A Letter from America I: A Visit to Los Angeles (February)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

Two of my greatest literary heroes are the American sporting journalist Col. John T. Stingo and the incomparable Irish essayist Myles Na Gopaleen. Not that I’m fit to walk in their shoes, but I will attempt to inform the reader in the fine direct style these men cultivated. I have always wanted a column of my own, but up to this point no one was so rash as to offer me the space. In the past, when I wanted to propagate my dogma, I was forced to either buttonhole strangers in my booth at book fairs or to fall back on a captive audience and issue catalogues. Besides a lavish expense account and walking around money, my editors promise to take me to lunch whenever I come to London . I think this is very handsome of them, but want it clearly understood that Pret et Manger is not an acceptable venue. There is an odd tradition in a certain sort of American bookseller’s catalogue of prefacing the offerings with a short essay of embarrassing or painful personal events or reflections which have overtaken said booksellers. These range from the sad but inevitable (old dog died) to the shocking (cheerful admission of assaulting postman). No such ghastly personal revelations will you find here. I hope to inform the reader about other people’s horrible fates, not my own.

In any case, our theme this month is Los Angeles and the ABAA fair, which will return to its venue of two years ago at the Airport Marriott Hotel. In most other cities the notion of a fair next to the airport would hardly be an inspiring one, but in fact it works very well in L.A. Everybody in town who has any money knows how to get to the airport, the hotel is right off Interstate 405, and it is easy to park. This is really all that matters to Angelenos; the main prejudice of people who live in a "good" part of L.A. is that they not be asked to go to a "bad" part of L.A. This came home forcefully four years ago, when the fair was held at the convention center south of downtown, a bleak and windswept area where the affluent generally chose not to risk their Jaguars. But the airport is a neutral zone, and everybody goes there. The Marriott is also superior to the Hilton up the street, where the Fair was six years ago and further back. The valet parkers at the Hilton stole our rental car one evening (presumably to make a drug run to Tijuana ) and it only turned up again the next morning, with an extra two hundred miles on the speedometer. The Marriott, a good Mormon hotel chain, does not countenance such antics.

The European visitor to the Fair will of course want to get out and see the L.A. book scene. The linchpin of the trade in town is, of course, the Heritage Book Shop on Melrose , presided over by Lou Weinstein. Heritage has regularly been a leading bidder at the major auctions (indeed the Abel Berland sale last October would have been a pretty dismal event for Christie’s if Mr. Weinstein had not been in attendance, buying a large chunk of it and pushing the First Folio to its towering price of $5.6 million). This is reflected in its large and diverse stock. I visited on a quiet day last August. Coming up the driveway (they offer free parking to customers but I don’t like to feel obligated, so I parked at a meter) I passed a famous rock star of the gothic mode leaving, clutching a copy of DRACULA, the morbid colors of its binding and dust jacket mirrored in his skin tone. Things like this don’t happen back East, and in London only in the stores of Mr. Simon Finch.

A must-see for anyone who has not been there is the Huntington Library in San Marino . Besides its function as a research library, there are numerous exhibits. The Library always has a permanent display of its treasures which is entertaining at about any level of bookish appreciation, as well as a revolving exhibition in a gallery next door. Amazingly enough, the show that will be up at the time of the fair is one organized and curated by myself (readers of this column must prepare themselves for a lot of self-promotion). It is entitled STAMPED WITH A NATIONAL CHARACTER: NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICAN COLOR PLATE BOOKS, and originally appeared at the Grolier Club in New York in 1999. It is devoted to books with color plates which were actually printed in the Americas from the first such, William Birch’s THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA IN THE YEAR 1800, issued in the same year and place, through the eras of aquatint, lithography, and chromolithography, to the beginning of the color half-tone at the end of the century. Besides this treat, there are two separate exhibition pavilions, the Art Gallery and its permanent collection, and the quite amazing plantings and rock garden. This last is what really draws the locals (you didn’t think they would come to look at the books, did you?).

Although there are few books to see there, except a few illuminated manuscripts, the other must-see is the Getty Museum , perched high atop the hills in Brentwood like a very expensive fortress. Go if only to see what a billion dollars will buy you in architecture; the painting collections are almost beside the point. If you can’t get a parking reservation, show up early and you’ll probably get in. The extraordinary view is a good opportunity to muse on how many great books one could buy with all that money. Then hop on the 405 and roll on down to the book fair.

- William Reese