The Storefront (place)

THE FOLLOWING EXCERPT is the opening section from chapter three of my book in progress, Unpacking My Father’s Bookstore, a memoir and critical study about growing up in my father’s Jewish bookstore. As Harelick and Roth Books and then J. Roth / Bookseller of Fine & Scholarly Judaica, the store was a microcosm of the Los Angeles Jewish community from 1966 to 1994. It was also where I learned how identity is assembled and traded, how a family is collected, and why literature is an activity composed not only by authors and texts but also through commerce and the unpredictable ambits of our social lives. 

I tell the story of my father’s bookstore in a roughly chronological order, using each chapter to consider an aspect of the store’s physical presentation in order to recall a particular period in that history. Each chapter is also framed by and explores a larger theoretical theme: objects, commerce, place, gender, collection, sound, design, and networks. In this chapter, I recount driving through Los Angeles with my father in search of the retail origins of M. Harelick Books (the store he bought), how I developed my sense of place, the history of Jewish bookstores in the city, and the cultural implications of the Harelick and Roth partnership.


“Get in the other lane,” Jack says from the passenger seat. “You don’t want to be in this lane going downtown.”

I continue driving the middle-left lane on the Santa Monica Freeway, keeping a steady 65 mph in my father’s near-luxury car and scanning the surrounding landscape for familiar landmarks from my youth. I don’t live here anymore, I remind myself, I’m on a research trip. But not my father.

“Don’t let that car get in! Don’t … Why’d you let him in? Laurence, look: Why does he leave so much room ahead of him? He doesn’t know how to drive. Okay, don’t listen to me.”

We’re passing the Vermont Avenue off-ramp just south of the Pico-Union neighborhood, and I quickly recognize a distraction. This is where we used to get off to visit Michael Harelick, the man who founded the bookstore my father bought. He lived up near the Jewish Federation when it was still at 590 North Vermont, where Jack would sometimes make special deliveries in the evenings or on Sundays.

“Dad, didn’t we used to go visit Mr. Harelick around here?”

“That’s right. I brought him the payments for the store.”

“How much did you pay for it?”

“He sold it to me for $33,000 and I paid it out monthly to him over three years. But I also gave him $5,000 at the end of each year, so what was that? $500 a month I think?”

I can’t do the math in my head to double-check him, and payments I don’t remember. Just a small, dark apartment in a bungalow court complex and Harelick with a walker slowly getting a box of Van Houten chocolates from his fluorescent-lit kitchen to offer to me and my brothers. He was in his mid-80s by then and suffering from what I now assume was Parkinson’s disease. I always thought my father must have spoken to Harelick about his past, how he came to own a Jewish bookstore, but here’s all he knew: Harelick immigrated to the US from Russia as a boy or young man, but only arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 1940s. He didn’t know how Harelick started out in the book business, only that by the mid-’50s he was a recognized Jewish bookseller with his own storefront on Melrose Avenue, just around the corner from Los Angeles City College. Jack said Harelick had no wife or children and assumed he’d been a lifelong bachelor.

They first met in person in 1960, while my father was in LA repping for Behrman House Publishers at the National Association of Temple Educators. Harelick was one of his accounts, so he called him up and invited him out for coffee. By then, Harelick was selling and delivering books to The University of Judaism up on Sunset Boulevard and to Hebrew Union College when it was still located in the Federation building. He was a distributor for KTAV Publishing’s reprint of The Jewish Encyclopedia, a pathbreaking work of scholarship originally published by Funk & Wagnalls in 12 volumes between 1901 and 1906, and for Judaica Press’s reprint of the Blackman Mishnayoth, a celebrated edition popular for study and reference. He was also a sales representative for The Soncino Press, a premier Jewish publisher in the UK, which was founded in the 1920s and specialized in English translations of the Bible and the Talmud that included commentary by academic scholars and Christian commentators.

Above all, though, Harelick was a Yiddishist, secular in outlook and, according to Jack, intellectual rather than political in his tastes. He was so devoted to the literature of the mameloshn, the mother tongue, that he once told a pesky customer looking for the latest Leon Uris novel to go find such trash somewhere else. Still, he carried a large selection of English- and Hebrew-language books because, after all, he had to make a living. But there were no tchotchkes for sale in his store, no ritual goods or giftware, and when he met my father, he was impressed more than anything else by the fact that the young man in front of him spoke Yiddish. They hit it off immediately.

Was there more to Harelick than just that? Like much of LA’s Jewish history, Harelick was a fact I so took for granted that I don’t recall asking anyone about him. Growing up, I never questioned whether Jews had lived anywhere else except the flats of Beverly Hills, around the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, or in the Fairfax District — a geographic area that, in my young mind, not only stretched east along Beverly Boulevard, past the old Pan-Pacific Auditorium, but also south past Wilshire all the way to Pico and Hauser boulevards, where a few of my school friends lived. Throughout the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, all the Jews I met seemed settled and comfortable, European in descent or in fact, and well assimilated to the fashions and possessions of middle-class American life. Sure, I knew the Federation building lay somewhere on the long drive to downtown in a predominantly Latinx section of the city, and my father knew a few friends and customers who lived in East Hollywood, but that was all far away, like a lot of things in LA.

So, on this bright summer day, I’m driving the freeway with my father, running a tutorial for myself on where exactly Jewish bookstores first emerged and in search of the retail origins of M. Harelick Books during those flush years after the war. What was Harelick’s story? When he showed up, was he as enchanted as I was, in 1966, that homes here were so unlike New York? In Queens, we lived on the third floor of a red-brick, six-story apartment building right next to the Long Island Expressway. After a good winter snowfall, all the kids rode their sleds down the highway’s embankment. Year round, though, the most popular open space for me and my brothers was our third-floor hallway, where we ran back and forth until my mother or a neighbor shooed us back into our two-bedroom corner apartment whose low ceilings, galley kitchen, and narrow hallway seemed small even to my five-year-old self.

In Los Angeles, our world suddenly opened up. The new apartment at 6450 West Olympic Boulevard was an airy ground-floor unit with two bedrooms large enough so that one of them fit three twin beds. It had a yellow tile kitchen with its own door for milk deliveries, a separate dining room, and a sunny living room where we parked the Steinway baby grand piano. The front windows looked out onto a common courtyard and garden around which the other apartments were arranged. No more long treks to get outside; when you opened the front door, you could hear birds chirping and the traffic on Olympic wash by.

Our six-unit complex was designed in one of the eclectic revival styles popular in Los Angeles from the 1920s through the 1940s. Up and down the streets of this South Carthay Circle neighborhood were Spanish Revival, Colonial Revival, and Mediterranean Revival houses and apartments. Ours was French Chateauesque, complete with two turrets capped by black spires that guarded each side of the courtyard’s front entrance.

Everything around us seemed whimsically old, but that was the idea. The folks pouring in during the 1910s and ’20s were lured in part by the sly mirage of LA as home to romantic California rancheros and orange groves, an illusion that historians say was cooked up by real estate speculators and city boosters hoping to fill the city’s growing exurbs with paying customers for the downtown business elite. Throw in the new film studios’ penchant for architectural fantasias and using empty tracts as Hollywood stage sets and the result was a frenetic burst of construction that liberally adapted architectural styles from Spain, Italy, England, and France, as well as from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. To me, Los Angeles wasn’t just a city; it was a historical adventure.

At five, seven, and nine, though, we Roth brothers had to keep our exploring close to home. The kitchen in our back-corner apartment faced a stucco wall that connected a row of garages lining the alleyway behind the complex. Jumping down the three concrete steps from the kitchen door, we would follow the path leading to the intersection at the rear of the apartments, where a right led you into the alley and a left took you out front to the box hedges and birds of paradise in the courtyard.

We turned left. Behind some low shrubs, there was an access panel at the base of a wall that could be jimmied aside, allowing us to squeeze into the crawl space underneath the building. In New York, we had basements for storage and heating, which we weren’t allowed anywhere near, but in California, look, no basements! Except now we discovered that California has a different kind of place beneath, built just the right size for children to shimmy around between the foundation and the first floor, where we can hear when a kitchen sink drained or a toilet flushed. Even better, in the hot, dry summer, a little chill leaked through the earth, and lying flat on it we cooled off, the dirt powdering our skin. My brothers crept away toward the dim light from another vent and I turned to inspect things closer to me: a spider repairing its web, a cockroach racing past, the way some insect curled into a ball when I tried to touch it.

“Alan! Laurence! Benjamin! Get out of there right now! What are you doing? You can get stuck underneath there and I don’t know what, you’ll hurt yourselves. Get out now! Look at you, you’re filthy.”

For my mother, this kind of adventuring reeked of danger. Rochelle’s finely tuned sense of disaster could imagine all kinds of terrors, from animal to mechanical, waiting for us down there. What lay between the earth and our floorboards was unnatural, capricious, and fatal. On the other hand, this was the mid-1960s and a firmly middle-class neighborhood, so she was far more sanguine about allowing us to walk the streets alone to the bookstore, four neatly tended blocks away on busy La Cienega Boulevard. We slid out one by one and pretended to dust ourselves off.

“Go over to the store,” she ordered us. “See if your father needs any help.”

To get there we headed out to the alley and over to La Jolla Street. Down La Jolla we passed our family doctor’s house and then turned right on Whitworth Drive. We walked another three blocks until we reached a short driveway that made a dogleg between the two halves of a large corner property on La Cienega. There we cut through to the front of the bookstore. The large show window had a clear yellowish sunshade behind it to protect the stock, and lettered on the plate glass is “M. Harelick Books.”

This is my earliest image of his storefront. It’s reproduced in a triptych of black-and-white photos of Harelick that hang in my study, one of which shows him standing beneath that window sign. His bald, kippah-free, round head and the few wisps of white hair left on it obscure the bottom right quadrant of the first “O” in “Books,” inadvertently suggesting a chain link between business and owner. He’s a short man with black plastic midcentury glasses, his dark shirt buttoned up to his neck, no tie, a light-colored sweater peeking out from under a rumpled and boxy old suit jacket, gripping in his right hand a plain wooden cane tipped with a rubber foot that’s angled away from his dark pant legs.

Harelick looks straight at the camera, projecting a friendly if non-committal demeanor. He’s on show as much as the merchandise framed in the window behind him: books arranged mostly spine out on three ledges in the bottom third of the window, a few volumes perched on four narrow shelves that line each side, two small decorative vases and a couple of framed prints artfully anchoring the lower corners. The only titles I can make out among the faced-out books are 6000 Years of the Bible by G. S. Wegener, A Treasury of Jewish Folksong by Ruth Rubin, and Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years by Carl Sandburg.

This is the storefront as both entrance and public face of a retail business. It’s a street-sized picture of a store’s goods and character, and whether it’s a custom-built design or simply crude signage tacked onto a private home, it signals to potential customers the cost, quality, class, and brand of the product or service being sold. Put a few together on a block and, in the time it takes for the eye to scan it, a neighborhood or commercial strip takes on a recognizable identity, sometimes intended, sometimes not. The items for sale in the show windows are not just consumer goods, they’re also tokens of belonging; by appealing to certain tastes every storefront advertises those things most prized by the clique of people who shop there. Patronizing these stores and purchasing the right items signals an insider’s knowledge and confers privilege. That’s why storefronts are often comforting, even enjoyable. They tell you where you are in time and place and lend that locale a certain reputation and value: M. Harelick Books, another Jewish-owned and -oriented business along a key artery through the quiet residential blocks of South Carthay Circle, early 1960s.

Such cultural capital is never at rest, though. It’s always in motion, just like the neighborhood and the various consumers in it. Leon Uris may have seemed a poor choice to Harelick, testifying to his customer’s dubious understanding of Jewish literacy and want of cultural distinction. But clearly the community of Jews surrounding the store was changing. 1070 South La Cienega was one of three or four addresses clustered in that corner property, a little retail complex that included a beauty salon, a printer’s shop, and a couple of apartments in the back. It was another of the many quickly built, mixed-use developments that made up the small commercial strips thrown up just before and after the Second World War, accompanying the white flight to — and population boom on — LA’s Westside. The biggest neighbor on that stretch of La Cienega was Temple Beth Am, founded in 1934, whose steadily expanded campus across the street from the bookstore housed one of the larger Conservative congregations in the city.

As Jack tells it, Harelick knew what he was doing when he moved from Melrose Avenue to 1049 South La Cienega sometime in the late 1950s, and then, when the temple bought his building to make way for a new Hebrew school, to the east side of the boulevard in 1964. Beth Am was one of a number of synagogues in the Fairfax, Carthay Circle, Beverly Hills, and Pico-Robertson neighborhoods that served the Jewish professionals, mass media employees, aerospace workers, and small shopkeepers who were rapidly gravitating toward the ocean and into the San Fernando Valley. Perhaps tellingly, Harelick’s storefront at 1070 had no Hebrew or Yiddish on any of its signage. Like the book on Abraham Lincoln so prominently featured in its show window, his shop catered to a generation of increasingly affluent Jewish Angelenos with diverse literary interests and tastes, still fascinated by great emancipations and making a quick exodus themselves from urban Jewish enclaves in the Midwest and Northeast or older neighborhoods in Los Angeles, such as Boyle Heights, the Central Avenue corridor around East Adams Boulevard, and Wilshire Center.

Examining the old black-and-white photo, I also think: Isn’t Los Angeles just one large storefront? This occurs to me not just because I’m immediately reminded of the city’s infatuation with businesses whose storefronts look like giant hot dogs, tamales, coffee pots, ice cream buckets, and doughnuts. Or even because an artist like Ed Ruscha thought that photographing every building on the Sunset Strip and documenting the quirky architectural styles of the city’s gas stations and apartment buildings revealed both the ingenuity and banality of LA’s ephemeral mass culture.

No, it occurs to me because Harelick’s bookstore, and my father’s purchase of it, molded my thinking about the complicated relation between the city’s shape-shifting commercial landscape and its fugitive consumers. Harelick’s storefront, it seemed to me, was like so many others in the city, another attempt to stake a claim on transient grounds, to fix one’s business and being into the fast-moving scheme of things and say, “I’m here,” or “We’re here,” though always under the shadow of being taken over or turned out. Location, so crucial to retail success, was important as well to my education about this, even though it didn’t sink in until much later. La Cienega wasn’t Fairfax, and would never become what Pico Boulevard is today, and so I appreciate only now how that snapshot, in addition to the nostalgic comfort it still summons for me, also captured a moment and a locale that was not just in-between — in property use, demographics, and time — but also in-process. Our arrival and Jack’s choice of Harelick and Roth Booksellers as the new name for the store evidenced that, as did the store’s customers, with their multiple affiliations, senses of self, and ways of talking about both of these. Which for many went entirely without saying because the contemporary flux and flow of their social lives appeared entirely stable and natural to them.

I see in Harelick’s storefront a reflection of that complexity, multiplicity, and naïve self-regard. And, consequently, how my father’s bookstore trained me to read for both comfort and contradiction. It taught me how to attend to the various stories I heard told about my space and my place, as I thought of it, and how these landed tales continually bumped up against other stories and geographies that I stumbled into in dependably unpredictable ways. Think of the eclectic revival styles of my childhood neighborhood, where the exteriors looked like one thing, the mostly Jewish people inside sounded like something else, and only paid handymen, curious kids, and insects explored the crawl spaces underneath.

I learned that storefronts come and go, expand and contract, toggle back and forth between expressions of their owners’ tastes and those of their clientele. They’re how I imagine that Jewishness and memory continually relocate in this city, moving sideways and close to ground but not subterranean, always next to or among — a history in rebuilds and add-ons, like the Los Angeles described by various writers as a tale in concrete of its residents’ dreams, or an anthology of misremembered pasts, or a palimpsest of erasures and rebuilding. Or, as Mike Davis says, a “utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism,” a place where people and things define, distort, and then redefine each other again in ways as protean as the architecture.

I check the speedometer and then glance at Jack. Was Harelick even there that day 50 years ago when I arrived to help? Standing in front of the store with my brothers, the Ships Coffee Shop sign up the street caught my attention. Maybe dad will get us tuna sandwiches to eat in the back room for lunch. We look in through the show window to see if he’s alone or taking care of a customer, but the glare bouncing off the glass is too strong. All we can see is ourselves superimposed over the books on display.


Laurence Roth is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and co-chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. He is the author of Inspecting Jews: American Jewish Detective Stories (2004), co-editor of The Routledge Handbook to Contemporary Jewish Cultures (2014), and editor of Modern Language Studies, a publication of the Northeast Modern Language Association.