”
Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop, a quiet fixture of Mar Vista’s business district for more than three decades, is in danger of going out of business soon — yet another casualty of L.A.’s increasing real estate costs and changing book-buying habits in the digital age.
Similar to the way that lack of access to grocery stores creates “food deserts” in some economically challenged neighborhoods, the disappearance of Sam: Johnson’s would create a used bookstore desert throughout a culturally and economically significant portion of Los Angeles. While Angel City Bookstore hangs on in Santa Monica’s Ocean Park neighborhood and there are other local retailers that focus on new books, there would no longer be a single used bookstore in all of Venice, Mar Vista, Del Rey, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista or Westchester — home to well over 100,000 residents.
Why do used bookstores matter? For one, they are a resource for those seeking out-of-print books that national chain retailers don’t sell. Sam: Johnson’s specializes in classic literature, history, art, architecture, photography, science fiction, motion picture history, music, religion, children’s books (both classics and illustrated), and cookbooks. It is also one of the few places that buys books, but they have to be in excellent condition and relevant to those specialty categories.
Sam: Johnson’s is named after the man who created the first English dictionary in 1755, when he would have used a colon to abbreviate Samuel. The shop itself has been in the same location at 12310 Venice Blvd. since 1987; in the 1950s the building housed the Mar Vista branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Childhood friends Larry Myers and Robert Klein, who were partners in a bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A., relocated here after their landlord kept raising the rent. Myers, now 79 (and whose long-term illness is not helping the viability of Sam: Johnson’s) thought it was a bad location and didn’t contribute to the down payment, so although the store paid the mortgage, his name wasn’t on the deed. Klein, who taught English at Santa Monica College and wrote several fiction books, died of a stroke two years ago.
Klein left his half of the bookstore to Myers, but he left the building to a friend. After a year-long probate, the new owner began charging rent roughly a year ago — about $4,000 a month. Though that figure is significantly less than commercial rates in the vicinity, it’s a substantial burden for a used bookstore.
On Tuesday, the mathematics of Sam: Johnson’s survival went from challenging to worse: the building, valued in excess of $1.5 million, now has a “for sale” sign on it.
Sam: Johnson’s is currently run by dedicated longtime employees David Benesty and Mike Stearnes, who work increasingly long hours for reduced salaries. The store is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. It had been closed on Tuesdays, but now Stearnes is volunteering without compensation to keep the store open on Tuesdays in hopes of increasing overall sales.
Customers vary from curious browsers visiting for the first time, others looking for a particular book, and some who hang out for more than an hour — many of them buying nothing, as if it were still a library. I’m told about half of those who walk in make a purchase, which averages out to about 10 customers a day. Many longtime customers are downsizing their libraries and only wish to sell books, which isn’t helping the bottom line.
Some customers think they can find better prices on Amazon or Amazon-owned Abebooks, but prices are often based on condition, and buyers are often unsatisfied to receive tattered or marked up books rather than the well cared for copies at a used bookstore like Sam: Johnson’s. It’s always best to see a book before you buy it.
Now that the building is up for sale, it looks like Sam: Johnson’s best hope for survival is a buyer or benefactor willing to invest in keeping used bookstores alive. In the meantime, I hope that raising awareness of the bookshop’s challenges might convince new and old customers to say hello and make a purchase.
Otherwise, it won’t be long before it’s too late to even say goodbye.