“Bookmen and Their Brothels: Recollections of Los Angeles in the 1930s” by Ward Ritchie recently showed up on EBay for too much money, so I borrowed a copy through interlibrary loan and spent a happy hour or so reading what was presumably the transcript of a speech to the Zamorano Club.
“Bookmen” is a splendid little item of 42 pages printed by Grant Dahlstrom in 1970 and evokes what must seem an improbable time when people cared about custom printing and binding – rather than a Kindle with generic fonts.
Dawson’s Bookshop on Grand Avenue in 1939.
Ritchie (d. 1996) is probably one of the best-known printers and bibliophiles in Los Angeles, operating the Ward Ritchie Press from 1932 to 1974. In “Bookmen,” Ritchie describes an era in which a few blocks of downtown Los Angeles – West 6th Street from Grand Avenue nearly to Figueroa – was a sort of bookstore district, a mecca for dealers, collectors and authors.
“Bookmen” portrays bibliophiles in all their quirky glory, including Ernest Dawson’s tidy shop at Wilshire and Grand and the disheveled mayhem of David Kohn’s Curio Book Shop, “where a hundred thousand books were crammed helter-skelter in bins, piled on the floor, stacked in the basement, with only a bare semblance of order.”
To page through this pleasant little volume is to be reminded of long-ago meetings of men (and they were all men) discussing books and history over dinner and drinks – lots of drinks.
One of the more entertaining tales involves the Zamorano Club, a group of bibliophiles named after Agustin V. Zamorano, who brought the first printing press to California. The club established its headquarters in the Alexandria Hotel (remodeling Rooms 484 and 485 into one room) only to be displaced by damage from the Long Beach earthquake.
Another involves Ernest Dawson’s practice of cutting prices on books that had been on the shelf more than six months, and cutting the price again if the book still didn’t sell. “Inevitably, this also led to a game of waiting, watching and returning as often as possible to check on those books which one might want but thought might again be a victim of Father Dawson’s price cutting pencil,” Ritchie says. “This game of wits was sometimes paid off, but often a less patient book-watcher spoiled the game by buying the book one was patiently stalking.”
Jake Zeitlin’s shop at 614 W. 6th St., 1936. Interior by Lloyd Wright.
About the “brothels” in the title. Ritchie may have been devoted to the vanishing art of the small press, but he certainly was far ahead of his time in search engine optimization.
Here are the opening pages courtesy of the optical character recognition software on my scanner:
In the 1930sLos Angeles was not exactly a small town, but it had an intimacy which the subsequent years have lost. There was such a concentration of businesses that one could run into a dozen acquaintances while walking no more than a few blocks. The big red Pacific Electric cars brought shoppers from miles around and the yellow street cars crisscrossed the city, all leading to the area we called "downtown."
To me the heart was where the bookstores were. Along with a few bars, and some mangy upstairs hotels of questionable morality, they lined both sides of west 6th Street from Grand Avenue nearly to Figueroa. A few shops hung on the fringes, such as Dawson's, a block away at the corner of Wilshire and Grand, and Louis Epstein's bookstore over on 8th Street. A half a million books or more were to be seen within this area of a few blocks and booklovers flocked to the lure. There was variety in both books and establishments.
For instance, in Ralph Howie's little English nook one could sink into a soft leather chair and chat about books while stroking a binding by Cobden-Sanderson or looking at the pages of an edition printed by Giambattista Bodoni. Each book was in its place, immaculate and carefully chosen. Or up the street a block one could gingerly slip into David Kohn's Curio Book Shop where a hundred thousand books were crammed helter skelter in bins, piled on the floor, stacked in the basement, with only a bare semblance of order. It was a grimy job searching here for a treasure, since more than a decade of dust was mingled with the books; but for the hunter it was a delightful challenge. No one could possibly anticipate what might be discovered in this melange. Kohn usually stood noncommittally in the doorway, hat pulled down to his ears, seemingly uninterested, while emitting an occasional eructation that echoed down the canyon of 6th Street and created minor disturbances in the hotel cribs on the upstairs floors.
Mingled with these shops were Bunster Creeley's Abbey Bookshop, Ben Epstein's Argonaut, Borden's, Rodger's, Lofland's, Holmes's huge emporium of books and several incidental shops whose names I have long forgotten, and, of course, Jake Zeitlin's bookshop and gallery.
The aficionados of books were regular visitors to most of these shops but there gradually developed a division of affection that found the serious, older and Californiana collectors gathering around "Club" Dawson while the younger writers, artists, and printers loitered at "Club" Zeitlin.