Interview with Sarah Balcomb: The Pop Hop Bookstore

The Pop Hop on York Boulevard | Photo from The Pop Hop Facebook

Young Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Urban Sociology course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities.

The Pop Hop is a small bookstore and print studio that opened on York Boulevard at Avenue 50 on May 1, 2012, the day of my interview with the store owner, Sarah Balcomb. The store specializes in literature, children's books, art, and some used books, while also operating as a print studio that hosts workshops for the community to learn about screen printing and book binding.


Can you give a brief background of yourself and how you decided to open this store?

Well, I am a writer, and I have been for as long as I can remember, since I was a little girl. And I worked in a bookstore in high school. So it seemed like the obvious thing. And since college and grad school, I've had a series of different jobs to support my writing, because I don't do commercial writing, but more experimental, prose poetry. I worked in different art organizations, like museums and literary organizations. When I moved to this neighborhood, I just kept thinking -- this place needs a bookstore. And it was just sort of an idea of need, and so I just started talking about it. You know, like, "I want to open a bookstore here." And then I met [Rody] and he wanted to open a bookstore, and actually wanted to open a print studio. And so once there were two of us, it started to happen.


Are there any specific people who have been inspirations for you?

The woman who ran the bookstore that I worked for when I was in high school -- who was in her late 30s, like I am -- was a furniture salesperson for most of her adult life. But she always had this secret desire to open a bookstore -- and then she did. I think she was the first grown-up that I had a relationship with that was different than, you know, my parents' friends. And then there have been writers. Victoria Redel was my closest mentor when I was in grad school. She has urged me to stick with writing what I want to write.


What has been the biggest challenge that you've faced opening up a store here in Eagle Rock/Highland Park?

Oh my God, everything. I am not a business person, Rody is even less of a business person, and there's no book that tells you what to do when you're opening a business. So we've had to learn how to do this on our own. Like about getting our licenses from the state, county, city, and all that. And even just a few weeks ago, I discovered that there was another license I needed to get. Like, oh, nobody ever told me about that.


Do you have any interest in local writers and artists?

Yeah, definitely. We want to develop with the community, so we're really open to people coming in and showing us and giving us books. Already, the guy that printed our bookmarks showed us a book he produced of [his dad's poetry], and it was awesome and wonderful. It was like art mixed with poetry, and we decided to take on that look.


Would you consider yourself in a new leadership position in the community?

Yes. I think I forgot for a long time that I am kind of a good leader. Like, in high school I was the Type A, doing everything, being editor of the yearbook, and all that sort of obvious stuff that girls like me do. And then I sort of became more of an introvert. So since then, I realized that I can do more than just sit home and write.


What are some ways that you hope to involve the community, and bring them in here?

We want people to propose classes. Like, if you have a skill, teach it to us. We know some things, and we're going to start out with screenprinting and bookmaking, but we really hope there are people who know esoteric-like things, like marbling paper, or anything book related. We also had an idea recently to have a show-and-tell, because a lot of people collect books and might have some beautiful things in their home that no one ever really sees. So we thought maybe we'd have these nights where people could bring a special book, and everybody can look at everybody else's books.
A reading event at The Pop Hop | Photo from The Pop Hop Facebook

And what are some of your impressions of the local cultural scene? Would you say that there is an "identity" of Eagle Rock/Highland Park?

I think that it's struggling to find it. I mean, it's eclectic, definitely. And the more that I've been doing this, I've met all these people who are like, bohemians who moved here in the 80s. And I love those people. They've been struggling to create a culture in the area for a long time. And young people move here because it's cheap, and think that they're breaking new ground, and then they meet all these people. I think that [Eagle Rock] is going to have some waves, you know. Like right now, people are talking about the selection of design shops here, and it's always art and design.


Along a similar line, to what degree might opening a store like this be affected by or affect race or class dynamics in the surrounding area?

I hope that it appeals to everybody. We thought about having a Spanish language section, but then I decided to mix them in. So we've got some Spanish books, but they're just mixed in the fiction or poetry, or wherever.


Would you consider including any other languages eventually?

Yes. I speak French, and there are a few French books mixed in there too.


Have you thought about influencing the youth in the community here?

That is definitely something we want to do. We want to have classes, and we were thinking about starting out with teen screen printing and 'zine making, which seem like they would really be appealing to kids. Because there are so many kids walking around in the afternoon. It would be something to do.


Are there any other local stores or literary outlets that you keep up with?

There are sort of peripheral places. For instance there is Ooga Booga in Chinatown, who have more obscure and serious art stuff. We have some of that stuff, but we're more general. And then Alias, in Atwater Village. That's kind of my favorite. They have beautiful books, like perfectly preserved used books. We think if we're sort of a mix of both of those, and then some of the Machine Project, we can make ourselves more accessible. Like, there is stuff that's recognizable to anybody in here and then hopefully near it there is something that's not.

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