What keeps a bookstore alive for 60 years?

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There is nothing cookie-cutter or corporate about Caravan Book Store on Grand Avenue downtown. “Avant Garde, First Edition, Poetry,” the window declares in big gold letters.

As a kid, bookseller Leonard Bernstein swept the floors of his parents’ shop when it was located a block away on what was then called “bookseller’s row”. He’s been continuing the tradition ever since. Caravan is marking the start of its 60th year in business tonight.

Lisa Napoli interviews Leonard Bernstein (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For all the talk of the decline of print, and for all the hype over the enormous new, used bookstore a few blocks east, Bernstein’s quietly stayed afloat all these years, sans website or PR. He says this is simply because of his relationships with people who are eager to find highly specialized, usually rare, books.  (When was the last time you saw an entire section devoted to the Gold Rush, for instance?)

Once, former President Jimmy Carter stopped in, flanked by secret service and full of questions about the business, just as Bernstein was taking delivery of the personal library of the late food goddess, MFK Fisher. Bernstein had to excuse himself to attend to food critic Jonathan Gold, who had arrived to sift through the newly arrived motherlode .

On a recent visit, Bernstein pulled a book out of a locked bookcase, a medical text that dates back to 1538.  Pricetag: $1500. Although Bernstein says money shouldn’t dictate what one collects. (Easy to say when you’re the seller.)

Some of the treasures at the bookstore
Some of the treasures at the bookstore (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

What’s really priceless is “Children of the Queen of the Angels,”  a book Bernstein wrote and published himself about what he’s seen and experienced downtown over these many years. There are only 25 copies of the limited edition book. “That’s rarer than the Gutenberg Bible,” he said (there were 40 copies of that.) As it often does with Bernstein’s stock, it will take someone’s passing away to free up a copy.

Listen to our conversation to hear more about what compels this man to stay in a trade many feel is going the way of the dodo bird.