I decided to stop by the Art’s District at high noon this Saturday to check out a bookstore I’ve been frequenting since junior high: Hennessey & Ingall’s. Hennessey & Ingall’s used to occupy a storefront in one of the most expensive sections of Santa Monica, just a few blocks from the cliffs that overlook the beach. Before that, it was in Westwood, near the university and the grand old theaters. Each time it’s moved, it’s moved because the rents got expensive. And each time, I’ve followed it… by bicycle, by bus and now…by car. I’m a loyal customer.
The bookstore itself is that rare creature: a specialty shop that offers a trove of Design, Architecture, Art book. It also boasts a staff of long-time employees who know their selection inside and out. It’s not the kind of bookstore where you buy a souvenir mug or a tote bag with the effigy of a writer that you will never read. The only magazines on the racks are for the trade: real designers. And you’ll see designer-y people there with their chunky glasses, their improbable avant-garde fashions and their gaunt tans that come from being bathed in the synthetic sunlight of a computer screen. Back when me and my artsy-fartsy friends were no-account kids with very little money, the staff at Hennessey & Ingalls let us sit and read for hours on end without chasing us out.
The irony of the Art’s District—the bohemian enclave at the Northeast border of downtown Los Angeles where Hennessey & Ingalls has relocated—is that it no longer houses artists. The first exodus happened over a decade ago when the “revitalization” of downtown slipped into overdrive. Before that, downtown had almost no traffic, no grocery stores. There were homeless, indigents, artists–all of which made it feel almost like the stage set of an apocalyptic futuristic movie. The artists took over a warehouse or factory and then they developed their make-shift lofts.
Then, developers swooped in right when I was finishing graduate school–just around 2003. And within less than half a decade, “lofts” were no longer DYI spaces but simply mass-market condos with exposed brick and concrete floors, geared toward the prosperous professionals–the dentists and accountants and pharmacists who imagined themselves to be week-end warrior bohemians. The rents–the thing that attracted the people who brought order to the world–shot through the roof. Many of the people who left were my friends—friends driven out by high rents and congestion.
Shingo, a Japanese Buddhist priest and painter—a holy man who was known on more than one occasion to chew a tab of ecstasy–was one such friend: he finally realized that downtown was no longer a location that could foster true art. So he left his impeccable white-on-white loft, which was within striking distance of the cluster of grand temples in the heart of Little Tokyo. Shingo supported himself for a few years as a janitor when he first came to the United States; his loft reflected that hand-built orderliness–the tidy compartmentalization–that is so quintessentially Japanese. He moved to the jungles of Big Island, Hawaii.
Just this last year, my friend Yahnoo—a fiber artist who learned his craft among the tribal people of the Amazon—built himself a house in Baja, Mexico. Life is cheaper there and he can ply his craft, which is both time and space-intensive; he needs room to weave his gargantuan portraits. But he will be sorely missed, not only for his great art, but also for the fact that he was a node in an ecosystem—a man whose humongous loft provided housing for hundreds of artists and hippies and drifters passing through. A man who hosted yoga-potlucks and large-scale rave parties.
Among his many house guests, I count my childhood friend who used the space to practice the art of mime and who ultimately founded an acclaimed theatre troupe in Paris: Pas de Dieux. I probably will see Won one day, though he will probably never be able to move back to his home town. I will miss seeing Yahnoo–the Korean man with the dred locks and flowing African gowns. And I doubt I will see any of his friends again–all of whom are notable artists attached to major galleries but still struggling to live small lives despite their outsize reputations.
The Arts District is now thoroughly developed. There is a huge complex at one end that charges $4,500 dollars a month to people who like to think of themselves as “creatives”—that adjective that has somehow become a noun. The building is designed by some noteworthy architect but it has the modular look of a futuristic prison concocted by IKEA.
There are now bus tours filled with Midwesterners who get dropped off at the very fancy new beer hall put up by a developer who must have spent close to a million dollars just to build it out. The tourists–they try their best to look like Angelenos. But true Angelenos don’t dress like that—their informality and studied casual is still just too formal: a copy of a copy of a copy. They must have spent months researching their look.
Hennessey & Ingalls finally found a storefront in that famous complex where the “creatives” reside, taking its rightful place near the Vegan Ice Cream shop with the Dutch name from Brooklyn, New York. I hear the vegan ice cream tastes almost as good as real ice cream, despite the lack of any actual milk…but I’ve never tried it. The press releases have championed the resurrection of the dearly loved bookstore as a sign of the artistic bona fides of the area. But I don’t ever remember Hennessey & Ingalls ever doing a full-court-press publicity campaign ever. And for me, the fact that there are press releases and a systematic publicity campaign makes me wonder if the bookstore is the same thing—a community bookstore—or something altogether different.