Bargain Books is a little used bookstore tucked away sneakily on Friar Street off Van Nuys Boulevard. By the front entrance (which is so plain-Jane old school it looks hip and retro) are their actual bargain books, sorted into boxes and shelves and a paperback rack. Inside, you find much of the same: books of every genre lining the perimeter of the narrow shop, a center bookshelf dividing the space in two halves, volumes packed tight in every available nook. File boxes sit on the floor, loaded to the brim. The atmosphere is brown and honest and smells like aging paper.
Bargain Books does exactly one thing: It sells used books. To me, that conveys confidence. It’s hard to do one thing . . . to be one thing . . . and trust that it’s enough for people. Most of the bookstores in L.A. attempt to fill a need greater than books. The need to be inspired. The need to feel sophisticated. The need to be seen reading a zine in the cool part of town.
But Bargain Books doesn’t go out of its way to offer you atmosphere, or even the used-book version of atmosphere. And between that and all the brown/beige, Bargain Books brings on a powerful sense memory of my childhood bookmobile–of how my heart would catch fire every time I stepped into that too-close space, too-full with books, smelling of dusty pages. In those days, I searched for titles that inspired me–something Victorian or something funny or something tragic or something romantic. I got teased for the romantic ones, which isn’t shocking for third grade and certainly didn’t do any long term damage, but it was my very first lesson that it’s cool to love some things and lame to love others.
Why we’re still like this as adults, I don’t know. And don’t tell me we’re not, unless you can tell me you’d read literally any book you own on public transportation. Or you’ve never been cornered by someone at a party demanding to know why you’d ever prefer your neighborhood over their neighborhood. Or you’ve never described a favorite anything as a “guilty pleasure,” trying to reframe your very real enthusiasm as an ironic quirk. We spend so much effort convincing people that our passions are at least endearing, if not worthwhile. We want to like the right things in front of the right people, which is weird, when you think about it. It’s a lucky, lucky thing to find something that absorbs you completely. I don’t know why we’re still making our preferences about everyone else. I don’t know why we ask other people to do the same.
Last Christmas, I found my niece asleep with the Shopkins Collector’s Guide, Volume II clutched to her chest. If you don’t know what Shopkins are, they’re . . . I don’t even know . . . they’re little products with faces. That’s about as specific as I can get. Pineapple with a face. Tea bag with a face. Lipstick with a face. There are a million of them, they’re tiny, and they are the most pointless thing I can think of. But my niece is obsessed. “Collector’s Guide Volume Two” obsessed. And I love her so much for loving this thing I don’t understand. I love it even more because she is just entering the age where she’s starting to learn that other people will try to decide if the things she loves are cool or not. And she cares less about that than most adults I know.
What a joy to be so in love with something that you disappear inside of it. You forget to watch if anyone is watching you love it and forming ideas about you as a result. You don’t think in terms of atmosphere or vibe or user experience. You don’t think to take a selfie. You are just doing the one thing.
Back in my bookmobile days, I didn’t even know how to dream up the bookstores I’d encounter in my life. I didn’t know there’d be coffee or that I’d care if there was. I didn’t expect book tunnels and didn’t imagine a single bookstore could cover an entire city block. These have all been the miraculous discoveries of my adulthood, and I’m grateful for every single one.
But when you walk through the front door of Bargain Books, there is exactly one thing to love—one quiet miracle—and that’s the books. No cozy nooks, no color-coordinated shelving schemes, no aggressively well-read hipsters clearing their throat so you’ll notice them reading Infinite Jest. Nothing to raise the question of how your presence here might define you. It’s just you and a 100,000 spines waiting for the trace of your fingers.
In essence, (and pretty indirectly), it is an invitation to love what you love without distraction.
Anyway, the prices at Bargain Books are reasonable for a used bookstore in Los Angeles, and there are several reduced-price books on every shelf, starting at $1. They buy books as well, and they have a $1 parking lot book sale every Saturday. For more information, you can check out their website, where you can also listen to “The Bargain Store” by Dolly Parton. If that’s not enough to convince you to stop by . . . you know what, I should have opened with that. I’m realizing now I could have just said that and this review would have been done in one sentence.
Live and learn, I guess.
Address: 14426 Friar Street, Van Nuys, CA 91401
Tues-Fri: 12:00 P.M. – 6:00 P.M.
Sat: 10:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M.