DEMOLITION OF PALISADES BUILDING EVOKES FOND MEMORIES OF VILLAGE BOOKS
By Bob Vickrey
Shortly after the lunch hour on January 6th, I heard the first loud crash of a crane knocking down the walls of the buildings on North Swarthmore Avenue in Pacific Palisades, directly across the street from my house on Monument. When I walked outside to see which of the former businesses had taken the first hit, I saw the demolished back wall of Village Books.
As a booklover and former publisher’s representative, I began to wonder if there was some kind of international conspiracy against bookstores. First, Jeff Bezos turned the business on its head with Amazon.com; then billionaire investor and landlord Charley Munger decided Dutton’s Brentwood Books was an expendable commodity, and now, even the guy operating the crane for the demolition company employed by Caruso Affiliated decided he didn’t like bookstores either.
Since then, I’ve decided the crane operator may not have been in on any bookstore conspiracies, but the demolition portion of the Caruso Palisades redevelopment project certainly rekindled some great memories of Village Books.
I vividly remember the day in 1997 that I walked past a vacant storefront on Swarthmore, and being caught completely off-guard by a hand-made sign in the window that read: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the Palisades had a bookstore?”
Crown Books on Sunset Boulevard had recently closed, so it opened the door for Palisadian Katie O’Laughlin, who had practiced law for 15 years, to make her life-long dream of owning a bookstore become a reality. On July Fourth that year, she opened Village Books to an enthusiastic and welcoming community.
Owner Katie O’Laughlin and daughter Elizabeth, shortly after the opening of Village Books in 1997
From the beginning, Village Books was recognized by customers as the antithesis of a chain book operation. O’Laughlin employed the motto: “Large Enough to Serve You, Small Enough to Know You,” and sure enough, the Palisades suddenly had its own “Cheers” bar, wholly embodying the famous sitcom slogan, “Where everybody knows your name.”
Village Books became the local hub for book signings, speaking engagements, musical events, and book club gatherings. But it was perhaps, most importantly, a place for people to congregate and meet their neighbors.
It hosted events for local authors such as: Al Martinez, Alan Eisenstock, Carolyn See, Matt Miller, Kenneth Turan and cookbook author Giada De Laurentiis. During its fourteen-year run, the store played host to touring writers, Meg Cabot of “Princess Diaries” fame, actor and activist Mike Farrell, Arianna Huffington, Elizabeth Gilbert and Pulitzer award-winning biographer, A. Scott Berg, a Palisades High grad.
I am still occasionally approached in the village by former customers who express their sadness about the loss of the bookstore. That sentiment still resonates now almost four years after the closing of the store.
The harsh realities of the rise of e-commerce business and the decline of brick-and-mortar stores began to take its toll on bookstores around the country. At a critical financial juncture in 2008, Palisadian actor Tom Hanks, an avid reader and regular customer of the store, volunteered to do a fundraiser in an effort to help keep the doors open. Hanks signed books, DVD’s, and memorabilia on one of the coldest and stormiest December nights in memory, as customers stood in long lines that stretched down Swarthmore toward Sunset Boulevard in their attempt to save the store.
The following year, a charitable group of local residents created Palisades Village Book Friends that would provide financial assistance for community literary events in an attempt to stabilize the cash flow of the store. Nevertheless, despite all the efforts and goodwill of community supporters, Village Books ultimately suffered the same fate as many other stores nationwide, and closed its doors in July of 2011.
Somewhere lost amid the rubble of the wrecking ball’s destructive path was the well-worn colorful floor mural near the front window that was emblematic of the store’s unique signature style. The image of famous writers seated around a table including: Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and Maya Angelou, was painted by Westside artist Gary Palmer. Katie mentioned how much her father would have enjoyed sitting at that table, so utilizing a picture of her late father, (Michael O’Laughlin; the longtime mayor of Niagara Falls, New York,) Palmer was able to give “Mayor Mike” a seat alongside the renowned writers.
The sound of the wrecking ball that day was a sad, yet somehow fond reminder of a gathering place in our village that once served as a true literary oasis. Village Books leaves a lasting legacy and did more than its share in elevating the quality of life for legions of Palisadians.
Bob Vickrey’s columns have appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.