Los Angeles’ Skylight Books Isn’t Writing Its Epilogue

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November 20, 2021

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As Los Angeles turns the page on the pandemic, one of its most popular bookstores, Skylight Books, looks to pick up where it left off. 

Located on Los Feliz’s Vermont Avenue, the store attracts all kinds of people, from screenwriters to ride-share drivers, political activists, photographers, and of course, bibliophiles. 

Skylight Books has been a staple of the community since 1996 when it took over from the previous tenant, another bookstore named Chatterton’s. As you walk through the front door, you’re greeted by a tree in the middle of the store covering the skylight window on its wood-domed ceiling. Its branches drape over the mythology section. To the left, political science and the children’s section. To the right, California history, and fiction. Tucked away past the register, the poetry section. It’s quiet but the readers are immersed, expressionless due to the store’s mask mandate. Their eyes slide over the words written by authors like Studs Terkel, Frank Herbert, and James Baldwin. 

“We’re known for having an amazing collection of more kinds of under-the-radar books,” said assistant events manager Halley Parry. “A lot of bookstores just kind of have books you’ve heard of but our staff and our buyer does a really good job of finding the hidden gems and keeping the kind of weirdo and our key books in stock.” 

The community has embraced the niche bookstore over the years. During the day, neighbors stop in for a quick hello, some find themselves avoiding canvassers out front, and some just like to look. 

“It’s really fun with smooth, nice-smelling books. I love the selection and I’d even come back to browse,” said Paige Pemberton, a recent visitor to the store.

At night, patrons line up down the block for speaking engagements with new artists. You may even run into celebrities like Chris Pine and Natalie Portman—both frequent visitors. 

That said, a business can’t go 25 years without competitors breathing down the back of its neck. As handheld devices became more popular, so did the ebook and e-commerce chains like Amazon.com. In 2020, Time.com reported that “Amazon now accounts for more than half of all book sales, and three quarters of all books or e-books bought online.”

For a business that primarily sells hard copies and paperbacks, this led to some worry and also, some innovative thinking. 

“I think people started to see a real possibility that bookstores could just go away,” said Parry. “But companies kind of jumped to the challenge and came up with ways for people who like to read on an e-reader but also might want to support an indie bookstore.”

Adapting to these kinds of changes taught Skylight Books how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic challenges. 

During the pandemic shut down, Skylight Books went from nearly 500 daily customers and 700 books sold a day to zero. It was closed for two months by Los Angeles County, forcing all events to be canceled. Even off-site events like the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a “huge moneymaker” according to Parry, were shuttered.  

Skylight Books offers a variety of online and in-person events featuring authors like Mallory O’Meara and Tracey Baptiste. [Credit: Bill Meincke]

In April 2020, the store received a Paycheck Protection Loan (PPP Loan) of $132,202, helping it stay afloat. When businesses were allowed to open in June of 2020, the pandemic still had a grip on Los Angeles. Any positive case could cause a business to shut down. Towards the beginning of 2021, two employees at Skylight Books tested positive for the coronavirus. 

“Each time, the store was forced to close for a week,” the store’s general manager Mary Williams told the LA Times. “I’m more optimistic now than I was in May when the shutdown had just depleted half of our savings. It really comes down to the holidays,” Williams said to the LAist

Though Parry declined to comment on how Skylight Books has done since then, she did indicate that the community carried them through the tough time with online sales and now frequent visits. 

“We would be nothing without the community,” said Parry. “You know, that’s the backbone of any bookstore because the community dictates what books we carry. They’re the reason we open the doors in the morning.” 

 

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