October 17, 2019

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.