by Stephen Sachs
If our beloved Samuel French bookstore were a play, its shocking violent demise this week makes the ending a tragedy. A tragic drama not wrought by a fatal flaw of the store’s own making. The tragic flaw exposed here is our own. The fate of Samuel French bookstore reveals a deeply disturbing character defect of our city, our country and our culture.
According to police, the store was broken into and seriously vandalized on Monday night, March 4th following a confrontation with several unidentified male customers who tried to intimidate one of the store employees. The police have closed the store pending their investigation and to protect the staff’s safety. The shop will not reopen. Ever.
Samuel French bookstore had already announced it was closing at the end of this month. Yet another casualty of e-commerce, book sales at the store have been steadily declining. Over 80% of Samuel French’s retail sales are now made online. Still, the sudden announcement of the store’s imminent closure caught us all by surprise and shook our LA theatre community to its core. News of Monday night’s vandalism drives a dagger into our heart. The loss of Samuel French bookshop is a death in the family.
For decades, as a once-upon-a-time actor and now a director/playwright and overseer of a theatre company, each time I walked into the bookstore on Sunset Blvd I breathed a deep sigh of reverence and gratitude, like stepping into a sanctuary. I experienced a spiritual and physical healing when I walked into Samuel French bookstore. The smell of its books was aromatherapy. The brick walls, the catacomb of shelves, the stacks of books, large and small, piled in corners like paper pillars. One enters Samuel French bookstore to be lost and found. To lose oneself reading a script on a calm afternoon, to find oneself as an artist through what one found in its pages. The vandalism of Samuel French bookshop, to me, is a desecration of a sacred place.
The Studio City bookshop on Ventura Boulevard closed in 2012. Now, our beloved store on Sunset Boulevard is gone forever. Closed early. Due to violence.
We have no one to blame but ourselves.
Like the art form it celebrated, Samuel French bookstore engaged in a daily battle for its own survival against online technology. Why leave your home when you can download a book? A bookstore is much like a theatre. A live experience. Physically walking into a book store, interconnecting with fellow human beings, holding an actual book in your hand, turning its pages – these are visceral sensations no e-book can duplicate. A book store and a local theatre create community. A place to meet, to gather, to interact. Both a theatre and a book store are places of worship, both serving an art form greater than themselves.
In my opinion, the Samuel French bookstore didn’t just die in the war against online retailing, we killed it. We made our choice. Eight out of ten plays are now bought online. We choose digital over paper. This is the Amazon-era. We click-shop. Our goods are now delivered to our door. We barely need to get up off the couch. The fault, dear consumer, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Once again, Los Angeles has proved we are not New York. Last October, Drama Book Shop, the legendary 100-year old independent bookstore in Manhattan that has one of the largest selections of plays in the country, announced it was closing. The rent was too high. It didn’t take long for the city and its artists to leap into action. By January, it was announced that Lin-Manuel Miranda and three of his “Hamilton” collaborators purchased the Drama Book Shop. The quartet is currently working with the City of New York to find an affordable space for the store.
“The store is a gem and a cultural institution in New York, and we want to make sure it’s saved,” said Julie Menin, the mayor’s media and entertainment commissioner.
Where is the public statement from the mayor’s office in Los Angeles advocating to save or relocate Samuel French bookshop? Aye, there’s the rub. In Los Angeles, there is no Lin-Manuel Miranda.
We do have Nicki Monet. A platoon of local theatre artists led by actress/producer Nicki Monet launched a petition campaign to protest the store’s closing. The petition collected more than 7,000 signatures. Now violence has struck. Who knows what now will happen? Music conglomerate Concord Music, which purchased the store, said it would be willing to support a new L.A. store “with favorable pricing and payment terms.” We shall see.
In the bookshop’s final hours, Monday night’s vandalism exposes perhaps the most disturbing truth of all. An unsettling truth about ourselves and the temperature of today. The boiling social and political bile of this nation, fanning the flames of hatred and racism and division, ignited on Sunset Boulevard Monday night. Abuse and intimidation in the bookshop by day led to violence and physical destruction in the darkness of night. A depressing reminder of who we are as a people and where we are plummeting as a nation. This is who we have become. Of course, the defacing of a theatre book store in Los Angeles pales when compared to the uncountable acts of fatal violence and hatred executed every day nationwide. Yet Monday night’s act hurts me deeply because it is a symptom of a larger hurt, a greater ill in our country. Shakespeare warned us not to drink the Kool-Aid of anger and hatred. As he warns in Measure for Measure, “Our natures do pursue a thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.”
In any tragic story, anagnorisis is the moment when the main character discovers his/her true nature, recognizes the truth about his or her true self. I am willing to stay for the Third Act of this play, if there is one. Hopefully, this dramatic story ends with a cathartic spiritual renewal of resurrection.
Stephen Sachs is Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.