Interview with Jeremy Kaplan: Read Books

Jeremy Kaplan at Read Books on Eagle Rock Boulevard

Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.

Subject: Jeremy Kaplan
Organization: Read Books
Boulevard: Eagle Rock Boulevard

You can often find Jeremy Kaplan or his wife Debbie sitting behind the desk at Read Books on Eagle Rock Boulevard. When I walked in, I immediately felt the homely, pleasant ambience of their family store. To my left was a cozy, welcoming couch on which their son sat doing his homework. Straight ahead was a treasure trove of bookshelves waiting to be explored.

Around 14 years ago, Jeremy Kaplan moved to Highland Park. He had been a teacher in the LAUSD schools for 10 years, and decided it was not the thing for him. In 2004, he began teaching a martial arts class in Eagle Rock at the American Legion Hall, and in 2006 he opened up Read Books. His bookstore continues to be one of the few in all of Northeast Los Angeles, and has been named by LA Weekly as the Best Unknown Bookstore in Los Angeles. He and his wife also run a monthly book club for the community.

Can you tell me about your business?

It's a bookstore. We sell used books and new magazines. We occasionally might have a local book signing if an Eagle Rock author writes a book. There was the I Love Eagle Rock Block Party here yesterday with small businesses, and we had a food truck outside. We also have a little block party every Christmas where we have bands outside and food trucks.

What kinds of people come into Read books?

People who still read books. We have a group of local people who come in pretty regularly. Sometimes there's people who aren't from nearby who hear about us if we take an ad out in the LA weekly. People are looking for bookstores because there are not many around. We'll get people coming in from Santa Monica, the West Side or the Valley where they don't have many bookstores. We get some Occidental students, but not as many as we should. We do get a lot of students though; there's a grade school here around the corner and the high school isn't far away, so sometimes kids have reading lists and their parents will come in and buy a book. We sell a lot of books online.

We attract intermediate types of people; not so extreme. I know a lot of people come in here who have been in Eagle Rock for a few generations, but they tend to not be conservative people. In other words, they're older people who have been here for a while, but they're more unusual and radical. As far as hipsters go, the ones who come in here with any kind of regularity are literary people; they don't tend to be quite as trendy because they know something about literature, which is a little more substantial than the latest trends. Some people have lived here for 60 years and their parents went to Eagle Rock High School, but they're not what you expect. They're much more unusual people; they tend to be borderline socialist types. It's the same with the younger people coming in; they're not people necessarily hanging out at the coffee shops all day long;

How is this store engaged in the Eagle Rock community?

Well it's the only bookstore in Northeast Los Angeles, so I guess it serves that purpose. Bookstores and magazine stands are disappearing; there's really not that many left. Before we started the bookstore, there was always talk around the area of people saying, "we want a bookstore." You have to go all the way to Pasadena to find another magazine place, so it fills a literary void. There are a lot of people who came in from the very beginning who still come regularly.

How did your role develop from a martial arts teacher to the owner of this shop?

The only real relationship is that I was in the area a lot, just a few blocks away from here, and it just seemed like the most likely place. We wanted to open a bookstore nearby. For different reasons: one, because there seemed to be a demand, and two, because we don't like travelling very far. With teaching, I would be in the car an hour each day, but I like the idea of being close to work so I don't have to spend an hour a day on the freeway. It was between Eagle Rock or Highland Park, and Eagle Rock just came up to be a more likely place between the demographic and the shopping area. This area costs just about the same as Highland Park anyways as far as rent goes for storefronts. Homes are much more expensive in Eagle Rock, but storefronts weren't much of a difference.

How do people hear about this place? Is it mainly by word of mouth?

Yes, word of mouth, and as far as outside the area, I think the LA weekly helps a lot. I think the people who read the LA weekly are the types of people looking for bookstores. In 2009, when they did the Best of LA Issue, they had a little thing about us as being the Best Unknown Bookstore, and that made a big difference. We found out about it from people coming in. People would come in and say, "Hey, I just read about your bookstore!" I didn't even know the LA Weekly had written about us, until people started coming in who we had never seen before.

We have website and a Facebook. And you have to sell a lot online. People buy a lot online nowadays, and we wouldn't make enough money to justify doing this bookstore if we didn't sell online. Probably about 40% of our sales are online. People like to do their shopping on the computer. There are days where we would barely make rent if we were just doing in store purchases. The online sales carry us through.

What would you say the role of your bookstore is in the public or cultural life here in Eagle Rock?

The store is a comfortable place, so sometimes people will just come in and hang out with their kids and read books on the couch near the children's section. We've gotten to know people who come and just sit around, purely for social reasons. We also have a book club, [which meets] more or less once a month. Also, when there's a local book written, like when the Eagle Rock history book was written, then we can have the author come here and have a place to sign.

Culturally, I think there's a lot of communities in Southern California where it's hard to open anything. In Berkeley or certain areas of Oakland and certain areas of San Francisco, you'll find bookstores and record stores and odd cultural places, like yarn stores, or unusual places. In Los Angeles that's not so viable because once a neighborhood starts picking up economically, the landlords tend to get overly excited, then they want to raise the rents, and places start closing. Then the only places that can open up are chains and restaurants. Colorado Boulevard is a perfect example of that. Once Eagle Rock started getting a little bit of press, suddenly all the rents went up on Colorado. Now it's becoming all restaurants and places that close quickly because they can't afford the rent. Bookstores and record stores aren't the kinds of places that make enough money to justify those kinds of rents. That's just the nature of Los Angeles.

What's it like to be the only bookstore in the area?

For me, I'm kind of conservative, to make sure we don't get overly ambitious about how much money we spend. I don't want to get into a position where we have to make a certain amount of money every month just to exist. For the time being, our costs are low enough where it would take a disaster to put us out of business. But you don't make much money in the meantime with a small place with not much rent. If you start going into more expensive neighborhoods or getting a larger place, the risk goes up. I'm not trying to jump at the first chance to get a bigger space. Honestly, my main objective from the beginning was to make sure I don't have to get a job (laughs). As long as I can keep the bookstore open, I don't have to look for work.

What other things do you enjoy about owning Read Books?

I like the autonomy. You get to create your own place. You get to decide what books to get, where to put them, and how to order them, what to put on the walls and what events to have. It's a little more creative. When I was a teacher, there is always somebody telling you that you have to do things a certain way, and I'm just not good with bosses.

What do you think of the Eagle Rock community?

It's an interesting community. It's different from most communities in Los Angeles because most are always in flocks. People are moving in and out. You'll have a neighborhood with a certain ethnicity for a while, but then another ethnicity moves in so they go running out, and then the neighborhood changes.

Like I was saying, you suddenly get some press in the neighborhood and then the rents go up and you get a lot of trendy places. Before this I lived in Los Feliz, and Los Feliz is nice, but it is a place where you go back every year and it's different every time. There's never any continuity to it. Which is like the history of Los Angeles; there's never any continuity involved. If you see something that's been around in Los Angeles for 50 years, its ancient.

Eagle Rock is pretty different because there are actually people here who have lived here for a few generations, so you get this kind of weird push and pull where people are moving in; more younger people with kids who have more hip or trendy perspectives. Then you have the older folks who are more conservative, and you get the push and pull of if somebody wants to open up a bar and somebody tells them they can't, then there's this debate. Some things come in and some don't. In Eagle Rock you have a conservative, small town, NIMBY ("not-in-my-neighborhood) mindset, where people say what they don't want in their neighborhood. Then you have people who want to change this and change that. They bump heads, and that's good -- but for Los Angeles if you change things too damn quickly then you become Los Feliz where everything changes every year. And then if you never change anything, then you're just a provincial small town which you don't want either.

Are there any improvements that you would like to see in Eagle Rock?

There's a bit of a problem here of drug dealing. People talk about medical marijuana, but at least that takes place within the confines of the building and is more or less legal as far as I can tell. There's a lot of homeless people here who come mostly because there's free food at the churches, and there's a halfway house over there. Most of the people are nice, but they just end up getting hired to deal drugs in the neighborhood. There's no police in the neighborhood, and they don't want to deal with it anyways. That's always been a bit of an issue because you have sketchy people hanging out in the neighborhood.

But it's such a small thing; we live in a big city and this stuff happens all the time. The main thing I'd like to see is less bland, chain type of places. I would like to see more interesting places. And a lot of that depends on how much they are going to charge for rent. Our rent has stayed the same since we opened, but it was before the economy went bad. So the rent is not extremely cheap, but it's fair. We tried to get it lowered when the economy went bad, but they didn't want any part in that.

I heard that Cornerstone Pizzeria is going to become a big pizza place with a bar, and it's a little chain. To me, if that's what people want, it'll happen, but I'm not interested in Eagle Rock becoming like Old Town Pasadena. I don't think it's the right place for it. Eagle Rock has a lot of organizations like TERA (The Eagle Rock Association). They're the ones who fought when Coldstones and the Starbucks were getting put in across the street. They didn't succeed in that instance, but occasionally they stop something from happening. They more or less fight against commercialization.

I think Eagle Rock tends to move in a certain way. If there's going to be a push to bring in more Starbucks types of places, then there will be a push to bring in more of these types of places. It'll be a little bit of both. If it starts swinging more towards the other side, I'll get worried, but right now it seems more like it's going back and forth. But the truth is, if people want places like this, they have to shop here.

Do you have any plans for your shop for the future?

We'd like to enlarge in the future. There was a tax place next door that we were thinking of buying, but they sold the business to someone else who was really young. If the opportunity ever came for the right place and the right size, we'd want to stay right around here. We've looked into it, but we haven't pursued it aggressively. The options that have come up have been on Colorado, too expensive, on the wrong block, or in one of those little mini malls. Colorado would be fine if the price was all right but you have to be careful because the price might go down, but it might jump right back up again. It's been fairly stable here on Eagle Rock Boulevard for six years, so I have to consider that too.

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Oh for the sleepy old days when life was less complicated and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were able to gallivant around with impunity... or at least unless they got caught.

I believe as does the owner of this store that Eagle Rock does not need to emulate Old Town Pasadena (Where I grew up).... yet. I would caution you, Jeremy to carefully follow changing patterns in customer's behaviors and patterns. It sounds like you do already, with both a website and Facebook posting... sounds like maybe a mobile ad or two might not hurt your business, and all hail the community or neighborhood bookstore.