This story is part of Lit City, our comprehensive guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles.
Rows of Indian laurel fig trees line the streets of Los Feliz village, home to a historic cluster of cafes, bars, restaurants, local clothing shops and a flagship bookstore. Wedged between a neighborhood movie theater and a children’s clothing store, a giant sign reading “Books” stretches skyward.
Skylight Books opened on November 1, 1996, replacing the beloved Chatterton Bookstore after the death of its owner-founder, William Koki Iwamoto. Since then, Skylight has served as an anchor for a rapidly changing neighborhood, just as Chatterton did for 20 years, alongside its older neighbor, the Los Feliz 3 Theater.
While independent bookstores in Los Angeles and beyond have been continually challenged by blockbuster chains, Amazons, recessions and now a pandemic, Skylight is among those that have stood the test of time. In a recent poll sent out by The Times asking writers what their favorite stores were, Skylight was a popular favorite.
Their secret? Resilience and adaptability, to begin with. “Bookstores that have done so have learned very valuable lessons each time,” said Mary Williams, co-owner and general manager of the bookstore. “Those who remain are stronger than ever. … We are constantly evolving to dodge the next threat.
According to the American Booksellers Assn., 215 bookstores opened last year as the pandemic raged; 41 closed. And while 2021 was the biggest sales year for many bookstores, including Skylight, staying alive is an ongoing struggle.
“Independent bookstores continue to experience rising costs, labor shortages, supply chain issues and uncertainty in an industry known for its already thin margins,” said Allison Hill, CEO of ‘ABA. “The joke goes, ‘How do you make a small fortune in the book business? Start with a big fortune.
Family Books, the idiosyncratic Fairfax Avenue bookseller, was among the victims of COVID-19 in Los Angeles last year. And after nearly five years in business, Santa Monica’s Book Monster closed for good this month.
For Kerry Slattery, co-founder and retired CEO of Skylight, failure was never an option. “I never doubted that we would pull it off,” she said. “…It was unconditional.”
It is useful to start with sufficient funds and to attract a lot of attention. In the mid-1990s, when Slattery’s former drama teacher approached her to help start and run a bookstore, she knew she had a big job ahead of her. She recruited 10 investors (from actors Jeffrey Tambor and Tony Danza to a retired geologist and English professor), launched a fundraiser to raise $200,000, and began planning for a robust, public opening.
At the time, the looming threat was Barnes & Noble, which it feared might establish a beachhead in Los Feliz. “So we need to make a name for ourselves quickly,” she recalled thinking. “And that was the goal.”
Slattery assembled a team of knowledgeable and committed book lovers, curated a mix of books for the quirky arts community residing in the hills of Los Feliz, picked the brains of local booksellers, and built relationships with local businesses and the Los Feliz branch library.
Day and night, the small staff of about six people unpacked, put away and displayed books for opening day. Word of the new neighborhood bookstore spread quickly and, to their surprise, they had a respectable first day of sales.
After testing the waters, it was time to take a dip. Their opening weekend later in November included readings and performances from luminaries such as poet Wanda Coleman, novelist John Rechy and bassist Flea.
Since then, a rotating roster of heavy hitters has helped keep Skylight’s momentum going – including readings and book launches with Patti Smith, Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers. Among these names are local authors who have become part of the store’s self-help system.
In response to the Times survey, LA writers praised Skylight for its program of events and curated presentations, for its support of local writers and small presses, for its unique selections and its knowledgeable staff.
“I love walking into the Annex and asking the guy behind the counter, ‘What’s new and weird?’ wrote “Gangster Nation” author Tod Goldberg. “And then the guy slides on the floor and hands me something like Joshua Chapman’s ‘A Field Guide to the Aliens of Star Trek’ zine, which then stays at my house for a decade, guests picking it up and disappearing for an hour .”
Lance Alspaugh, owner of the Vintage Cinemas group, which includes the Los Feliz 3 theatre, praises the store’s curatorial expertise. “They have what I would consider the most gourmet stuff,” he said. “They are selective in what they offer to the community, which I think is what the public is looking for.”
Williams, the co-owner, confirmed that staff selection is often dictated by customer requests. “One of the areas where we’ve tried to really expand is to bring things that you won’t find anywhere else.”
Among these local regulars is Chris Pine. Over the years, the “Wonder Woman” idol has been spotted leaving Skylight with stacks of books. The paparazzi recently photographed him showing off his purchases, including the lush collection of “Los Angeles Standards” photos by architects Caroline and Cyril Desroche. Sales of the book have increased, Williams said.
At first, Slattery didn’t get a lot of pay, she says. “I was willing to do whatever it took to make the store do it.” The business flourished, and in 2008 it opened the two-door arts annex to house art books, many of which are imported or in limited editions.
For the first time, the store was caught off guard. The expansion was quickly followed by the Great Recession.
“I feel like I’ve used the same 25 paperclips for three years,” said Steven Salardino, who has worked at Skylight since opening. “I kept recycling them. We had to pinch money no matter what.
The following years were difficult, but in retrospect, the expansion was one of the best decisions the store could have made, Slattery said. “None of us made a lot of money, of course – all were committed to the long-term life of the store.”
The appendix turned out to be a major asset – a treasure trove of strange, unexpected and serendipitous finds, from Iranian sports magazines to a Madonna fan art booklet that was rescued from a landfill.
When Slattery retired in 2014, she handed over to Williams, who became chief executive and eventually took her share of ownership.
“We’ve come so far, and we’ve done it in a way that we’ve gotten smarter and smarter,” Salardino said. Along with stable ownership and shrewd management, he also cited the location as “part of the magic of our success.” Chatterton’s was popular locally and Skylight stepped into its shoes. As Los Feliz has mutated over the years from a scruffy, diverse neighborhood to its more stylish, gentrified successor, one of its few reassuring constants is the bookstore around the corner.
“Sometimes it feels like everything changes around Skylight,” Salardino said. “There was a bookstore there for 20 years before we arrived, and it feels like we’ve taken over an anchor or center of that area… like everything is spinning around us.”
Inside, the bookstore proudly displays its maturity. A large ficus, as old as the bookstore itself, stands in the middle, its branches reaching to the ceiling. The bench around it has a sticker that reads “Franny’s Spot,” where Franny, the stoic and elusive 13-year-old tortoiseshell cat, sometimes likes to sit.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Erik Bartz browsed the “Los Angeles & California” shelves, among his store favorites.
The 36-year-old Palm Springs resident makes it a point to visit Skylight at least once a month when he’s in town visiting his girlfriend, Grace Hoffman. He’s a big fan of her book recommendations, citing her display of “Newly Translated Literature” as an example.
“I love learning about the history of Los Angeles. They also have good philosophy, anarchy, weird psychedelic trip stuff that always interests me,” he said, a copy of ” Native Intoxicants of North America” by Sean Rafferty under the arm.
Nearby, Hoffman, 28, browsed the fiction section. A playwright, she is always impressed with her selection of hard-to-find plays.
“It’s our favorite bookstore in LA,” she said. “It’s one of our spots.”
Hill, CEO of ABA, said being liked certainly doesn’t harm a bookstore’s fortunes, but “business acumen, innovation and creativity, perseverance, a good lease and money ” are just as essential.
“And, of course, community support is key — not just loving your indie bookstore, but spending your money there,” she added. “That’s what keeps them in business.”
Fifteen years ago, Salardino could not say with certainty that the bookstore would survive. Now he can. “Something about all that bricks and wood in there – the tree – there’s something there that makes Skylight seem almost permanent.”