The Death of a Bookstore

Sam Johnson’s Bookstore in Mar Vista in Happier Times

This is the story of a bookstore which I frequented for more than forty years before it went belly up two and a half years ago. I started spending time and money there back in the 1970s, when it was located on Santa Monica Boulevard between Colby and Federal. At that point, I was working at Santa Monica and Barry, and the bookstore was on my way to the post office, where I did a daily noontime mail pickup.

Later, the two partners, Bob and Larry, purchased a building on Venice Boulevard near Centinela (see above photo)—and I continued to patronize the store.

But there is something inherently problematical about partnerships. Sooner or later, one of the partners goes off the rails, and their business venture goes to the demnition bow-wows. That’s what happened to Sam Johnson’s. Larry Klein published three books, all of which were excellent, but as he aged, his life took a darker turn. He complained about his health; and he no longer went on strenuous weekend hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains. His worsening health also had an effect on his mind.

The upshot was that his partner Larry Myers somehow received the short end of the stick. And suddenly his milk also soured. When Bob suddenly died, it seems the bookstore was to be put up for sale, with Bob’s estate getting the store. The bookstore had good friends, chief among them David Benesty, who manned the desk when Bob was gone and Larry was beginning to fade away.

Well, Sam Johnson’s is no more, leaving me with nowhere to turn for top condition used books but the Internet. Don’t feel sorry for me: I have some 6,000 books. But the West Los Angeles area is now poorer. And the bookstore is shuttered, with no one taking over the premises. I saw it just the day before yesterday, when I went to Santouka at the Mitsuwa Marketplace for some Japanese ramen soup.

Sam Johnson’s had a formative part to play in my literary tastes. That’s where I became a die-hard fan of the works of G. K. Chesterton,

Death of a Bookseller

Bob Klein and Friend

Time passes, and so do we. I had not been to my favorite used bookstore—Sam Johnson’s in Culver City—for many months. One of the two partners who owned the store, Larry Myers, was seated at the desk. When I casually asked him how his partner Bob Klein was, I was told that he died in June. I was appalled. For over three decades, I have looked forward to my conversations with Bob. Even though his politics were diametrically opposite to mine, we had always got along.

In addition to being a bookseller of some repute, Bob had taught English at Santa Monica College for decades. There was frequently a steady parade of students who regarded his bookstore as an extension of his office.

He was also an author who has written three books under the name R. E. Klein:

  • Mrs. Rahlo’s Closet and Other Mad Tales (New York: Time Warner, 1988)
  • The History of Our World Beyond the Wave: A Fantasy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998)
  • The Way to Mt. Lowe: A Southern California Tale (Los Angeles: Sam Johnson’s Publishing, 2005)

I have the read the last two of these and loved them. I always hoped to see Bob write more books. In fact, I always wanted to interview him as an educator, writer, and bookseller and write a series of blog posts about this singularly talented man who was also my friend. But the opportunity was lost.

Sam Johnson’s Bookshop on Venice Boulevard

The bookstore was not always at this location. I got to know it when it was located on Santa Monica Boulevard, near where I was working at Urban Decision Systems. My lunchtime visits to the store led to my discovery of G. K. Chesterton, who has become one of my favorite authors.

With the passing of Bob Klein, Los Angeles has lost a civilizing influence; and I have lost a friend.