The four new owners of Pop-Hop in Highland Park, including Jonathan Hinton (above), are reimagining how the bookstore can best serve the community. | Photo by T.A. Hendrickson

Stories of hope, community and social justice from NELA’s bookstores

2020 Editions Front Page More News November

By River Lisius

Throughout the pandemic, bookstores in Los Angeles have closed, transitioned to curbside pickup and finally, partially reopened. Despite financial stress and other pandemic-related challenges, the bookstores in and near NELA have continued to serve their communities in troubling times.

Here’s a rundown:

Pop-Hop| Highland Park: “Knowledge is going to move a revolution”

This July, Pop-Hop on York Boulevard reopened as a nonprofit bookstore, specializing in social justice, community education and the arts. A group of four artists and educators took over the bookstore in July from its former owner, Robey Clark, who ran it for the past 10 years. Rosario Calatayud-Serna, one of the current owners, said the group has been reimagining what a bookstore can be and how it can best serve their community. 

Selections on a bookshelf at Pop-Hop | Photo by T.A. Hendrickson

According to Calatayud-Serna, Pop-Hop’s inventory is shifting to specialize in social justice, art and education materials. When it’s safe to gather publicly again, the shop will also host events to educate the community and amplify marginalized voices.

“We all carry this idea that knowledge is going to move a revolution,” Calatayud-Serna said. “Our collective, we want to hold space for POC [people of color], and for artists and for marginalized voices. That’s really what we want the space for.”

The nonprofit revenue model fits Pop-Hop’s goals. According to Calatayud-Serna, the shop will take donations, benefit from tax incentives and apply for grants to support events while maintaining some income from selling books, zines and artisan goods. 

PopHop also sells books online through Bookshop, an organization that works with individual bookstores to send books to customers. Pop-Hop has its own page with book lists that customers can order from.

“I think the community is constantly changing,” Calatayud-Serna said. “And community should be constantly changing — but changing in a way where we recognize the past, and we’re able to move forward understanding what the past means in the present and for the future.”

READ Books | Eagle Rock: Time to “slow down and think”

At READ Books, a general used bookstore on Eagle Rock Boulevard, business suffered in the initial weeks of the shutdown, as browsing the store’s floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall offerings became impossible, according to owner Jeremy Kaplan, who opened the store with his wife, Debbie Kaplan, 2008.

Jeremy Kaplan, owner of READ Books, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling inventory of used books. | Photo by T. A. Hendrickson

But the store adapted by offering curbside pickup, home delivery and in-store shopping by appointment. In addition, the store has been buoyed in unexpected ways, said Kaplan.

While fewer people are able to shop at the store, those who do tend to buy more than they did before the pandemic, he said, noting, “We have certainly experienced a recent uptick in customers who have been vocal about wanting to support local businesses.”

Moreover, following the death of George Floyd, READ received many requests for African-American literature, ranging from essays to classic fiction to science fiction. Kaplan said the shop was able to accommodate the surge in demand because the store’s collection has always contained many books of this type.

“One boon of the COVID shutdown has been the opportunity afforded to us to slow down and think about matters other than work and stimulation,” Kaplan said via email. “This accounts in large part for the sudden, mass engagement of the general populous in BLM, as well as a rethinking amongst some individuals about how they want to spend their money.”

Alias Books East | Atwater Village:  A “labor of love”

Alias Books East, a 1,200-square-foot used bookstore in Atwater Village, does not sell books online, relying instead on customers browsing and buying books in-person.

For Patrick Paeper, owner of Alias Books East, in Atwater Village, the store is a “labor of love.” | Photo by T. A. Hendrickson

That business model has obviously been difficult to maintain during the pandemic, but Alias has gotten by with a little help from its friends and customers – and its landlord, who recently cut the rent by half, said owner Patrick Paeper. (The L.A. County reopening guidelines list bookstores as “lower-risk retail” operations that can reopen with safety protocols in place.)

Paeper’s goal is to preserve the special community of book lovers who are attracted to used bookstores, where browsers routinely come across books and topics and ideas they have not encountered before.

“If you’re just ordering off a list of best sellers — there’s nothing wrong with it — but it does limit you somewhat,” said Paeper. “There’s just so much out there,” he said, adding that “it’s a lot of fun” to uncover things you haven’t previously thought about or seen.

Used book stores also attract customers who value the material quality of books and specific editions, said Paeper. Older editions include different paper stock and illustrations. They also smell and feel different, he said.

While the pandemic has been financially stressful for Alias Books East, there has been a silver lining, said Paeper. Before the pandemic, he kept his store open for nine to 10 hours each day, but now it is only open for six hours. Paeper does not foresee going back to the longer hours.

“I’m really happy about that, because I’m able to spend more time with my kids and show up for dinners that I wasn’t able to before,” said Paeper. “I put so much time and energy into the store, and it’s a labor of love. COVID allowed me to step away from it and see the things that are truly important.”

River Lisius, a junior at Occidental College, is a participant in the NELA Neighborhood Reporting Partnership, a collaboration between the Boulevard Sentinel and The Occidental campus newspaper.