Intellectuals & Liars

The phone would ring at the store and when I answered, “Intellectuals & Liars,” someone always asked, “Which one are you?” To that, I inevitably replied, “It depends on who’s calling.”
It always got a laugh no matter how tired I was of saying it.
Intellectuals & Liars: a literary bookstore. That was the full name. And it existed for 3 years exactly 3 doors down from the SW corner of Wilshire Avenue and 10th Street in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, California. It was, for its brief history, one of the few bookstores in Los Angeles that catered exclusively to literature and poetry. There were the weekly readings first coordinated by Joel Dailey and then later, after Joel left by Bill Mohr, the broadsides we published that first year, the occasional guest speakers—agents, editors, journalists, small press publishers—and the after hours discussions fueled by Gallo Hearty Burgundy about literature and writers.
Writers. It was a store designed for writers, run by writers, staffed by writers. One person calling one day asked if we had anything by Gertrude Stein in the store and when we said yes without a second’s hesitation, he responded with “You’re the first store that actually knows who I’m asking about.”
Of course what we had and how many copies of it largely depended on how well I could coax books out of publishers with minimum payments because the store was never financially solvent. It was, at best, financially undernourished. I mean, I proved the old saying that poetry doesn’t sell by actually dedicating approximately 40% of the stock to it. And it was mostly small press books because most large publishing houses had very little poetry in their back lists.
The name. Many people asked how it got its name. Well that happened in the house on Motor Avenue I shared with my two original partners, Jimmy Powell and Gordon Anderson, for 2 months one very long night, 2 bottles of scotch, and a midnight run to the burrito stand we could only find in the middle of the night when we were drunk. We had been brainstorming names with many like Books Books Books, Lost Illusions (which ended up being the name of the novel I eventually wrote about the store’s last year), and others I can’t recall when Jimmy in between puffs on his cigarette said, “You know there’s a quote by Carl Jung which might work. It goes something like there are two kinds of people you can’t change: intellectuals and liars.” And all three sets of eyes lit up, we toasted each other, did a little dance in the living room, and eventually went to bed with the name on all our lips.
Both Jimmy and Gordon didn’t last more than that first year and I carried on alone, aided and abetted full-time by Randy Signor and Bill Mohr and a host of part-time people like Maureen Foster manning the counter on various mornings, evenings, or weekends. We were open 7 days a week from 10 to 10 though we closed earlier on Sundays. And there were always the usual assortment of regulars drifting in and out, drinking the instant coffee we kept by the urn in the corner between two used, ugly green armchairs bought third hand at some used furniture store that were there for anyone to sit on while sampling the books on the shelves.
The regulars included people who bought our Discount Cards (Jimmy’s idea) which entitled them to a 10% discount on any book in the store and 20% on hardcovers. This being LA, we had an assortment of screenwriters, actors, poets, and other notables who bought those cards including Neville Brand, Maya Angelou, and Christopher Isherwood, as well as many of the LA poets who at one time or another read in the store like Peter Levitt, Jim Krusoe, and Dennis Cooper.
There were two rooms: the front room being the largest and containing a wall of fiction opposite a wall of poetry with some portable shelves in the middle that displayed new or noteworthy books selected by members of the staff. Then there was the back room that housed the section of California writers (though many were also in the front room as well), the drama section, a smattering of nonfiction titles, some genre sections most notably the mysteries and science fiction/fantasies, and my small collection of cookbooks that I ordered mainly to copy recipes from. And, of course, 3 large remainder tables (publishers’ overstock for those not familiar with the remainder label) which held anything that seemed interesting to someone who worked there.
There were no horoscope books, romance novels, self-help books, and only bestsellers or bestseller wannabes by writers I personally read first before putting on the shelf. The store had a definite bias toward what we called “quality fiction” and we held the line. Perhaps, as friends like Ren Weschler and Vimal Duggal often advised me, I should have stretched that line a bit more, they would, they said, understand, because, after all, they wanted me to succeed, but I was stubborn and thus kept to the original vision and nobly (well, maybe not so nobly) went out of business. After 3 years exactly of limping along, it finally went “belly up”, as they say, and I drifted back to New York with my dog in tow.
But my mind drifts back to LA in those late 70s days rather frequently now, even though I thought I had gotten it out of my system years ago, but, it would appear, that’s not the case. Maybe because I am still close to many of the people that graced my life back then, still reread many of the books that had meaning for me then, still carry the index card with the pitiful amount of money I took from the store during those years scribbled in black ink with the calculation at the bottom of 63 cents an hour as my average wage. This is supposed to serve as a reminder never to open another bookstore again.
And though, Randy once told me, he knew what the store cost me (and he wasn’t just referring to financially) it’s still the one place and time I would return to if ever given the opportunity to travel back to the past. You hear that, H.G. Wells? I’m game, if you are.

28 thoughts on “Intellectuals & Liars

  1. For a book about the Booksellers of Los Angeles may I draw from these notes about Intellectuals and Liars ? I believe you were open 1978, 1979 and 1980 – I recently saw a 1980 essay by Lawrence Weschler about you and your shop. Thank you. Jonathan Starr in Lso Angeles

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I worked for ten years in independent bookstores or small family chains in Ithaca NY, Boston, Portland ME and Charleston SC, from 1987 to 1997. A few years after that I started a Print-on-Demand site for self-publishing authors, which is of course just more bookselling in a different arena. I’ve long had this project in mind to collect booksellers’ stories and experiences and put them all together to be a testament to the will and wonder of working with books. Reading this post puts that idea back on one of the front burners of my mind…

    • Thanks for the comment, Jeff. It was one of the proudest accomplishments of my life, even though it did not succeed. And the people I met, in that business, were some of the most committed members of the literary community. It took a toll, but one I would gladly pay again.
      And I gather from your comment, and also the trajectory of your life, that you understand that all too well.

  3. I worked with books from 1988 to 2000, had my own shop (used and rare – mostly used – with a focus on literature and mysteries) for seven glorious, frustrating, exhausting, fulfilling, maddening and wonderful years. Would I do it again? Hmmm.

    • Well Robert, you lasted longer than I did. Where was the store? I still think if I could travel back in time to a moment in my life, it would be hard for me to choose between the bookstore and my ELI. Both were defining moments.

      • Austin, Texas. I started out selling through the mail and at local book fairs, and in 1990 helped open a store with several friends/partners. I went my own way after a year or so, and finally opened my own shop. It was great fun, and of course much harder work than I’d expected, even after previous experience had left me knowing it would not be easy. But I would not trade those years for anything!

  4. I so miss bookstores from those days. I remember walking into one and seeing all the City Lights books (black & white covers) lined up on a shelf. I discovered Ginsberg and all the other Beat Poets. Sigh…so wonderful being 15 and finding a “home” in a basement bookstore.

  5. Was for some unknown reason pondering the origin of the phrase intellectuals and liars, and then flashed back on your store and passing a kidney stone in the lavatory there. I used to stop in when frequenting that buffet restaurant nearby. So, thanks for pointing out that Jung originated the phrase. How did we ever function before the Internet? I bought my share of books from you. Please don’t crash my soft drive grey matter with a request to list the titles. If you revisit Santa Monica, you’ll not recognize the sense of community because it is extinct. But the fondness lingers and it is funny how I had the distinct impression in my memory banks that you were there a decade or so. That’s how much I enjoyed it.

  6. My father lived around the corner on 11th street. I was about 13 years old when you opened Intellectuals & Liars. We would often walk over in the evenings and browse. He was a scholar who revered books, and really felt at home there. It meant a lot to me, too, and the Intellectuals & Liars t-shirt he got me as a birthday gift was an important item in my wardrobe.

    • Thanks for sharing that memory with me. Of all the lives I’ve led, the one I cherish the most was the one associated with that store. I still have friends from that period who all miss the store. And I still find a piece of my heart went missing when I was forced to close it. But it means a lot to me that people like you have fond memories of its existence.

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