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Jaunts: In and around the Valley

Word of Mouth : Noho bookstore offers aspiring scribes a place to share their love of verse.

May 08, 1997|SUSAN ABRAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a lackluster stretch of Lankershim Boulevard, where the neighborhood coffeehouse seems adrift in a sea of vacant lots, buildings for lease and street maintenance equipment, poets gather nightly to get the word out.

They come to Sam's Book City in North Hollywood, where ponytails tucked under berets and corduroy jackets with suede elbow patches are still in style, and worn spiral notebooks filled with self-reflection are held closely, like precious love letters.

Since closing of the artist-friendly Iguana Cafe almost two years ago, this cozy independent bookstore with white cloth chairs and Jack Kerouac books propped up on any available shelf has inherited the soapbox and open mike, becoming one of the area's bastions of the spoken word.

By day, the 4-year-old store's 50,000 volumes of new and used books tempt those who need a written-word fix. Dozens of homemade flyers advertising book signings and readings are posted on the front windows, while the front counters are littered with newsletters.

Patrons are followed around the store by a demure collie-German shepherd mix named Samantha, who occasionally stops to rest by the refinished piano made in 1908.

But almost every night, Sam's lures poets and spoken-word artists, more aspiring than published, who stop by to share verses of love and loss with appreciative ears.

On Mondays, owner Craig Klapman rolls aside two ceiling-high bookcases set on tracks for easy mobility and filled with mystery and adventure-themed paperbacks. He clears out the middle of the room, making space for "Zanti Misfits Reading," a two-hour presentation hosted by James "Boomer" Maverick.

Part open-mike night, part talk-show parody, the show's pace is set by Maverick, doing his best Montel Williams imitation, who gathers a weekly panel of local poets to discuss self-esteem, sincerity and other artistic preoccupations.

In between "commercial breaks," Maverick invites poets from the audience to approach the mike to read. Sometimes, someone critically acclaimed and well known in local poetry circles, such as Ellyn Maybe, will make her way past the seated crowd of about 30 and read her latest work.

For the Westside poet, who has watched coffeehouses open and close in her decade-long career, the existence of Sam's is evidence that poetry is an immortal form of artistic expression.

"Poetry is going to last because I think that what remains of a culture are those things left by the artists," said Maybe, once a regular at Iguana Cafe. "It's important that this place is treasured because there are few places poets can gather."

She said she was especially impressed with the store's collection of chapbooks for sale. Chapbooks, booklets of privately published poems, sell for $2 to $5. For the poet who can't find a conventional publisher, chapbooks are like calling cards, an effective way for the writer to circulate his or her work.

Another regular feature at Sam's, the bimonthly "In Other Words: A Night of Poetic Influence," provides locals with a forum to discuss favorite works by others.

"To compress so much in one poem is a miracle," whispered one man during a recent Sunday night meeting. A Vietnam vet, he revealed that a piece he read by Rod McKuen reminded him of a moment in Saigon three decades ago, when he stumbled on a child with a bullet through the chest.

For another man, James Kavanaugh's "You're Nothing Special, Silly Old Man," from the collection, "Faces in the City," resurrected humiliating memories of failed relationships and the passing of his youth.

Klapman admits that Sam's Book City is not exactly City Lights--the San Francisco bookstore that was a beacon for the Beats. But the 31-year-old North Hollywood resident said he liked the idea of an active community center where poets, playwrights and performers--from jugglers to fire eaters--could come and present their talent.

Klapman, who bought the bookstore when he decided a career in acting wasn't going to happen, began holding open readings two years ago at the suggestion of local poet Rafael F.J. Alvarado, who came into the store with his dog Lorca.

Once a month, Alvarado and Lorca the Poetry Dog lead "La Luz Interna," one of the few Spanish literature discussion groups in the area. Other regularly scheduled events include "Gospels of Utopia," during which musicians and others play the store's restored piano; Doug Knott's Monday night poetry workshop, and Prose Combat, a monthly reading featuring top Los Angeles area writers.

"A lot of poetry readings are in coffeehouses, but there's competition with the espresso machines," said Klapman, who thinks that the quiet of a bookstore makes listeners more receptive.

"At the grass-roots level, more people are doing this," said Klapman. "Poetry has become a form of expression on a small scale, while also a way of connecting with other human beings."

Perhaps as a result of saturating the community with the spoken word, the store has seen a steady increase in poetry book sales, especially those of the late Charles Bukowski because "he knows L.A.," Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and, recently, Allen Ginsberg, who died last month.

"I'd like the bookstore to become a cornerstone of the community," said Klapman, smiling, "the kind of place people rally around and save after I die."

BE THERE

Sam's Book City, 5245 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, hosts readings, book signings, workshops, open-mike nights and musical events. Free. (818) 985-6911.

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