By James Schneeweis
After serving as a major source for rare and out of print books for more than a century, Dawson’s Book Shop closed its location on Larchmont Boulevard last August. The shop founded by Ernest Dawson in 1905 had been the oldest, continuously operating bricks-and-mortar book store in the city.
But Dawson’s didn’t disappear. Third-generation bookstore owner and curator Michael Dawson now runs the family business out of his Echo Park home of more than 20 years home as well as an online outpost . Dawson, 54, grew up in Silver Lake and attended Clifford Street Elementary, where he would bring in some of the family’s rare collectibles to show to during history lessons. I caught up with Dawson as he moved books. He talked about Dawson’s Book Shop and the Michael Dawson Gallery, the evolution and the future.
Q: What has Dawson’s Book Shop been known for?
Dawson’s handled many great libraries and catered to book collector’s worldwide for many years. Dawson’s was the most important rare book shop in Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s. They did very well in the post-war period but other dealers like Jake Zeitlin really began to diversify the trade during this period. In the 1920s and 30s Dawson’s Book Shop was very well known for early printed books (15th and 16th century) as well as a wide variety of European books from the 17th through 19th centuries. My uncle was very interested in Americana, particularly Western States and California. My father was always interested in fine press books and Japanese art. In the 1950s and 60s he traveled to Japan and Korea buying many fine books, woodblock prints, and narrative picture scrolls. In the 1980s I brought my knowledge of photography book and prints into the business and that specialty become recognized as well. Of course we purchased many general libraries and we were always known for a variety of good books at reasonable prices.
Q: How many different Dawson’s locations have there been?
Dawson’s Book Shop was founded by my grandfather Ernest Dawson in 1905. There were five different locations between 1905 and 2010. Four of the five locations were in downtown Los Angeles. (713 Broadway–1905-1908, 518 South Hill Street—1908-1922, 627 South Grand Avenue-1922-1952, 550 South Figueroa-1952-1968, 535 North Larchmont, 1968-2010.
Q: Why did the book shop move?
The moves were always driven by economics. Either the landlord raised the rent or there was a desire for more space. In terms of the last two locations downtown, the growth of Los Angeles prompted the moves. The Grand Avenue location was torn down when Wilshire Boulevard was pushed several blocks east. The South Figueroa location was torn down when the old Atlantic Richfield building (an Art Deco landmark) was replaced by the Arco Towers. After four different moves the family decided it was time to find a permanent home for Dawson’s Book Shop. I grew up in Silver Lake and my mother began shopping on Larchmont Boulevard in the late 1950s. When my uncle and father were searching for a new location my mother pushed hard for Larchmont. They found a lot north of Beverly Blvd. and built the new structure in 1967. It was seen as somewhat of a risk to move so far from downtown Los Angeles but the decision to move to Larchmont served the business very well for many years.
Q: Talk about the role Dawson’s Book Shop has played in regard to books of fine art, history, the people responsible for these books and the people that buy them.
Dawson’s Book Shop has been instrumental in building many fine collections for private and institutional buyers over the last 100 years. My grandfather sold books to Estelle Doheny in the 1920s and 30s. After World War II my uncle and father worked with Lawrence Clark Powell to develop the special collection holdings at UCLA. I have placed many fine collections with the Bancroft Library at Berkeley and the State Library in Sacramento including an extensive collection relating to the Japanese-American internment during World War II as well a large photographic archive of Southern California commercial architecture from the 1920s and 30s.
Q: Did you grow up around books? What impressed you?
Yes, my family had many books at home and I was always visiting the Figueroa and Larchmont locations as a child and young adult.
At the time it all seemed pretty normal to me but on reflection I was treated to some special experiences growing up in the rare book trade. I remember having some special advantages on school projects. I once took a Babylonian clay tablet (one of the earliest forms of writing in existence) to elementary school (Clifford Street Elementary in the Beverly D. Mason era) when we were studying ancient history. In junior high school (Thomas Starr King) I made a film for a world history class using 19th century Japanese wood block prints showing the arrival of Westerners to the port city of Yokohama in the 1860s and 70s.
My father was very interested in letter press printing and had a small printing press at home. I remember many nights where I would fall asleep listening to the clanking metal parts of the press as he would be printing some announcement for an event at Dawson’s Book Shop or some other project.
Q: Do you have a private collection? Are there books you will never part with?
I have a particular interest in 20th century American photography and Southern California history. I have a fine copy of the first edition of Carey McWilliams’ book, “Southern California Country” inscribed by McWilliams to Jake Zeitlin that I am very fond of. I also have a number of books inscribed to me by various authors and artists that have presented at Dawson’s Book Shop or have worked with me on special projects
Q: How did the Michael Dawson Gallery come about?
A: In 2000 I was ready to start a schedule of regular photography exhibitions. I was in the process of reducing a lot of general books and phasing out certain specialties. I was handling a lot of photographs and it seemed like a logical step to open the gallery. I enjoyed organizing the shows, working with private collectors, colleagues in the photography trade, as well as contemporary artists. It was a logical step for me and I think it brought a new and younger audience to the Larchmont location.
What has become of Dawson’s Book Shop, the evolution?
Q: At this point both Dawson’s Book Shop and the Michael Dawson Gallery no longer exist as a bricks and mortar location. I have moved everything out of the Larchmont location and now work out of my home in Echo Park. My family has retained ownership of the building and leased the property to a successful graphic design company. I am still getting myself organized but will soon be able to have visitors on an appointment basis. I am also available to visit private collectors and institutions to share books or photographs that pertain to their interests. In many ways I am following the trend of many specialty businesses that have moved to home offices. This is partly my own choice after working in a retail environment for 25 years and partly a desire to lower my overhead and concentrate on a very select inventory of rare books and fine photographs. I also have seen a very steady growth in my appraisal and collection consultation business.
Q: Why the switch to an online store?
A: I have been selling books online for almost 15 years. I saw the opportunities for online retail early on. Books lend themselves to the online environment very easily. If the material is well described and illustrated most buyers feel very comfortable with purchasing books on the Internet. The trend for online purchasing has put the bricks and mortar locations at a real disadvantage. This holds true for both new, used, and rare books. Pricing is always competitive. The bricks and mortar locations have to compete with the online retailer but, in general, with quite a bit more overhead. For the rare and out of print book trade, book buyers are not supporting the bricks and mortar locations. The interest for the material is still there but it has shifted significantly toward the Internet marketplace.
This trend has really hurt bookstore culture and this is something that Dawson’s Book Shop worked very hard to create. Throughout the life of the book shop we hosted numerous book signings, lectures, and other special events. This provided a meeting place for people with similar interests to gather and share their ideas. This was always one aspect of the business that I really enjoyed but as sales continued to deteriorate, it just wasn’t practical to go through all the effort.
Another thing that book shops provide is the ability to search for books that you may not know about but you discover as your browse through the shelves. People who love to “browse” have told me over and over how they lament that so many shops have closed over the last 10 years. Book browsers are an eclectic mix of young and old. Unfortunately they are a rapidly shrinking segment of the book buying public. Most buyers already know what they are looking for and want to find it at the lowest possible price. The Internet is perfect for this type of buyer.
Q: How has the rare, fine art, historical and out of print book business changed?
A: All of these markets have been hit with two divergent trends that make the book trade a very difficult terrain to navigate. On one hand many books have become more available through the rise of the Internet marketplace. Book dealers used to make a comfortable living selling books in the $10 to $50 range to buyers who frequented stores in their local area. When the Internet arrived these same buyers had access to book dealers on a national and international basis. As the terrain for bookselling expanded so did the availability of many books published in the last 75 years. As supply started to exceed demand prices began to decline. This decline in prices will continue to occur for many years to come.
On the opposite side of the fence, many rare books (books published in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century) dried up very quickly as they became listed on the Internet. For these books demand has exceeded supply and the prices for these books have gone through the roof. The auction market has taken advantage of this scarcity by offering deals to sellers of this material that most book dealers cannot afford to match.
Q: What do you wish for?
A: For me this is a time of transformation. I succeeded in bringing Dawson’s Book Shop past the century mark and I am very proud of this achievement. A lot of my responsibility over the last 25 years was custodial in nature: preserving a legacy and maintaining financial commitments to the past generation of my family as well as my employees. Now I work on my own and I look forward to taking the reputation I have built over the last 25 years and engaging with projects that challenge my intellect, talent, and creativity. My wish is for continued success as I work through the new approaches to business.
James Schneeweis is a writer who lives in Echo Park
Photos courtesy Michael Dawson