Highland Park has changed radically over the past two decades. As in Silverlake and Echo Park before it, the predominantly Latino community has been inundated with artisan cafes, upscale bars, chic restaurants, and vintage boutiques that have pushed up rents and displaced longtime residents. Despite Gentrification revolving door of new businesses on the hipster freeways of York Boulevard and Figueroa Street, few bookstores have sprung up or survived.
Book Show, a queer-friendly store with a quirky collection of new and used books and zines, closed in 2019. Expensive art bookstore owl office, which one Yelp reviewer called “the pinnacle of hipster gentrification,” closed for renovations in 2021 with no word of reopening. York is the pop hop opened in 2012 on the edge of Highland Park and has been the community’s only bookstore for many years. Now there’s a new store in town that’s rooted in the community and supported by publishers big and small: North Figueroa Bookshop.
Co-founded by local independent publishers Unnamed press and Rare Bird Lit, North Figueroa opened last November. It could be Highland Park’s first independent store selling exclusively new books this century. It is certainly the first with several major publishers as founding sponsors. Supporting Grove Atlantic (the counterculture champion-turned-indie paragon) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (via his young, hip imprint MCD Books) ensures that both printers, such as
While publishers have paid for preferred placement on the bookshelf for years, it’s rare for a store to dedicate multiple sections to individual publishers. But that’s not exactly pay-to-play. Chris Heiser of Unnamed and Rare Bird’s Tyson Cornell has a more unified vision for publishing and the book trade. Call it vertical integration for the little guy. In a neighborhood that specializes in craft brands, why not promote craft imprints like you would craft beers?
“We felt like we had an opportunity to connect more deeply with some of our favorite publishers,” Heiser explained, “and tell a story about publishing and the literary industry that was a little more holistic and inclusive and spanned the entire journey from Manuscript on included to published book.”
North Figueroa Bookshop will facilitate this journey with more than just shelf space, hosting intimate meet-and-greets, readings and other events with authors from the sponsoring imprints. While Grove Atlantic and MCD continue to maintain their relationships with other LA bookstores, they now have their own West Coast outpost.
“I thought it would be an interesting chance for us to make a real footprint [in the neighborhood] and feel part of LA’s literary culture,” says MCD publishers and FSG editor-in-chief Sean McDonald. “It feels like a landing pad for us to find different ways to show what we do.”
The bookstore, which is located on Kitty’s corner, has recently closed La Estrella tacos and a local recreation center, manages to combine a hipster aesthetic with a literal vibe. The name and tagline (“Fresh + Independent”) are hand-painted on the mostly white building in bold but whimsical black letters with accents of mint green. Opaque glass block windows obscure the interior, creating a sense of mystery enhanced by the warm light they emit at night. While the sign from the wire manufacturer that once operated here still stands in the parking lot, North Figueroa feels less industrial and more like your favorite elementary school library.
Heiser discovered the space in early 2022 while looking for offices for Unnamed, which has launched the careers of women writers like Bethany C Morrow And Chelsea G Summer. When the landlord offered him several units on the property, Heiser offered Cornell a sizable rear unit rare bird, a publisher and record label whose output includes musician memoirs, vinyl audiobooks, and beautiful reissues by Jack Kerouac and JG Ballard. Cornell, a friend who had advised Heiser on the launch of “Nennated,” jumped at the opportunity. The opening of the bookshop was supposed to take almost a year, but the idea came to the two of them immediately.
“We’re booksellers through and through,” Cornell says one Saturday morning before the store opens. As he speaks, the clatter of passing skateboarders mixes with the chime of the nearby railroad crossing. Prior to founding Rare Bird in 2009, Cornell spent a decade as director of marketing and advertising book soup in West Hollywood. Heiser worked at Los Feliz Skylight Books just before launch untitled. While store manager Mads Gobbo and a handful of part-time employees handle most of the day-to-day operations, the launch of North Figueroa Bookshop was a return to the co-founders’ roots after years in the siled publishing world.
“I need to spend more time in the bookstore to reclaim something [the bookseller title]’ says Cornel. But he already feels more connected to the readers. “Without being part of a bookstore from the inside out, I don’t have a pulse for what people are talking about.”
In a modest 800 square meters there is no shortage of literature to discuss. More than 2,500 books are arranged on 12-foot-tall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and waist-high book carts parked on the exposed concrete floors. A small glass table with bright yellow chairs invites guests to take a seat and open up a potential purchase. There’s plenty to choose from – young adult books, manga, Spanish language books, a wall exhibit dedicated to Iranian authors and a California light cart covered cover to cover of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled novels Mike Davis‘ Treatises on fatal urbanism.
The most notable bookshelf is just a few steps from the front door. A solid fiction collection populates the middle shelves, flanked by sections dedicated to the four founding publishers.
“People are interested and curious about this curation method, so as booksellers we become ambassadors for the different printers,” says Gobbo. A longtime bookseller, she has worked everywhere from Picador – FSG’s paperback publisher – to Skylight, where she first met Heiser and Cornell. “This particular type of book trade, a small neighborhood bookstore, feels like people from the neighborhood have a very direct hand in shaping our inventory.”
This local influence grows intentionally and organically. Gobbo curated a small bookshelf for local authors, featuring handcrafted books and zines created by Highland Park residents. Gobbo talks to Book Show owner Jen Hitchcock about launching a hand-picked selection of his used books; She also works with North Figueroa’s new events manager to host community-focused events like February’s love poem workshop. Equally important, North Figueroa is hiring locally.
“When I saw that we have a bookstore in Highland Park, I was like, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life,'” says 24-year-old bookseller Ezequiel Ramos, who helped round out the store’s YA division. Born and raised in Highland Park, they are as excited about their work in North Figueroa as they are about their value to the community. “It’s nice to have a bookstore nearby where anyone who wants to buy books can drop by after school.”
The benefits for Highland Park residents also come with professional benefits for unnamed and rare birds. Both Heiser and Cornell say it helps their imprints to see how in-store presentation affects sales and what’s resonating with other publishers. Ultimately, however, what they are most grateful for is their proximity to the indescribable magic that all bookstores possess.
“You don’t have to be a die-hard reader to go to a bookstore and find some solace,” says Heiser. “You can just be someone who needs a place away from the noise.”
Bell is a Santa Monica-based journalist and author.