Category Archives: Bits and Bobs

A Last Birthday

This is what I wrote on our 24th birthday:

The other day at Portrait I was asked about how it is that we seem to know every single book on our shelves. Some people have offered that we don’t actually read all of them, that we just read reviews and synopses and manufacture opinions about the book based on our interpretation of these, then present these opinions as if they were formed after days and days of being buried in the pages of the book in question. Not so. We do read them. Our store is very small and compared to the big boxes, or even other independent bookstores, our stock is also limited. Limited or not, we have a lot of books– I once had to take all of them down for renovations and it took me one whole day. One whole 12-hour day. So how is it that you can point to any book and at least one of our eight-person staff will have read it? Even if the book was released just yesterday? The obvious answer is that we all love to read and the only prerequisite for employment at Portrait (besides being at least functionally insane or better) is being an avid reader.

The less obvious answer, and the one which is more or less romantic depending on your point of view, is that it is part of the job description. Really. This is why each of us takes so much pride in our work– we aren’t just store clerks charged with successfully completing transactions. We’re required to read and have opinions about every single book we sell. In a sense, besides working during the hours of our shifts, we also work from home. I happen to think that’s quite extraordinary and being someone loath to brag, I say that with a great deal of care.

I suppose I’m feeling pretty sentimental to be writing this for the world to see. Twenty four years for a small bookstore is no small feat. Julie and Frank and every one who has called this place home throughout the years have all lovingly and unabashedly poured pieces of themselves into these walls.  I suspect that, with the guidance of the kind, knowledge-seeking and solace-providing spirits that reside here, it will exist for many many years to come. Because it’s important to have a place to find refuge in where your hosts know their home inside out, where guided tours through unknown realms are the norm, where you know they care– not because it’s good company policy to appear like they do, but because they just do.

Happy Birthday, Julie. Happy Birthday, Portrait of a Bookstore, the little bookstore that could.

This is what I wrote on our 25th birthday:

25 is the number of years I’ve been alive. When I was born, Portrait of a Bookstore was about to celebrate one month of being in business. So, you see how grandiose statements about time and wisdom may seem laughable coming out of me.

Here’s the question: How do you celebrate a life lived across two and a half decades,  in one day? I’m already worried about what we’ll do for our 50th Anniversary. A bigger party? More people we love will show up and toast us? Of course. That has its place. It’s why I’ll blow out my own candles this year and next. But that act is only symbolism born out of tradition. Whether or not I celebrate my life is decided each and every day between birthdays. More often than not, I don’t. Some days I do, most days I don’t.

And that’s how this bookstore is different from me. That’s why yesterday’s celebration was sweet and cozy and small and felt like a special day but not much different than any other. That’s what makes this bookstore extraordinary. Every day we celebrate somehow. Even when we don’t think we’re celebrating, we are. There are no bad days here… and it’s nothing like Oz.

I was asked recently what the secret to our survival has been and my answer was an unromantic, honest and practical one: “Love.” We just love each other. We love what we do. We love books. We love talking to people about books. This love is so genuine and strong, that people recognize it and through this we connect with our community, one person at a time. It’s so simple.

Thank you for the first 25 years…

Today is our 26th birthday. All that can conceivably be said has already been said. In fact, I have been silent most of the day. As, I know, many of our staff have and many of you. We will miss you. We will miss each other. We will miss…desperately miss these walls. These walls, within which we met and fell in love, where we fought and reconciled, wept and laughed, learned and grew. This was always a place, often deemed a haven, where all who thirsted for beauty could be sated. There are so many kinds of beauty and we always had a little of each kind. How lucky we are that it will forever live inside us as just such a place.

“Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

–Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse


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Everything at Portrait of a Bookstore is now 75% off.

Including bookshelves and pens and tape…. and paper clips. And did I mention we still have shelves and shelves of books and antiques and vintage accessories and all kinds of wild and wonderful things?

This is our way of inviting you back to our house for one last hurrah. Come in for a hug and a chat and… and a final goodbye.

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“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air, December 29, 2011

I’m just pretending he was swallowed up by the lion. All we have to do is turn him upside down.

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Christmas in May

Yes, maybe our stock room is a glorious bottomless pit, as some of you have suggested. No matter how many people come through and whisk away mementos for themselves, we keep adding new things and it’s looking almost possible now that we’ll never run out!

James Fearnley’s new book, Here Comes Everybody, not yet distributed in the US, is available only at Portrait! Stop in for your copy today.

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New Things

Some of you thought it was over last week, when you came in, beheld the emptiness, and heard your own voice echoing back. Well, guess what! We have all new things.


And everything is still 50% off!

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This and That and This

Amazing, isn’t it? Not how drunk he is, but how much space there is between each word he speaks, how he tells almost the whole story, how sweet he seems, how charming and affected and innocent.  Part of the audiobook, Ernest Hemingway Reads Ernest Hemingway, this was recorded on a pocket recorder sometime in the 50’s.

We have precisely 1,456,987 books in stock with Hemingway as their subject. Here’s just a handful of our bestsellers:

“Focusing on the years 1934 to 1961—from Hemingway’s pinnacle as the reigning monarch of American letters until his suicide—Paul Hendrickson traces the writer’s exultations and despair around the one constant in his life during this time: his beloved boat, Pilar.”

“Ernest Hemingway always had cats as companions, from the ones he adored as a child in Illinois and Michigan, to the more than 30 he had as an adult in Paris, Key West, Cuba, and Idaho. All are chronicled and most are pictured here, along with revelations of how they fit into the many twists and turns of his life and loves.”

“A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.” A novel.

“Compelling, illuminating, poignant, and deeply insightful, Paris Without End provides a rare, intimate glimpse of the writer who so fully captured the American imagination and the remarkable woman who inspired his passion and his art—the only woman Hemingway never stopped loving.” Not a novel.

“With books like 2001’s PEN/Faulkner winner Bel Canto and the new State of Wonder, Patchett has demonstrated a singular ability to write smart literary novels that are also big best sellers. And when it comes to literature and books in general, she’s put her money where her mouth is: in 2011 she opened Parnassus Books in her hometown of Nashville, placing herself on the front lines of several ongoing battles for the fate of the printed word.”

Ann Patchett is one of the nominees for Time Magazine‘s Most Influential People of 2012. I decided to vote “Definitely” as opposed to “No Way” when asked by a poll whether she should be on the list. 55.16% have said No Way.  Also, she’s right in between Leon Panetta and Ron Paul. I can’t explain why, but that’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

Speaking of jokes, did you know that the 2012-13 California budget provides zero (0) funding for public libraries? That’s zero dollars. You can write a letter or ten, and here’s some information.

Truman Capote’s bedroom. See others here.

Listening to their voices rambling… scrutinizing the places they lived in… reading between the lines of novels and stories and poems… really believing we can get close.

Also, this.

Adrienne Rich passed away on March 27, at the age of 82. Surely you’ve heard.

I would not have objected to a hundred more years’ worth of poems.

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Turning Pages

This morning, there was a knock at my office door. When I opened it, standing in front of me was a box of books… with legs (and a few more on the ground, without). Gail Craven read Katie’s story yesterday and decided to help. She’s in the business of helping, you see. A teacher at Colfax Charter Elementary in Studio City, Gail is also the Executive Director of the Turning Pages Foundation, a nonprofit in support of literacy, enrichment and leadership programs in local and global communities. Having recently organized a successful community book drive, Gail is now donating a good deal of these books to Katie’s learners in South Africa.

I am personally so grateful and so heartened by this. Sure, it’s all small beans if you start to compare, but who’s to say what the value is of a cycle such as this — a recent college graduate uproots herself to be of use somewhere where she’s needed, she reaches out to a bunch of people who like to read, they in turn reach out and are met by the open palms of members of a community that is just dying to help wherever and whomever it can. We’re only talking about a few boxes of books here, but just one of these books could be the sole thing a man or woman in South Africa will one day point to as the beginning, the source of meaning, of purpose and of hope.

Please visit the Turning Pages Foundation website here, and consider volunteering, helping out in any way. Whether you’ll donate a book, funds, mentor a child, help set up the stand at the Farmers Market where they sell plants, encourage your children to participate… whatever you want, however big, however small.

Also, and this is for those of you who eat food, the Whole Foods  in Sherman Oaks on Riverside Dr. will be donating 5% of all of tomorrow’s profits to the foundation. You buy groceries, a bunch of kids get help with their math homework. Please shop there tomorrow, April 4th, if you have shopping to do. It’s a multidimensional win-win if ever there was one.

Last but certainly not least, thanks to all of you who’ve donated, those whom I haven’t thanked personally, those of you who leave behind sacks of books anonymously… thank you!

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Excerpts from a Letter

Well, we have been back in school for a few months now and much has changed. First, I no longer sit like a lump at school. I have a lot to do at the primary school now that my observation period is over. I focus mainly on remedial work. I work with the three to five of the slowest learners from grades four to seven. I was originally supposed to be teaching them the same lessons that the English teacher does in class. After my initial assessment, however, it was clear to me that this would not be possible. The majority of the kids have trouble or cannot read a book meant for an American second grader. A few of them cannot read at all.
… I am working individually with [Grace,] a girl from grade six. She didn’t know the alphabet when I first met her, let alone letter sounds. Last week she read her first book. It is a simple book called “Cat”, but it is a book all the same. The teachers here are all really hard on the learners… When I had a parents’ meeting with Grace’s mother and the English teacher… they told me that she was a lost cause, beyond help, lazy, and doesn’t want to learn… After she finished reading the book, I went and brought that teacher into the room. I asked Grace to read for her while this teacher watched. She read the whole book with no help and no difficulty. The teacher sat there dumbfounded, while Grace proved her wrong.
Grace is one of my many learners who improve daily. My boy from grade seven who had trouble even writing his own name also read his first book last week. Lesego from grade five was able to tell me the entire alphabet correctly for the first time Friday. My learners who are more advanced than these kids and do know the alphabet and letter sounds have improved a grade level at least in their reading. I will take many things away from this experience I am having in the Peace Corps. What I will never forget, however, is the smile on a child’s face when they are proud of themselves. The small things are why I am here.
My library is underway. Nine other Peace Corps volunteers and I have teamed together to get a huge shipment of books through Books for Africa. With a lot of help from our friends and family back home, we are coming along nicely. The Department of Education here will help deliver the books to the different schools [when they arrive]. I have managed to get shelves donated and other things I will need for my library, so I believe it will be a success.
My primary school also wants to start a garden. It is a big task to undertake in a village with sand as soil and no water. I am doing what I can with my principal to try and make this happen, however. I will be attending a Permagarden workshop put on by the Peace Corps in the beginning of April. I also recently attended a Permaculture workshop organized by Food and Trees for Africa. Food and Trees for Africa is a great organization. They give trees for free to schools that will take care of them. A school can ask for as many as they want and whatever kind they want. I could ask for 500 plum trees if I wanted. I will partner with them in a project called Trees for Homes. They give a tree to every person of the village. The people are able to choose if they want a fruit tree or a shade tree. If they choose a fruit tree, they choose the kind of fruit. A person in the village then gets paid a stipend to make sure the trees are being taken care of properly. It is a big task to organize, but being able to bring hundreds of trees to my village gets me beyond excited.
…It is cooling off a bit. That means it is no longer 104 degrees in my room. Now it is down to a chilly 80. It is funny to think how cold everyone was, myself included, when it got down into the 70s. We were all wearing sweatshirts or jackets and shivering. I was under my nice cozy blanket. Winter is going to be brutal.
That is it for now. I just returned from my neighboring truck stop (kind of like a 7-11 with a smaller selection open for less time) where ten kids came to greet me screaming “Ausi Lerato, Ausi Lerato,” and it looks like they have now followed me home.
Love to everyone back home,
Katie or Ausi Lerato (Ausi- sister, Lerato- my African name, meaning love)
To donate to the Siphumelela project and help get these books shipped to Katie’s learners, click here. Please spread the word, tell as many people as you can about this… all these kids want are books.
And, of course, we’re your happy depository, so drop off whatever you can, whenever you want.

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“Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,”… elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”

See what Your Brain on Fiction looks like.


Just when you think a phenomenon has gone and died forever, someone ends up in the hospital over a LITERARY ARGUMENT. Can’t wait to know what this was about. (“Tolstoy was the master!” “No, you ignorant scum, Turgenev is God!” “How dare you! [Punch]”)

Kidding aside, I hope the poor guy is okay.

However, I can’t say the same for this brilliant commenter who chose to type the following words at 3:37 pm on March 19:

“This is why I don’t read books. People who read tend to be anti-social and violent as we see here. Plus aren’t all great writers drunks? Probably rubs off on their fanbases.”

So right, yet so wrong.


Books I can’t wait to read next week:

V.S. Ramachandran, the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD: “In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity and panache—that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings.”

Free Will, by Sam Harris


“A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.”

Listen to the NPR interview here.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed


“In When I Was a Child I Read Books [Marilynne Robinson] returns to and expands upon the themes which have preoccupied her work with renewed vigor.

In “Austerity as Ideology,” she tackles the global debt crisis, and the charged political and social political climate in this country that makes finding a solution to our financial troubles so challengin. In “Open Thy Hand Wide” she searches out the deeply embedded role of generosity in Christian faith. And in “When I Was a Child,” one of her most personal essays to date, an account of her childhood in Idaho becomes an exploration of individualism and the myth of the American West. Clear-eyed and forceful as ever, Robinson demonstrates once again why she is regarded as one of our essential writers.”

When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson


Books I’m glad I read last week:

“Stunned to learn that her son, Sam, is about to become a father at nineteen, Lamott begins a journal about the first year of her grandson Jax’s life.”

For those of us who cherished Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year this is something wholly different, but still in possession of the same wit and tenderness.

A Journal of My Son’s First Son, by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott


Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: “Susan Cain is the definer of a new and valuable paradigm. In this moving and original argument, she makes the case that we are losing immense reserves of talent and vision because of our culture’s overvaluation of extroversion. A startling, important, and readable page-turner that will make quiet people see themselves in a whole new light.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain


“Julia Severn is a student at an elite institute for psychics. Her mentor, the legendary Madame Ackermann, afflicted by jealousy, refuses to pass the torch to her young disciple. Instead, she subjects Julia to the humiliation of reliving her mother’s suicide when Julia was an infant. As the two lock horns, and Julia gains power, Madame Ackermann launches a desperate psychic attack that leaves Julia the victim of a crippling ailment.”

Doesn’t that sound like loads of delicious fun? It was!

The Vanishers, by Heidi Julavits

Have a quiet, wonderful weekend, everyone. And happy reading!


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“one of those magical places wise people like to talk about”

“Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Welcome, Spring!
Here’s how Lilly feels about you:
“Such Singing in the Wild Branches”
Mary Oliver
from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves –
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness –
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree –
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing –
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky – all, all of them
were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
for more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then – open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.


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