Sunday, May 6, 2007

Will the Real Los Angeles Please Stand Up?

Thinking about used bookshops in Los Angeles this past week, I was drawn back in memory to a legendary book store next door to the equally legendary Musso & Frank's Restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. Pickwick Books was what Paradise would be like if Paradise had any sense at all. Owned and run by Louis Epstein, the paradigm of a book man, Pickwick existed on three floors, the top being current titles, the second level being rare and unusual books, and the third a catch-all for used books, remainders, bargains, and things Louis Epstein simply did not know what to do with.

A sincere, no-nonsense independent book store, Pickwick exuded a gritty, writer-oriented personality. The only thing remotely like it today is the ambitious, personable sprawl that is Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon.

Long before I came to see Pickwick Books as a microcosm of the entire American Book Trade, I spent enough time there to befriend its two mainstay sales persons, the elaborately mustached Guy Thompson, and the ruddy-faced, bow-tie-wearing Lloyd Harkema. In a complex set of arrangements, Thompson, a splendid amateur magician, got me an associate membership at the equally legendary Magic Castle. Harkema confessed to me one of the sadder stories I'd heard about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dividing his time between the bar at Musso & Frank's and The Garden of Allah, Fitzgerald drank his way through the frustrations and humiliation of his life in Hollywood, lurching in to Pickwich one afternoon in search of a copy of arguably his best work, The Great Gatsby.

The salesperson did not recognize Fitzgerald and thus, when asked if The Great Gatsby were in stock, shook his head and said, "We don't stock the work of dead authors on this floor. You'll have to try upstairs."

Harkema shook his head, still sad at the memory. "I was that sales person."

I learned later what a disastrous effect being thought dead had on Fitzgerals. Some years later, through Lloyd Harkema, I was sent to The Garden of Allah along with a dear chum, Bob English, a preternaturally impish and fast-on his feet editor of the humor magazine at UCLA. We spent the afternoon with a man named Ted Paramore, who claimed close personal ties to Fitzgerals, and who told tales of drinking, revenge, and Hollywood excesses that seemed so absurd we began to suspect Lloyd Harkema of having us on.

Reeling out into the late Sunset Boulevard afternoon, our senses of balance and perspective impaired by the scotch whisky Paramore had finessed on us while taking none himself, we headed to Pickwick, where Harkema gave us each paperback copies of The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald's follow-up novel to This Side of Paradise. There, among the names of characters who appeared in the novel, was Edward "Ted" Paramore, Jr. Our informant may have stretched some truths here and there, but he just as well may have not; he certainly knew Fitzgerald and provided us with yet another link to a man both English and I admired.

Years later, when I was editor at the Los Angeles-based Sherbourne Press, both Louis Epstein and his son Aaron reminded me of the tradition in New York publishing houses where any editor who hoped to advance in the trade worked at least two weeks a year at a book store. I tried to counter with my years of having been a shelver at the Beverly Hills Public Library, but neither Epstein considered that sufficient. And so my evenings and week-ends were taken, but even more, so also was my sense that the magic of books was a lifelong affliction.

There are not many independent bookstores left, even fewer of the likes of Pickwick, where Fitzgerald was presumed to have died, where such as Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, the sadly forgotten John Fante and John Sanford went to buy their books, and where, to my great sense of satisfaction, an occasional window display featured books I had acquired, edited, and brought to the same kind of reel and stagger Bob English and I experienced that late afternoon coming out into the parking lot of the Garden of Allah.


Anonymous said...

this is fascinating! My father was a screenwriter and on Saturdays we had lunch at Musso and Frank and then he used to take me to the Pickwick book store with him. He would let me choose a book and then we went to the back where he spent several hours talking to the other writers who gathered there. I remember a lot of them very well - including Ted Paramore, who was a friend of my family. I am now a writer myself, working on a novel set in Hollywood during the Forties and Fifties. This certainly brought it all back.
By the way, John Fante's work may be tragically forgotten, but not by me.

Unknown said...

I just found this site and I still sing the praises of that marvelous bookstore although I haven't worked in a bookstore for over thirty years. Louis Epstein was a man to honor. My mustache and the magical dexterity are both lost in the past and infulaI remain today, Guy Thompson, deipnosophist and curmudgeon.

Bob Higley said...

Ted Paramore and the Paramore family are featured in Edmund Wilson's 'The Twenties' which includes a fine obituary for Ted Paramore's father and a visit by Wilson to the Paramore family in Santa Barbara.