It has never been easy or instant to find the work of small publishers. Press runs are tiny, distribution is limited, and retailers know they can’t make much off a chapbook or a university press monograph. Even major library systems have pulled curtailed their acquisitions budgets, though browsing the shelves of a metropolitan library like L.A.’s remains a deeply satisfying experience.
Meanwhile, though Amazon has improved its search algorithms over the years, those algorithms are infinitely better for discovering drill bits and cleaning products than books.
Years ago, you’d hear about books, as you do now, through friends – readers & writers both. But to find the unexpected, you’d have to get to a bookstore. Some new bookstores served that purpose exceptionally well: Cody’s in Berkeley, Dutton’s in L.A., iBrowse in the Detroit suburbs. Most of these are gone, though the flagships (Powell’s in Portland, the Strand in NY) thrive, and smaller stores hang on too, particularly if they own the property (Small World on the Venice Boardwalk is my local favorite). For poetry in particular, San Francisco’s City Lights will likely survive, if only because it’s holy ground for that city’s legion of preservationists.
Otherwise, though, you have to mine the used bookstores, navigating the narrow aisles of San Francisco’s Green Apple, the library carts in front of West L.A.’s Sam Johnson’s, the yard-high stacks balancing precariously at Atascadero’s Book Odyssey or the particle board shelving units at just about any Goodwill.
Skylight Books, a Los Feliz institution, is usually out of my way. But today, I took A. & D. to Kaiser Medical Center on Sunset.
Once I dropped them off, I drove up Vermont, saw two empty storefronts, and thought: crap, Skylight is gone too? But no: I was too far north. Skylight was a block behind me, exactly where it was supposed to be.
In the past, I’ve hit Skylight about once a year, usually in the Spring, heading straight to the history and social science sections, and dropping a hundred or more for books I might use in class. Retirement means I’ve got no classes, and no need to think about a high school syllabus.
So I glanced at history, skipped social science entirely, and headed straight for poetry. Skylight’s poetry section is considerably smaller than that of, say, Small World Books (much less City Lights), but the buyers know what they’re doing. Small presses and traditional publishers are both well-represented. Skylight also takes small risks with self-published books, and will shelve chapbooks and new journals on consignment. Four years ago, they displayed one of the chapbooks in my series Seven Cemeteries. It didn’t sell, but I was grateful that Skylight let me take the shot.
Of the three books I bought this time around, I probably could have found two at Small World or Beyond Baroque: Lidija Dimkovska’s pH Neutral History and Gregory Corso’s Happy Birthday of Death. But I’d never have found the third, Bill Berkson’s offbeat Invisible Oligarchs, a daybook written on a tour of Russia.
Amazon really can’t do what a bookstore like Skylight does every day of the week: reward aimlessness.
Back in the mid-90s, when Amazon was first getting started, my friend Eleanor spit at the whole idea. The only way to really dig deep into the world, she said, is through serendipity. You go off-tour when you’re travelling. You introduce yourself to strangers when you’re drinking. And you don’t stop browsing just because you’ve found the book you were looking for: you leaf through others on the same shelf.
I’ll be reading Berkson’s Invisible Oligarchs later this month, and I’ll have Skylight to thank for it.