What day could be better than one spent in a bookstore–or more specifically, touring the best bookstores in Los Angeles?
“You see, bookshops are dreams built of wood and paper. They are time travel and escape and knowledge and power. They are, simply put, the best of places.” – Jen Campbell, author and poet
I love bookstores! I seek them out wherever I am in the world, but I didn’t have to travel far from home to take a tour of the best bookstores in the Los Angeles area–Vroman’s Bookstore, The Last Bookstore, and the Iliad Bookshop. These three bookstores are well-renowned in Southern California and for good reason: each one has its own personality, each different from the other, and each extraordinary.
Planning Your Day
I recommend starting with Vroman’s in Pasadena, which has a lovely downtown area with lots of options to enjoy a coffee or breakfast. The second stop should be the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angles. Finish the day at the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood and stay to enjoy dinner in this eclectic and art-filled neighborhood, affectionately known as NoHo. Depending on traffic and day of the week, it’s only about an hour to an hour and a half drive total to get from Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena down to The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles and back up to the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood.
Vroman’s Bookstore is the oldest independent bookstore in Southern California and is a true treasure trove for book lovers. It’s two stories of books, coffee shop, decor, and novelties, including an extensive children’s section on the second floor and a loft for author readings and literary events. This is my favorite bookstore to shop for bookish decor and gifts for my book addict friends and family.
Adam Clark Vroman opened the bookstore in 1896 and operated it until 1916 when he left it to his employees. The current owner is a great-grandson of one of those employees. The bookstore has a history of community-giving that started with Mr. Vroman. He contributed to the restoration of Southern California Missions, helped open an art museum, and supported the Pasadena Public Library. Subsequent owners have continued to be stewards to the community, including donating books and personally delivering them to the Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II even when guards fired upon them. To this day, philanthropy is still part of Vroman’s with the bookstore supporting many charities and events. The bookstore is legendary in Pasadena for all that it offers within its walls, as well as to the community.
Vroman’s organizes author events, book promotions, and other literary events on a regular basis. They are great supporters of California authors and vital to the literary community. During the pandemic, they continued to connect writers and readers through free online readings and author interviews. Vroman’s Bookstore is a true delight and the perfect place to start the tour of the best bookstores in Los Angeles.
The Last Bookstore
The next stop on the tour of the best bookstores in Los Angeles is The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. It is well worth the trip into city to get to this iconic bookstore, which is reportedly the largest in California. There are several parking ramps and parking lots on the same block as the Last Bookstore, but expect to pay $15 to park.
The Last Bookstore is truly an adventure and you can lose yourself in all the nooks and crannies. Around each bend is something new to behold: a room dedicated to horror stories with a creepy doll clinging to the entrance, a tunnel made of books, a vault with beautifully bound hardcover books with gold lettering in the spines, a bench made of a Chevy truck tailgate, flying books, a port-hole made of books making the perfect frame for photo ops…. There are too many amazing details to list all of them, but as you work your way through a labyrinth of books, take the time to appreciate the whimsical and witty decor.
The collections are quite extensive and include both new and used books, as well as early editions and rare books. They also have an impressive collection of records and graphic novels. With over 22,000 square feet to explore, you will surely find whatever you are looking for.
Owner Josh Spencer opened his bookstore in 2005 in a loft, and has since expanded to 22,000 square feet of floor space with extensive collections of new and used books, records, graphic novels, and rare books. (To see a documentary short about the founder and his journey to create this iconic store, click here.) When he moved the store to its current location in the Spring Arts Tower on the corner of 5th and Spring in downtown Los Angeles, he included space for local artists to display and sell their work. (Even if you don’t think you are as interested in the artists as the books, I recommend you take a few minutes to walk through the displays and booths – you won’t be disappointed!)
Give yourself at least an hour and a half to explore the Last Bookstore. The first floor has annexes for rare books and special editions, vinyl, and graphic novels, along with a raised dais containing leather couches and chairs for lounging and reading. Classic literature, cookbooks, and current releases can be found on the main floor of the store. The second floor is the true treasure of the store, and the stairs to this wonderland of books and art can be found in the back corner opposite the main entrance – it’s well marked, so you won’t miss it.
I was grinning and giddy for the entirety of my journey through the second floor. Every time I turned a corner I found another delightful trove of books, bookish art, or eclectic display on theme with the genre of the section. The second floor is called a labyrinth for good reason – at every turn is a new discovery and the maze of bookshelves, side chambers, and rooms seems to go on forever. When you finally leave the Last Bookstore, the euphoria of having just experienced something astounding lingers on.
The Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood is the final destination on this tour of the best bookstores in Los Angeles and is as wonderfully eclectic as the neighborhood it’s nestled into. This bookshop has been featured in several movies and TV shows, not just because it is conveniently located in North Hollywood, but because the ambiance can’t be beat. Tall bookshelves with ladders for browsing up high, wood floors, couches for relaxing, and resident cats are the dreams of book addicts. Once you enter, you won’t want to leave.
The rows of shelves are marked with exactly what is to be found down each aisle and they have extensive collections on a plethora of topics. With over 150,000 books and knowledgeable staff, it’s nearly impossible to not find whatever it is you are looking for in any area of interest.
One of the main reasons I like to end the tour with the Iliad Bookshop is because it is part of the famous NoHo neighborhood, which is an artsy area of North Hollywood with live theaters, coffee shops, every flavor of dining, trendy boutiques, and artsy architecture. The exterior of many of the buildings serve as a canvas for abstract art, murals, and mosaics. Whenever we visit this bookstore, we walk through the neighborhood to take in the art and eat at one of the restaurants. The best restaurants are less than a mile from the Iliad Bookshop on Magnolia Boulevard between Vineland Avenue and Lankershim Boulevard.
From the Iliad Bookshop, walk west on Chandler about 6 blocks to Vineland, turn south on Vineland and walk 3 blocks to Magnolia, then turn west again and the restaurants line the 2 blocks between Vineland and Lankershim. My favorite eatery on this block is the Fat Dog gastropub because of its unique menu, great beer list, specialty cocktails, and whiskey flights. I recommend parking near the restaurants, then walking to the Iliad Bookshop before returning for dinner.
What better way to end a perfect day filled with browsing bookstores than by indulging in pub food with a gourmet twist, a specialty cocktail, or a craft beer.