The architectural culture of any metropolis both needs and is reflected by the quality of its bookstores. More than places to buy books, they are indispensable educational resources for the communities they serve. For many professionals, bookstores take the place of the school library: they are a site of social interaction and intellectual exploration.
Booksellers who acknowledge their cultural role and its responsibilities are often dedicated individuals whose enthusiasm transcends mere commercialism. A pointed example of these qualities is William Stout whose bookstore in San Francisco is pervaded in every aspect by a passionate interest in both books and architecture. As much as any architecture school. Stout Books and its publications helped create the contemporary architectural culture of that city.
Despite its current world-wide status as a mecca for architects. Los Angeles is at present poorly served by its art and architecture bookstores. Hennessey and Ingalls remains the one-stop venue, yet their indifference to books and architects makes shopping or browsing there less an intellectual adventure and more like a trip to the supermarket. The store’s notable façade inspires false hopes. Inside, it is inundated with commercial calendars and gift books and short on publications of importance to anyone whose interests are not limited to the commercial mainstream. Asking their staff for information only reinforces the supermarket analogy. When was the last time you asked a supermarket clerk for culinary advice?
The Forum Publications Committee recently experienced the depth of that indifference in our efforts to distribute the ARCHINFO pamphlet. All the bookstores we contacted expressed a cautious willingness to buy a few copies. The only exception was H & I – and this despite the unusually low cost due to the amount of free labor that goes into their production. The purpose of the Forum is to promote architectural culture in Los Angeles, and the refusal of Hennessey and Ingalls to support that effort is an egregious failure. (Incidentally, if you’re looking to buy a copy of ARCHINFO, go to Arcana or Big and Tall in Los Angeles, William Stout in San Francisco, Jaap Rietman or Perimeter in New York, or to Ballenford Books in Toronto. We hear they’re selling well.)
A visit to Big and Tall books, in contrast, is a stimulating experience both socially and intellectually, even though its architecture section is relatively small. Some may find its unabashedly trendy spirit excessive while others may think it epitomizes the best of Los Angeles. But for anyone with a general interest in contemporary book culture, its selections are consistently rewarding. It‘s also fun to hang out there.
We understand Rizzoli is opening a store in Beverly Hills. This way, at least, Los Angeles will have a top-of-the-line art book supermarket. A first-rate bookstore with ties to the local architectural community – a bookstore from which architect’s can learn – is still sadly lacking.