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The Real Los Angeles

Lisa Eisner

Photo: Lisa Eisner

Amoeba Music, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood near the ArcLight, is one of several singular stores on our tour. It is a monument to vinyl, an emblem of the once indomitable record industry as it pretzels into an iTunes world. The L.A. branch of a Berkeley-based store, Amoeba carries 250,000 titles. Shopping here is as much about touch and sight as about hearing—placing your fingers on CD’s and record albums, responding viscerally to seductive cover art, whose importance has been diminished by digital distribution.

While Amoeba preserves the vanishing pleasure of record shopping, Family bookstore, on Fairfax in Mid-Wilshire, is building a bulwark against the Kindle “wireless reading device.” The shop’s back wall is papered with a blown-up black-and-white photo of a gun-toting Eastern European Jewish vigilante group formed to guard against pogroms. Co-owner David Kramer bills Family as “a curated bookstore.” This means that it stocks very few books, but for each of its pristine copies there is one dog-eared version that Kramer or his business partner, the aforementioned Silent Movie Theatre’s Sammy Harkham, has read and loved. For the store to function, you have to trust them—to believe that because you and they both like, say, Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita, you will also like David Shrigley’s Ants Have Sex in Your Beer. Apparently trust keeps the place open. “Our clients have become our friends,” said Kramer, whose friends range from Simpsons creator Matt Groening to “70-year-old guys who used to write for Star Trek.”

The Echo Park Time Travel Mart, on Sunset Boulevard, has been designed to resemble a 1970’s 7-Eleven. Yet instead of Slurpees, Pringles, and aspirin, it sells dinosaur eggs, robot milk, and “leeches—nature’s tiny doctors.” The more you look, the weirder it gets: Lost: Decade announces a sign on the bulletin board. Have you seen 1960–1970?any info would be helpful. last seen in my friend steve’s van. It may take a minute, but then the visitor gets it. This is a put-on—an art installation: a convenience store stocked for a road trip through time. But the merchandise sells, and almost as soon as the store opened last spring, it earned enough to pay rent for the nonprofit walk-in tutoring center for neighborhood kids, called 826LA, that occupies the rest of the building.

Both store and center are the brainchildren of Dave Eggers, author and publisher of McSweeneys literary journal, who started the first such concern in San Francisco in 2002. To make the Echo Park space possible, Forty-Year-Old Virgin producer Judd Apatow hosted a parody fund-raiser, “An Evening of Best Intentions,” honoring actor Seth Rogen for “the charity work he is considering doing in the future.” Apatow exacted tributes from Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and dozens of others, Eggers told me. “Guests were given Kentucky Fried Chicken to eat and the décor was borrowed from the Rocky Balboa premiere held a few days earlier. It was a wild and hilarious night.”

Ordinarily this would be a hard act to follow, but not if you have a time machine. On the heels of the party, 826LA’s then executive director Mac Barnett booked readings by dead authors (okay, dead-author impersonators) Homer, Steinbeck, and Emily Dickinson. “We’re finally going to get her out of the house,” he joked.

Until recently, a Dickinson type in Downtown’s Arts District could have stayed happily indoors—with no galleries or bistros to tempt her. But today my still-gritty neighborhood houses lofts and restaurants like R23, whose exceptional Japanese food has drawn locals and adventurous West Siders since 1991.

Like those in New York City’s SoHo, the district’s vacant warehouses were colonized by artists in the 1970’s, but as the area gentrified, rents rose—sending artists to newer urban frontiers like Boyle Heights. MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary took up residence in nearby Little Tokyo in 1983. It is now permanently the David Geffen Contemporary. Some remaining battered buildings in the city’s historic core are its newest places to view art—pulling the Chinatown art crowd to 44 galleries, mostly on Main and Spring Streets, which were dubbed Gallery Row by the city in 2003. The Downtown Art Walk draws about 4,000 people, ranging from artists to West L.A. collectors.

One of the most collectible artists is a pioneer of an industrial section of Boyle Heights, across the Los Angeles River: thirtysomething painter Amy Bessone, whose work has been bought by MOCA. Bessone is best known for her large-scale paintings of Meissen porcelain figurines rendered as if they were alive. “There is a strange moment in the porcelains where German folklore meets Disney,” she told me. Of the new work in her studio, she said, “The last porcelains I painted were close-ups of faces. Their surfaces were very masklike, which drew me to painting masks themselves.”

If L.A. is coming into its own, it’s because it is learning to embrace the contradictions that define any great city. Downtown’s Eastern Columbia Building, a turquoise Deco jewel converted to condominium lofts (Johnny Depp owns a penthouse), is a far cry from neighboring South Park—a cluster of glittering new residential skyscrapers near the Staples Center, home to the L.A. Lakers. And Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria—opened in 1935 as a haven from the Great Depression—is a far cry from just about everything else.

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