A community gathers at the Last Bookstore

In a cavernous building in Los Angeles, a massive book depot is the stuff of imagination

Deborah Vankin / Los Angeles Times /

LOS ANGELES — The staircase is narrow and creaky, with a bookshelf made from a 100-year-old harp case teetering on the precipice of collapse at the top of the landing. Overflowing with open books, pages wildly askew and dangling from uneven shelves, the bookcase looks as if it's escaped from a vintage cartoon.

Rolls of yellowed, turn-of-the-century sheet music waft through the air, unfurling from a manual typewriter suspended from the ceiling.

A black-clad young woman, with a prominent pierced dimple and a philosophy book under her arm, slips by on her way up.

She has found the way into the Labyrinth at the Last Bookstore.

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom that says bookstores are dying, the Last Bookstore made headlines in mid-2011 when it opened in a cavernous, 10,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of the former Citizens National Bank Building, now the Spring Arts Tower, in downtown Los Angeles.

More than a year and a half later, the Last Bookstore is not only still around but has expanded upstairs into a maze-like balcony space that's become a communal canvas for local artists. Snaking around the store's periphery, with gilded doors that lead nowhere, an eerily lighted tunnel built out of books and a bank vault turned into a futuristic reading room filled with science fiction and fantasy titles, the Labyrinth annex houses 100,000 used books, each sold for $1. It's a massive, eclectic book depot that feels like a porthole into an alternate universe designed by H.G. Wells and Dr. Seuss.

“It's almost a post-apocalyptic fantasy of mine,” owner Josh Spencer says about the evolving look of the Last Bookstore. “What if civilization collapsed and there was one bookstore left, what would that look like? I just let my imagination go.”

And so an upstairs light switch in the Labyrinth is embedded in the spine of a hollowed-out dictionary. Time-travel-style portholes peer into an artist's rendition of outer space. A secret passageway leads to a hidden book room.

Into the Labyrinth

The in-progress Labyrinth has captured the imagination of downtown artists, who have been given full rein by Spencer to treat the Labyrinth's battered walls and faded wood floors as an art space. Some of their works are built permanently into the space, such as Dave Lovejoy's installation of tiny figurines and postcards wedged into an 8-inch gap between bookshelves. (“Just something to look at as you're cruising between the shelves,” he says.)

The cartoon-like bookcase is a collaboration between Lovejoy and Jena Priebe, who created the sheet-music installation that floats throughout the store.

“It was, like, 'Oh, our playground!'” says Priebe, who like Lovejoy has a studio in the building. She also created many of the Labyrinth's light installations, including the space ship control panel in the sci-fi room. “It's lent this feeling of community to the building, and it brought a lot of us together.”

That includes downtown artist Robert “Bean” Castaneda, who built many of the Labyrinth's custom bookcases; he also painted the planetarium-like mural on the sci-fi vault's ceiling. Downtown artist Nik Lord created comic-book wallpaper for one area of the Labyrinth and painted a street-art-style mural over it.

“It's a living, breathing, constantly growing thing that we're always adding to,” Spencer says on a recent visit to his modern, Pasadena apartment building. The minimalist concrete courtyard and neatly landscaped grass are a glaring contrast to the antiquated, cultivated chaos of the bookstore.

Sitting by a bench in the apartment's garden, Spencer, 37, is a boyishly handsome, soft-spoken book lover. He grew up in Burlington, N.C., as well as Oahu and Maui and was an avid surfer and collector. “Coins, comics, gemstones, stamps,” he says. “Ever since I was a little kid, I collected something.”

He always thought he'd make a living as a writer. Then, in 1996, he was hit by a car while riding a moped and paralyzed from the waist down.

Being confined to a wheelchair hasn't impeded his sense of adventure. Spencer moved to L.A. in 2001 to make a fresh start. Living in a tiny studio in Santa Monica, he instinctively returned to collecting — this time, books — scouring thrift stores for titles to sell on Amazon and eBay to make rent.

“It was about five years after my accident, and I was still figuring out what to do with my new disability,” he says. “I have an intuitive sense of what's of interest to collectors.”

His online business did so well that in 2005 he moved to a loft downtown, which he maxed out with books. Downtown was bubbling with young, urban adventurers, but there was little to do for entertainment, Spencer says, beyond bars and clubs.

“I wanted to create a community creative space that also happens to be a bookstore,” he says. “There are so many ideas in books, inspirations.”

A rich narrative

The first incarnation of the Last Bookstore opened on Christmas 2009 in a small space on 4th and Main streets; it's now the restaurant Baco Mercat.

What propelled Spencer to expand the store to its current location when the rest of the book publishing industry was seemingly imploding?

“I'm no businessman,” Spencer says with a laugh. “I think in terms of story.”

The narrative in his head was rich. Spencer spent nights in the empty would-be bookstore, staring at its 25-foot-high ceiling and mosaic tile floor, imagining what he might build there.

“I'd sit for hours and feel the room. The pillars, the space, it made me think of Indiana Jones as a professor, a 1920s university lecture hall,” he says. “Also, the movies 'Hellboy,' 'The Rocketeer,' 'Dark City' — that inspired the steampunk, neo-Victorian palette.”

In an ironic twist, Spencer was able to buy inexpensive shelving, books and other fixtures from local Borders bookstores when the chain shut down.

One of the Labyrinth's surprises is the hallway of art studios that book buyers stumble upon when they leave the annex. Art pieces can often be bought directly from the artists, and during downtown's monthly Art Walk, the usually quiet row of studios morphs into a central night life artery clogged with merry art lovers and bar hoppers.

If and how, exactly, the Last Bookstore turns a profit is something of a mystery — its inventory comes mostly for free and Spencer says he got a “very good” deal on rent. Still, the space is massive — now 16,000 square feet with the annex.

“I never intended the bookstore to last forever,” Spencer says. “Maybe it'll go another five years; I don't expect any bookstore to be around in 10. It was more, 'What would it be like to be there in the end?'”

For some, it doesn't matter how Spencer keeps the doors open. Just that he continues to do so.

“It anchors a public bohemian space downtown,” says publisher Tyson Cornell, who runs his Rare Bird Lit out of the building. “Street artists have taken to the place. Creative people congregate here, which is unusual now when people are distancing themselves digitally. It has the potential to be a place that relevant culture comes out of, like City Lights was to the Beats and post-Beats.”

“It seems to mean a lot now, to a lot of people,” Spencer says. “I'm a little bit amazed how grateful people are.”