Putting the art before the cart: how the Last Bookstore became a Los Angeles landmark
Once upon a time…a book lover become a bookstore owner
In a downtown Los Angeles loft, The Last Bookstore was opened in 2003. Slowly, it has grown in size (it’s now housed in a 22,000 square foot former bank building on Spring street) and become both a local institution and tourist haven. These days, you’ll find The Last Bookstore atop nearly every list of the best independent bookstores in Los Angeles, and frequently on lists of things to do in the downtown area. Conde Nast and Atlas Obscura have all featured it. Chadwick Whatitt even made a short movie about the store. What is the secret to The Last Bookstore’s stellar reputation and success? How did it all begin?
“It’s grown organically. I mean, I guess I dreamed of having a giant space that had everything I loved in it, but I didn’t plan it out or intend to build something like that,” says Spencer. From a childhood in Hawaii and North Carolina, to studying journalism, comparative religion and interpersonal organizational communication studies, Spencer’s life has never been just one thing.
Which makes sense, for a sprawling bookstore in a bank that sells books (both new and used), music, art, and has an upstairs space dedicated to everything from boutique knitting supplies to prints by independent artists to the infamous “book loop” Instagram haven.
When asked about the creation of the labyrinth, the affectionate name for the upper floor of the shop—the one featuring thousands of used books stacked and sculpted into archways and spiraling designs, which has become a “must-visit” space for acclaimed influencers and casual social media addicts alike—Spencer says the decision was conscious, but not consciously about social media buzz. “There’s more value and fulfillment in trying to do something that’s meaningful to me and to others,” he says, and hopes that being around all of the books, even as a prop for a social media grid post, might inspire visitors to pick up a book and read.
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A dream deferred. It was achieved.
So, if the basis for The Last Bookstore wasn’t born in a childhood bedroom, where did it come from? You might be surprised at the answer. Years ago, when a serious injury left Spencer unable to walk, he turned to an unlikely place for a way to pay his bills—cookbooks. “My grandmother gave me a bunch of used cookbooks, and I sold those online,” he explains. “And so I just kept going out and finding used books all over the place and flipping them online. And then after years and years of doing that, some people started asking me to open an actual store.” The store grew, book by book, from there.
“I was wary at first because I’m an introvert,” Spencer continues. “But eventually [friends]They convinced me. I had a lot of extra books lying around that I wasn’t able to sell for one reason or another online. So I thought, well, let’s try it in the store. The store did well. I was even able to hire employees who love talking to customers throughout the day. And we were off and running.”
Small BizSense is the engine behind this project
For over a decade, the Last Bookstore has used Small Biz Sense for their point of sales partner. When asked about the initial switch to Small Biz Sense, this is what Spencer said: “It was like a huge breath of fresh air to be switching over to something that was cloud based and that I could access at home and really see what was going on wherever I was. And it was just so much easier and more intuitive to me to use as far as the point of sale and our inventory.”
Small Biz Sense’s robust cloud-based platform has proven to be a valuable feature that Spencer can rely on for his business.
One of the biggest challenges for any bookstore is inventory, and that’s even more true for The Last Bookstore, which boasts over 400,000 unique titles. It’s been a huge help to have a solid inventory management system. “It’s a lot. It’s probably more inventory than many other stores have. Just because you’re dealing with books, there’s just so many. You can fit so much more inventory into a space than, say, a bike shop,” says Spencer. “So it can get a little overwhelming. There’s a lot of time I spend managing the inventory and Small Biz Sense and trying to keep it up to date and archiving things that we no longer carry and adding new things.” As such, it’s important to have a software solution that is reliable and delivers.
The Last Bookstore’s future plans
The Last Bookstore intends to continue growing in its organic style, but perhaps slowly. With a small outpost in nearby Glendale (called Lost Books, which also sells plants), and talks of moving forward into everything from screen printing to independent publishing, the key will be just going with what feels right—a principle that has guided this business since day one.
When asked about what makes The Last Bookstore such a compelling local institution, Spencer says that he believes in “putting the art before the cart.” Everything about The Last Bookstore, from its ornate entryway to decorated areas for subjects from horror to comic books, feels like it was done with an intentional emphasis on the aesthetic experience over the commercial.
“Let’s do something cool and artistic,” says Spencer. “I have a very strong creative side, I’m not interested in business for its own sake. For me, it’s definitely more I want to do something creative and cool, and if I make money at it, great”. It’s that authenticity, that commitment to the interesting in everything that The Last Bookstore does that has come to define it and made it so successful. In a city that’s often called the capital of superficiality, a mentality like this feels like a breath of fresh air.
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