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Books in the 'Hood

The Los Feliz library is collecting every possible volume that in some way relates to the local area

June 09, 2002|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some libraries are known for their trove of presidential papers or rare old prints. The Los Feliz branch of the Los Angeles Public Library has ambitions closer to home. For the last three years, the library's staff and a growing number of its users have been building a collection of books about the surrounding neighborhood. The Los Feliz in Literature Collection now includes about 300 titles and can be found in a well-marked nook near the library's windows.

Pearl Yonezawa, senior librarian at the branch, oversees the project. In her quiet way--a good trait in a librarian--she has encouraged local authors, business owners, politicians and other regular borrowers to contribute by donating books and related materials to the cause.

Rip up another myth about the city. Neighborhoods do exist here, lots of them. In Los Feliz, as in any number of small communities, people are as loyal to their home turf as they are to their brand of running shoes.

"I had the idea for a Los Feliz collection from the time we opened our building in 1999," says Yonezawa. Officially the territory extends from Griffith Park south to Franklin Avenue, and west from Hyperion Avenue to Western Avenue. Yonezawa, however, doesn't hold to a strict definition because some regulars at the Los Feliz branch live in nearby Silver Lake, where they don't have a public library of their own.

A number of other L.A. library branches also have assembled collections about local history and culture. Little Tokyo's holdings include the city's largest on Japanese American culture. The Goldwyn Hollywood branch is the best place to learn about Hollywood history. Chinatown's extensive focus on California's Chinese community includes books written in Mandarin and Cantonese as well as in English.

"Each branch tries to respond to the community where the library users live," says Yonezawa. But it is the senior librarian who gives a collection its shape and color. "Los Feliz is a very eclectic neighborhood," she says. "In this library, anything goes. Books on henna tattoos and books on how to crochet both circulate."

Library services were introduced to Los Feliz in 1924, but the books were always housed in a rented space. The permanent address at Hillhurst and Franklin avenues is the former site of an apartment house where actor Leonardo DiCaprio grew up.

From the day the new library building opened, Yonezawa began tending the collection like an angler with time on her side. "If people come in and say, 'I'm new here,' I walk them down to the Los Feliz collection," she says. When she can, she slips in a word about the book donation drive. "Patrons tell us they've read a book that includes the neighborhood," says Yonezawa, 47. "Sometimes they'll donate a copy."

To call more attention to the project, Yonezawa began a "lounge chair literature" series and invited Paula Woods, a popular detective novelist who lives in the area, as the first guest. Woods had just published "Inner City Blues," which includes a car chase scene in Los Feliz. After the program she gave an autographed copy to the library.

That set a standard. "If a book even mentions Los Feliz, it fits in," Yonezawa says. Mention is a key concept here. Carolyn Weathers' novel "Crazy" uses the library for one scene. That was more than enough for her book to make the cut. Other books in the collection don't mention the area at all. "White Oleander," a dark coming-of-age novel, qualified because author Janet Fitch lives near the library.

With such a wide-open approach to collecting, the range of topics has grown in broad and quirky directions. Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes Los Feliz, has donated books on the Los Angeles River and Sunset Boulevard. "It's my local branch," he says of Los Feliz. "And I grew up using the public library. I try to help out."

Since the hills above the library are dotted with houses designed by 20th century master architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler, books about their work are cataloged under the Los Feliz collection. A cookbook put out by Franklin Avenue Elementary School was a recent donation.

Technically, the neighborhood is part of East Hollywood. Early stars of the silver screen, including W.C. Fields and Deanna Durbin, lived in the area at one time. That gives Hollywood tour guide books a place in the collection.

True crime stories that took place in Los Feliz add an edge. In August 1969 the Charles Manson "family" murdered actress Sharon Tate in her Benedict Canyon home. Two nights later they tore through Los Feliz, killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their home.

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