SoCal Connected on KCET

A Labyrinth of Books, Art, and Records

Original Airdate August 6, 2014

Nic Cha Kim: We're outside one of the best and one of the most unusual bookstores in the U.S. It's called The Last Bookstore. You have to see it to believe it and it's right here in Downtown Los Angeles.

Josh Spencer is the owner and creator. He opened in 2011 inside what used to be the old Crocker National Bank, and it's now 20,000 square feet of used books, new books, dollar books, and art books. Check this out everyone. We're entering a labyrinth of books. Come follow me.

Nic Cha Kim: Your bookstore has a very amazing design to it. It's got this steampunk quality. Did you come up with that?

Josh Spencer: I did actually. It just came out of my imagination. When I was a kid, just being into steampunk type movies and comic books and fantasy novels and things like that.

Josh Spencer: I lived here for several years before I opened it so I knew the neighborhood. I knew the people down here. I knew that they needed something to do. With the resurgence of downtown L.A., there were a lot of young people moving down here looking for creative places to go and hang out.

Nic Cha Kim: Now you can hang out in a bank vault in the crime and horror section. This used to be a bank back in the day?

Josh Spencer: Right. This was built in 1914 and this was one of the main vaults.

Nic Cha Kim: So they used to keep gold bullion here?

Josh Spencer: Right, now we turn books into gold. That's... I like the sound of that.

Nic Cha Kim: How did you get started selling books?

Josh Spencer: When I got out of college about 15 years ago, I couldn't get a job. And I was selling CDs online and then my grandmother gave me a whole collection of cookbooks so I flipped those online and made some good money with it and sort of kept going with that over the years.

Nic Cha Kim: Despite an accident that left Josh in a wheelchair, he turned those cookbooks into a successful business. Grandma would be proud.

Josh Spencer: We buy books every day and we just have a line of people selling books to us. We turn over probably a thousand books a day, new stuff coming in and out. It’s always changing.

Nic Cha Kim: What kind of books do you sell the most of?

Josh Spencer: I'd say classics, architecture, philosophy. A lot of the heavy hitters, we actually sell really well in downtown. I was afraid when we opened years ago, we'd have to sell the latest fluff piece that someone had put out, but people are really seem to gravitate towards the heavier, more serious, more substantial books.

Nic Cha Kim: This place just keeps going and going. So...we're upstairs now. Every book in this section is $1?

Josh Spencer: Right, this whole room is the dollar room and there's about 100,000 books in here.

Nic Cha Kim: Wow. Why are the books all color-coded? It feels it would be impossible to find what you're looking for.

Josh Spencer: It's mostly for Hollywood set designers. They don't care what's inside.

Nic Cha Kim: The Last Bookstore looks like a Hollywood set and I can't help but feel a little bit...like “Alice in Wonderland.” You've got books flying out of bookshelves and floating typewriters. What's the story?

Nic Cha Kim: Why did you call it "The Last Bookstore?"
Josh Spencer: We called it The Last Bookstore just because at the time, Borders was going out of business and everyone was talking in the news about bookstores disappearing and I just decided it'd be a catchy name.

Nic Cha Kim: Is selling used books the only way to compete with E-books?

Josh Spencer: Selling used books definitely helps because you can sell things cheaper than E-books. Who doesn’t want a real book more than they want a digital book if it’s cheaper than that.

Nic Cha Kim: How did this go up?

Josh Spencer: It took four guys about a week and half drilling holes into each and every one of those books. And we put up iron bars into the wall and threaded the books onto it.

Nic Cha Kim: So there's actually a metal bar that's stuck through the middle and it's holding this thing up.

Josh Spencer: Right, it's very structurally sound. Downtown L.A. is such a melting pot that you have so many different types of people coming down here. Everything from homeless to hipsters, to tourists, to really wealthy collectors.

I feel like for me this is all one big art project and just had fun creating it and hope people appreciate it. You know?

Nic Cha Kim: Josh, thank you so much for the tour. I'm really sure I would've gotten lost without you.

Josh Spencer: My pleasure.

Nic Cha Kim: So hey, I got some books I really need to sell. Is that where I go? That's it. I'm on my way. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Explore a slew of books, classic records, and art at The Last Bookstore, Southern California's most iconic and largest independent bookstore.

Originally a 1914 bank building, the space houses several large vaults outfitted with shelves of used and new books. "Now we turn books into gold," joked owner Josh Spencer, who initially launched his store in a downtown loft back in 2005.

Between now and then, the business grew and Spencer moved the store to its current location at 5th and Spring. The store was named The Last Bookstore as several booksellers were going out of business. It seemed fitting during a time of bleak economic prospects and the rise of Internet sales and e-books, noted Spencer.

Before the store, Spencer previously sold items on eBay. From there, he turned his love for books into reality by launching a creative space for people to mingle and enjoy a good read. "I lived here for several years before I opened it. I knew the neighborhood, the people down here," he said. "There were a lot of young people looking for creative places to hang out. It didn't seem like a huge gamble to me."

Over the years, The Last Bookstore has partnered and shared its space with the Spring Arts Collective to bring a slice of L.A.'s art scene to the forefront.

If you're looking for good, cheap reads, be sure to make a trip upstairs. You'll find books -- nearly 100,000 -- listed at just one dollar.

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