By CJ Gronner
For years I’ve sent people to what I believe is the best book store – for sure in Los Angeles, but maybe even the country – Small World Books. I’ve loved it so long, but just finally got to sit down with owner Mary Goodfader and hear about how they came to be. Located right in the heart of the Venice Boardwalk, Small World is a complete haven from all the noise and tourist folly happening just outside the door.
Small World was first located in Marina Del Rey, started by Mary’s mother, Mildred Gates, in 1969. They catered to a largely boating clientele in those days, and then the lease came up and it was time to relocate. Mary’s late husband, Robert, went all around looking for a new location, when he saw a big space on the much more gnarly then Venice Boardwalk, boarded up and full of graffiti (“Stop Bombing In Cambodia!”). He knew he had found the spot for the family business.
The Goodfader’s thought they should have a little take-out cafe to go along with their book store, so the doors of The Sidewalk Cafe opened in June of 1976, and Small World Books soon followed, right next door, in September of the same year. This was right around the time the roller skating disco craze was kicking in, and Venice Beach was THE spot. Other vendors soon followed, and both the cafe – now world famous as a premium people watching spot on the Venice Boardwalk – and the book store have been welcoming customers every day since.
The Cafe is now managed by Mary’s son, Jay, and daughter, Deb Loucks, helps oversee Small World with Mary. Small World is pretty much a Women-run operation, which makes now a great time to celebrate it, as March is International Women’s Month (which kind of annoys me that there has to BE a special month to acknowledge any certain group – we are all one, and to separate anyone out implies that we are not … but I digress …). Their store manager is Bonnie Reynolds, who has been with them for 27 years. There is very little employee turnover, as it’s a true family style operation. Where many independent book stores have struggled to survive in recent years – or simply died – Small World continues to thrive. Mary gives just credit to the Sidewalk Cafe’s success (and the fact that they own the building, so the rent isn’t going up at all) for helping to keep the books coming for Venice and visitors through ups and downs.
It’s such a calming effect to leave the sidewalk entertainers, out-of-towners, Kush Dr’s, pan handlers, etal, on the Boardwalk behind to enter Small World, and its rows and rows of art and ideas. I am an old school book nerd, one who can completely immerse myself in the pages of a (good) book and not even know (or care) that anything else is going on around me. For me, Small World is a pure treat, every time. I use it as a reward for myself, actually, that’s how much I love and revere it.
Staff recommended books (with their fun and insightful notes included on a bookmark) line the front counter, sharing space with the latest releases, and as they say, “If you’ve heard of it, we have it or we will find it for you!” They mean it. I know a friend’s Aunt who lives in Pasadena, and she ONLY gets her books from Small World. That’s dedication. I feel the exact same way, sans the drive from Old Town.
Mary and I sat on the floor among all the beautiful books and discussed our feelings on books, Venice, and Kindle-type deals vs. Books (“A Kindle is an electronic device. A book is a work of art.” – Store Employee, Janice Mall). We are both firmly in the BOOK camp. As Mary said, “Some people still want to hold a book.” Yes, we do. There was a shelf with all sorts of classics on it, all reissued with new artwork on their covers, and they really are just stunning to behold. I almost get a panic attack in there, as there are just so many books to read in one lifetime!
“Venice is a great community for a bookstore … you can’t pigeonhole Venice,” said Mary, which makes it fun (and somewhat biased) for her to order all the merchandise for the store. She can’t keep tattoo books or books on growing weed in stock anymore – they all kept getting stolen. Venice. She won’t be ordering the latest Ann Coulter book – “Ever.” Venice. No George W. Bush memoir here, as she said, “No one in Venice would buy it.” Amen! Mary loves literature the most herself, fiction specifically. “Bukowski is our biggest seller, forever and ever.” Except for the time someone stole an entire ROW of Bukowski books off the shelf, forcing them to keep the old guy right up by the counter now. Venice again.
Daughter Deb does the greeting card ordering, and Small World stocks some of the nicest quality and funniest greeting cards around – my favorite being the one featuring “The Artist Formerly Known As The Little Prince,” with Prince on a little planet like The Little Prince cover. Classic.
Right near the door there is a revamped gumball machine, selling Seed Bombs instead of gum, and again, very Venice (though one guy who had to be from somewhere else did try to eat it like gum. Sigh).
And of Venice, Mary, who has lived here with her family since 1974, says she has not seen a lot of change over the decades, as “Venice fights very hard to stay the way it is.” True back then, true today. Both Mary’s kids, Jay and Deb, also live in Venice, so theirs is a true family and Venice oriented business. The store has always had a cat, and nowadays it’s Conan the Librarian, who could not be found for a photograph, but I’m told he likes to sit at the front table of the Cafe, like he’s a paying customer. You can’t blame him … there’s a lot to take in out there.
Small World Books was just featured in a book called Peaceful Places: Los Angeles, which couldn’t be more true, or more amazing, considering its proximity to the wild and craziest of Los Angeles right out front. Sometimes I think I have super powers of manifestation, because two of my all-time favorite things in life are Book stores and the Beach. To have the very best one around RIGHT on the beach where I live is just magic. As Deb said, “We always have sand on our counter.” To me, nothing could be more perfect.