Highland Park has changed radically in the last two decades. As in Silver Lake and Echo Park before it, the predominantly Latino community has been inundated with artisanal coffee shops, high-priced bars, tony restaurants and vintage boutiques that have raised rents and displaced longtime residents. Despite gentrification’s revolving door of new businesses on the hipster highways of York Boulevard and Figueroa Street, few bookstores have materialized or endured.
Book Show, a queer-friendly store with a quirky collection of new and used books and zines, closed in 2019. Pricey art bookstore Owl Bureau, which one Yelp reviewer maligned as “the apex of hipster gentrification,” shut down for renovations in 2021 with no word of reopening. York’s the Pop-Hop opened at the edge of Highland Park in 2012 and has been the community’s lone bookstore for many years. Now there is a new shop in town, with community roots and the backing of publishers large and small: North Figueroa Bookshop.
Co-founded by local independent publishers Unnamed Press and Rare Bird Lit, North Figueroa opened last November. It might be Highland Park’s first independent store exclusively selling new books this century. It’s certainly the first with multiple large publishers as founding sponsors. Support from Grove Atlantic (the counterculture champion turned indie paragon) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (via its young, hip imprint MCD Books) ensures that both presses, like Unnamed and Rare Bird, have sections dedicated to their books.
While publishers have paid for preferential bookshelf placement for years, it’s rare for a store to dedicate multiple sections to individual publishers. But this isn’t exactly pay-to-play. Chris Heiser of Unnamed and Rare Bird’s Tyson Cornell have a more unified vision for publishing and bookselling. Call it vertical integration for the little guy. In a neighborhood catering to artisanal brands, why not tout craft imprints as you would craft beers?
“We felt like we had an opportunity to connect more deeply with some of our favorite publishers,” Heiser explained, “and tell a story about publishing and the literary industry that was a little more holistic and more inclusive of the whole journey, from manuscript to published book.”
North Figueroa Bookshop will facilitate that journey with more than shelf space, hosting intimate meet-and-greets, readings, and other events with authors from the sponsoring imprints. While Grove Atlantic and MCD continue cultivating their relationships with other L.A. bookstores, they now have a dedicated West Coast outpost.
“I felt like an interesting chance for us to have an actual footprint [in the neighborhood] and feel like we’re participating in L.A. literary culture,” says MCD publisher and FSG executive editor Sean McDonald. “It feels like a landing pad for us to find different ways to show what we’re doing.”
The bookstore, which sits kitty-corner from the recently closed La Estrella Tacos and a local recreation center, manages to unify a hipster aesthetic with a bookish vibe. Its name and tagline (“Fresh + Independent”) are hand-painted in bold yet whimsical black lettering with mint green accents on the mostly white building. Opaque glass-block windows obscure the interior, creating a sense of mystery enhanced by the warm glow they emit at night. While the sign of the wire manufacturer that once operated here still stands in the parking lot, North Figueroa looks less industrial and more like your favorite grade school library.
Heiser discovered the space in early 2022 while scouting offices for Unnamed, which has launched the careers of women authors like Bethany C. Morrow and Chelsea G. Summers. When the landlord offered him multiple units on the property, Heiser offered Cornell a sizable rear unit for Rare Bird, a publishing company and record label whose output encompasses musicians’ memoirs, vinyl audiobooks and beautiful reissues of Jack Kerouac and J.G. Ballard. Cornell, a friend who’d advised Heiser on launching Unnamed, jumped at the opportunity. Opening the bookstore would take almost a year, but the idea occurred to the pair immediately.
“We’re booksellers through and through,” Cornell says on a recent Saturday morning before the store opens, the clacks of passing skateboarders intermingling with the tolling bells of the nearby railroad crossing as he speaks. Before founding Rare Bird in 2009, Cornell spent a decade as marketing and publicity director of Book Soup in West Hollywood. Heiser worked at Los Feliz’s Skylight Books shortly before starting Unnamed. While store manager Mads Gobbo and the store’s handful of part-time employees handle most of the day-to-day operations, opening North Figueroa Bookshop was a return to the co-founders’ roots after years in the insular publishing world.
“I need to spend more time in the bookstore to reclaim [the bookseller title],” Cornell says. But he’s already feeling more connected to readers. “Without being a part of a bookstore from the inside out, I don’t have a pulse on what people are talking about.”
Across a modest 800 square feet, there’s no shortage of literature to discuss. More than 2,500 books are arranged on 12-foot, floor-to-ceiling bookcases and waist-high book carts parked on the exposed concrete floors. A small glass table with bright yellow chairs invites patrons to have a seat and crack open a prospective purchase. There’s a wide range to choose from — young adult, manga, Spanish-language books, a wall display dedicated to Iranian authors and a cart of California lit where Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled novels stand cover-to-cover with Mike Davis’ treatises of doom-filled urbanism.
The most notable bookcase is just a few short strides from the front door. A robust fiction collection populates the center shelves, flanked by sections devoted to the four founding publishers.
“People are interested and curious about this curation method, so as the booksellers, we get to be ambassadors for the different presses,” says Gobbo. A longtime bookseller, she’s worked everywhere from Picador — FSG’s paperback imprint — to Skylight, where she first met Heiser and Cornell. “This particular type of bookselling, a small neighborhood bookstore, feels like folks from the neighborhood have a very direct hand in shaping our inventory.”
That local influence is growing intentionally and organically. Gobbo curated a small local authors bookcase, which includes handmade books and zines created by Highland Park residents. Gobbo is talking to Book Show owner Jen Hitchcock about bringing in a handpicked selection of its used books; she’s also working with North Figueroa’s new events manager to host community-centric events such as its February love poem workshop. Equally important, North Figueroa is hiring locally.
“As soon as I saw we had a bookstore in Highland Park, I was like, ‘I’ve waited for this my whole life,’” says 24-year-old store bookseller Ezequiel Ramos, who’s helped round out the store’s YA section. Born and raised in Highland Park, they’re as delighted to work at North Figueroa as they are by its value to the community. “It’s nice to have a bookshop nearby where everyone who might want to buy books growing up has a place they can stop by after school.”
The benefits for Highland Park residents also come with professional advantages for Unnamed and Rare Bird. Both Heiser and Cornell say it helps their imprints to see how in-store presentation affects sales and what’s doing well from other publishers. Ultimately, though, they’re most grateful for their proximity to the ineffable magic all bookstores possess.
“You don’t have to be an inveterate reader to walk into a bookstore and find some comfort,” Heiser says. “You can just be someone who needs a place away from all the noise.”
Bell is a journalist and writer from Santa Monica.