Unthinkable: Man opens bookstore

If it weren’t for a small red neon sign that said “books,” I probably wouldn’t have made a right turn on Idaho Avenue last Saturday night to discover Tony Jacobs’ little storefront masterpiece. I was on my way to the Nuart to catch a late film with a friend, and we figured we would find parking on Sawtelle Boulevard.

But we never figured we would also find a little bookstore called SideShow on a tiny street with no pedestrian traffic. In fact, these days I don’t expect to find a bookstore on any street, regardless of pedestrian traffic. As we know all too well, and as reported in a recent cover story in The Journal, bookstores all over the country have been falling like dry leaves as consumers have swarmed to the convenience of online purchasing.

So, why would a middle-aged Jewish man with no retail experience open a bookstore two years ago, just as so many others were closing down?

I wish I had a good answer for you.

“It’s a little bit like an alcoholic who runs a bar,” Jacobs, 51, told me on Sunday when I returned to the shop to interview him. “I’m just in love with all this stuff.”

Loving creative stuff is pretty much the story of Jacobs’ life. After graduating from Brown University in the early 1980s, he spent more than a decade in New York City following his first love — directing independent films. He also directed children’s television shows like “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” for Nickelodeon and “Reading Rainbow” for PBS.

But Jacobs had another love brewing — pulp fiction paperbacks from the ’50s and ’60s. When he wasn’t directing, he scoured old bookstores, flea markets and book fairs for obscure paperbacks like “The Stone Face” (“An American Negro in Paris discovers what it feels like to be a ‘white man’ ”) by William Gardner Smith, which I bought and am now reading.

After a few years, the boxes began to pile up. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in 1998 to further his film career, he had accumulated several thousand books, as well as old magazines, photographs, posters and artifacts. His love of pulp fiction had grown to include pretty much any book or object (like vintage cameras) that was old and interesting.

But once he got married and had children, Jacobs realized that “the film life and the family life were not going well together.” He didn’t like the idea of “having to wait for phone calls” in order to make a living. So he started to sell some of his stuff on eBay.

Meanwhile, he continued his regular treks to flea markets and book fairs. He hit pay dirt one day when he discovered an old bookstore and magazine stand on Pico Boulevard with a large collection of old paperbacks, which the owner had purchased for next to nothing from a printer who had gone out of business. Jacobs became the store’s No. 1 customer.

His collection grew. So many books piled up in his 600-square-foot office that there was only a narrow passage from the door to his desk. The space he currently occupies on Idaho was supposed to be a new, larger office. But because it’s a storefront, it got him thinking: “Maybe I’ll open up a bookstore!”

So he did. Within a few weeks, 30 years of meticulous collecting was now on display for Los Angeles book lovers. The space is so crammed with books and other goodies that its official name is SideShow Rare & Remarkable Books, Art and Curiosities. If you visit, give yourself several hours.

I plan to bring my kids there very soon so they can experience what bookstore lovers know so well: the pleasure of browsing and discovering. Buying things online is focused and instantaneous. Browsing through a bookstore involves lingering, wallowing, savoring, daydreaming and “bumping into” ideas and images you never knew existed. I want my kids to experience that pleasure.

It’s a multisensory experience. For one thing, the place smells like books. And, in the case of SideShow, as you hang around the entrance perusing the books displayed on the sidewalk, your eyes are not distracted by anything else, because there is nothing else. In an odd way, the location on a nondescript street is ideal. Here is a rebel bookstore, off the beaten path, where it belongs.

Where does Jacobs’ love of books come from? He thinks it might be in his genes. At a family reunion in New York a few years ago, he discovered that, in the late 1800s, his Jewish ancestors ran one of the largest libraries in Vilnius, Lithuania, called the Strashun Library. So maybe, he says, he’s just reviving an old family tradition.

Yes, but isn’t he concerned that reviving this family tradition is a little precarious at a time when bookstores are tanking?

Actually, he’s not.

“The big trees are falling,” he told me, referring to the closing of mega bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble.

“Maybe that will create a little sunshine for little sprouts like us to grow.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

‘Nu’ Way to Fund Jewish Art

Artists and musicians, among others, convened in a West Hollywood loft last spring for an event known as SEDER, the Hebrew word for “order” that also refers to the ritual that accompanies the Passover meal. And while they didn’t celebrate Passover that evening, the attendees did contribute to the narrative of the Jewish people.

The program — SEDER Art Micro-Grant Initiative — is a recurring public meal that funds projects by emerging Jewish artists.  

According to SEDER’s mission statement, “The SEDER Initiative is committed to exploring how Jewish art and culture are financed and experienced communally.”

SEDER follows a meal-based fundraising model. A dinner party is thrown, featuring a vegetarian menu, and is open to anyone of any age for $18 per person. During the meal, four to six artists discuss a project they would like to pursue. A visual artist might give a PowerPoint presentation about his work, or a musician might play a song on guitar or piano.

Following the presentations, dinner guests vote on their favorite project. The artist who receives the majority vote wins a grant, which is funded by proceeds from that evening’s dinner. And with an average attendance of 30 to 60 people at the quarterly dinners, the winning artists often receive approximately $500 to $1,000.

Since SEDER’s conception in early 2011, the initiative has granted more than $3,000 to four artists.

“We are creating a community of Jewish art patrons,” said Anne Hromadka, a SEDER Art Micro-Grant Initiative co-founder.

“Traditionally, one might think to be a patron of the arts you must be a foundation or private donor placing your name on the wing of an art museum. However, we too can fund and join in the contribution of Jewish culture,” she said.

SEDER drew inspiration from FEAST Brooklyn (Funding Emerging Artists With Sustainable Tactics), a New York-based secular arts fundraising model that has spread to cities across the country since its founding in 2009; and Chicago-based Sunday Soup Granting Program, which, like SEDER and FEAST, pools the admission costs of meals that it hosts to fund grants for independent artists. SEDER is the only program thus far to use the model to finance Jewish art.

Hromadka, an alumna of the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Fine Arts, co-founded the SEDER program with Kim Newstadt and Daniella Gold, who are also alumnae of USC Roski School of Fine Arts and whom Hromadka met through the USC Hillel Art Committee, an advisory board for USC Hillel’s art exhibitions.

The SEDER initiative is a major program of an arts collective created by Hromadka known as Nu ART Projects.

Past SEDERs have been held inside a historic home in downtown Los Angeles, at photography studio Space A in the Beverly Junction area and, most recently, on March 29 at the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring in the Pico-Robertson area. The next SEDER will take place June 10 at a location to be announced.

FEAST Brooklyn drew inspiration from community-supported agriculture programs — a model in which consumers pre-purchase a share of a farmer’s produce before the farmer grows the crop. With a meal-based fundraising model, artists benefit from knowing there is already interest in their project before they start work.

“It’s a micro-grant; it’s not a life-changing amount of money,” said L.A.-based artist Will Deutsch, SEDER’s first grant recipient. “I think that the idea that getting a small amount of interest in something that then sort of allows [you] to garner larger and larger support … I think this is a good way to put the horse in front of the cart.”

In May 2011, Deutsch’s presentation on Notes From the Tribe, a quarterly zine, won the hearts, and wallets, of the meal’s attendees. Deutsch received more than $500.

Deutsch used the money to self-publish and distribute about 500 copies of his zine’s first issue, which features submissions from other artists in the community. Its contents revolve around the theme of bar and bat mitzvahs, with ’90s nostalgia transmitted through artwork, a short essay and poetic stream-of-consciousness pieces. The ’90s references include the Electric Slide and a bar mitzvah DJ relenting to requests and playing Sisqo’s “The Thong Song” twice during one party.

Other winners of the SEDER grants include singer-songwriter Nina Storey, who used the money to record a Jewish-themed song that she then shared with SEDER guests along with a video blog of how to cook her secret matzah ball soup; Emily Bowen Cohen, who used the money she earned from the grant to turn a graphic memoir, “A Member of Two Tribes,” into a 20-page comic book and who’s leading workshops for local religious school students about the memoir’s theme of inclusion; and Hillel Smith, SEDER’s most recent winner, who is creating a series of Jewish posters using letterpress, silkscreen and digital image technologies and who is leading a T-shirt design workshop at the next SEDER event.

“The project can’t simply be an art project that is in someone’s studio,” Hromadka explained. “Somehow this work needs to find its way back into the community, because we’re interested in trying to open up pathways for Jewish cultural experiences.”

For more information about upcoming SEDER events and Nu ART Projects, visit nuartprojects.com.