Larchmont Village, a historic and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood south of Hollywood, owes much of its appeal to Chevalier’s Books—the oldest independent bookstore in Los Angeles. Founded in 1940 by native Angeleno Joe Chevalier, the store has had many illustrious customers over the years, including author Aldous Huxley and singer Nat King Cole. Even the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes once visited. “May I help you?” Chevalier is said to have asked Hughes, who was perusing the nonfiction section. “Nope,” replied the irascible mogul, who headed out the door and never came back. We spoke with Miles Parnegg, Chevalier’s store manager.
ZYZZYVA: What’s the coziest spot in your store for reading?
MILES PARNEGG: If you’re jonesing to impersonate an elementary schooler you can post up in the kids’ corner. Our chairs there are sized for eight-year-olds but they are stupendously soft. My favorite place to read (on break) is in our back hallway and off the sales floor. There’s a nook outside the office where we have a battered armchair that mostly functions as a storage fixture for holiday decorations and packing material. That packing material makes a great ottoman.
Z: What’s a little-known fact about your store?
Always get the last word.
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MP: On select days, usually a sleepy weekday afternoon, Quinn, one of our booksellers, and I will commandeer control of the Bluetooth speaker and turn off the tasteful folk or mellow jazz that’s been soothing browsers all day. It will be replaced by 2000s pop-punk—the Starting Line, Less Than Jake, New Found Glory, Fall Out Boy. It will be louder than is strictly necessary. We will be singing. (You should hear Quinn’s Tom Delonge impression.) Unclear whether this has a positive impact on sales, but let me tell you it does wonders for morale.
Z: How would you describe the smell of your shop?
MP: Often the most overpowering aroma is that of garlic and olive oil wafting in from the pizza shop next door, but I worry that might create a misleading Mediterranean impression. For me, the indelible scent is the lingering trace of Lysol sanitizing wipes after cleaning up some unidentified fluid discovered in the kids’ section. (While I have the soapbox: Parents! Please assume responsibility for your children’s fluids while browsing the books about dump trucks or dancing giraffes!)
Z: Which new book would you recommend most to readers?
MP: I was flattened by A Matter of Appearance by Emily Wells (Seven Stories Press), which is a hybrid memoir about Wells’s agonizing chronic illness. For clarity and support, Wells draws on psychoanalysis, the history of hysteria, and the philosophy of medicine. She operates in that Eula Biss or Olivia Laing mode. Wells was an elite ballet dancer and brings a crazy-acute sensitivity to the body and its frailty. I was especially pierced by the thornier questions the book asks: How do you communicate individual, idiosyncratic pain to someone who doesn’t live in your body? How do you tell the story of your illness when there’s no cure or recovery? And it’s a testament to the author’s intellect and vigor that she was able to produce this book while suffering as she does.
Z: Aside from your own, what’s your favorite bookstore?
MP: I love a bookstore that’s a total mess, where the organization is really just the product of the proprietor’s screwy intuition. I resist the premise of a bookstore functioning like a supermarket: the place you go to get exactly what you want and leave. Instead, I like to think of it as a farmers’ market, or else a kind of foraging zone. Go in blind, search, wander, run your fingers down spines, and come across something you couldn’t have foreseen or didn’t know existed. Sideshow Books is the only shop in L.A. I know that embodies this ethos. The kind of place you walk in looking for a paperback to read on the plane to Dallas but leave with a book on structural anthropology or a volume of Robert Lowell’s letters. The store’s owner, Tony Jacobs, brews a mean espresso—he’ll offer you one when you walk in. National hero.