Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tidbits from the Road

Old Los Angeles

I just spent five days in Los Angeles and will be home for just 24 hours before leaving for New Jersey and New York.

I flew into the Burbank Airport around 9:30 on Thursday Nov. 20 and was met by Ken Wilson, who is known in the publishing business as a media escort. Ken’s task was to take me around to area bookstores, introduce me to store managers, and see if they would either display Towers of Gold more prominently or order more.

Ken clearly knows his stuff, for he was greeted warmly in almost every bookstore we entered. I came with an armful of books to give away, so Ken would always try to determine the name of the staff’s history buff. I would tell him or her about Isaias Hellman and give them a free book to read.

People in the bookstores got all excited about Hellman and the book since he played such an integral role in the development of Los Angeles. It was gratifying to see their eyes light up and realize that Towers of Gold could be a great holiday present, too.

One thing that struck me about Los Angeles was the dearth of independent bookstores. We visited Vroman’s in Pasadena and Book Soup, but all the other stores were either Borders or Barnes and Nobles. And they are everywhere. Clearly the bookstore business in Los Angeles is much different than the one in the Bay Area. If I just think about my neighborhood independent bookstores, I come up with Mrs. Dalloways, A Great Good Place for Books, Pendragon, a sci fi bookstore on Claremont, and Diesel Books. Those are all within a 5-10 minute car drive.

In the middle of the day, I stopped in at the Huntington Library, where I was the featured speaker for a brown bag lunch put on by Bill Deverell, who runs the Huntington – USC Institute for the Study of California and the West. This is a great place that is trying to bring together academics, journalists and independent historians to use primary documents to explore Western history. (Sound familiar?)

Anyway, this luncheon was really fun. Bill Deverell asked me a few questions and I just talked about Isaias Hellman. I really emphasized some of the stuff in my book that I feel is original research, such as Hellman’s influence on Henry Huntington, the man who built the Pacific Electric red cars and other trolley lines. Few other audiences would have been so interested in the arcane parts of the book, but this group had detailed questions.

On Friday, I taped an episode of the Connie Martinson Show. Connie is an LA institution, having produced a television show on books for decades. The taping was in the Topanga Canyon offices of Time Warner Cable (soon to close) and I had to drive through this moonscape-like environment to get there. Huge rocks, much like the ones at Joshua Tree, loomed up, surrounded by patches of burned earth. It was surreal. The show will be broadcast in December.

Friday night was the night I have been waiting for. I gave a presentation at the Huntington Library in San Marino. About 40 or 50 people came to my talk (not bad for a Friday night) and I think I entertained them with my photos of old Los Angeles and San Francisco. (For those of you who are curious, I wore my new Donna Karan suit.) I signed books and the Huntington sold out!

That was also the case Saturday morning when I gave a talk at Rancho Los Alamitos, once a 26,000 acre ranch owned by Hellman and the Bixby family. More than 100 people came to hear me, and the ranch sold out of the 50 books it had ordered. The audience members were history lovers, and so I really got to indulge in description of early LA and rancho life and the ways Hellman contributed to the region’s growth.

Are you tired yet? I was, yet I had a lot more to do. That evening my cousins hosted a book release party for me at their beautiful home in Brentwood. Lots of Hellman descendants came, people who did not actually know one another well. There was also a man whose family came from the same small town in Germany as Hellman. I also got to meet Kevin Roderick, who runs the fabulous, must-read blog LA Observed. (I must read it two or three times a day)

After a day of rest, I drove back to Pasadena, where I appeared on “Airtalk” with Larry Mantle. This is a very popular show on KPCC 89.3, and lots of book lovers apparently listen in. Mantle told his listeners that Towers of Gold “was a must read for any lover of Los Angeles history.” You can listen to our discussion here. With that ringing endorsement, I watched my Amazon standing go from #22,000 in books to #2,944. Radio is powerful.

Happy, but tired, I am back home, but just briefly. Thanks to everyone who came out to hear me and who bought books.

1 comment:

Paul Lamb said...

I'm glad you had such a productive visit. I hope it translates into sales and recognition.

Here in Kansas City we have only one surviving independent bookstore: Rainy Day Books. Even that is supposed to be on the ropes. A few new ones pop up now and then, but they don't last. And I'm beginning to think that even the big box bookstores are an anachronism given the internet and the Kindle and its brethren.