Arts & Culture

Searching for Permanance in a Barnes and Noble

I flew from Oakland into the Burbank airport early Thursday morning, where I was met by Ken Wilson, who is known in the publishing business as a media escort. Ken’s specialty is taking authors to book stores to do something … Read More

By / November 21, 2008


I flew from Oakland into the Burbank airport early Thursday morning, where I was met by Ken Wilson, who is known in the publishing business as a media escort. Ken’s specialty is taking authors to book stores to do something called a “meet and greet” or ferrying writers around to events.

 

The idea was to get around to as many bookstores as possible, rush in and talk to the manager, and tell him or her about my new book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant named Isaias Hellman Created California. Since Hellman was such a giant figure in the making of Los Angeles – he started the first successful bank, was the largest shareholder of the private water company, donated the land for the founding of the University of Southern California, funded the massive trolley system of the 20th century and much more – we were hoping the stores would get excited about the topic and increase orders.

 

One of the things that struck me most on Thursday about Los Angeles was the dearth of independent bookstores. I live in Berkeley and there are so many independent bookstores in the Bay Area that you can find one in virtually any neighborhood. If I think just about my stomping grounds in a small section of the East Bay, I can count eight bookstores alone. And this is even after the closure of the world-renowned Cody’s, which had two East Bay branches.

 

But Los Angeles seems filled with dozens of mega Barnes and Nobles and Borders. Of course, the city is a car town and small shopping districts are everywhere, so it makes sense there are so many chain stores. But they have a different vibe than independents. There’s so much merchandise and so much gloss and so much emphasis on the bestsellers that all personality is stripped from the stores.

 

Still, Wilson has been taking authors around for many years and he has built up good relationships everywhere. I was pleasantly pleased by the reception store managers had to Towers of Gold, particularly when they heard I was the great great granddaughter of Isaias Hellman. And that is the reaction I have gotten wherever I go. Since we are a nation of immigrants, we are all interested in our roots. Why did our ancestors come to the United States? What was their experience like? Was it hard? Was the struggle worth it?

 

I was fortunate that my relative was a pack rat and saved virtually every document he could. In looking through the 50,000 pages of documents of his, I found receipts for the purchase of newspapers, receipts from his wife’s dressmaker, and doodles on paper along with business correspondence and personal letters. So when I went to explore my family’s roots, I had concrete material to work with.

 

Los Angeles is such a forward-thinking city that it does not have a well-defined sense of its own history. San Francisco, in contrast, celebrates its historic moments frequently. Just this week the newspapers have been running long stories about the tragedies of 1978, when 900 members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple committed mass suicide and Dan While assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. The city held an enormous celebration to commemorate the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.

 

There aren’t as many of those moments in LA. Ancient history is the time when Britney Spears sheared off her hair or drove her car into the papparazi. So when I began to rattle off the ways Isaias Hellman built this city, peoples’ eyes grew big. I literally watched as they started to understand that he did business with Pio Pico, a former governor of Mexican California, for whom a boulevard is named. Or that William Mulholland, associated with the city’s water company (and the movie Chinatown) worked for Hellman. They got excited at the connections between the past and the present.

 

So in a strange way, Los Angeles’ mega stores and impermanence worked to my advantage. I found that a city always searching for the next big thing actually has an interest in its roots, if given the opportunity.

 

Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold, spent the past week guest blogging on Jewcy. This is her parting post. Want more? Buy her book!