On a busy block of North Figueroa Street in the burgeoning Highland Park neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles—amid vintage clothing shops, cafés, and restaurants—is a new bookstore that by all outward appearances is like any other bastion of literary commerce. But the shop, which opened this past November and is the brainchild of two local independent publishers, Tyson Cornell of Rare Bird and Chris Heiser of Unnamed Press, boasts a unique business model. The North Figueroa Bookshop has forged a partnership with two larger publisher sponsors: Grove Atlantic and MCD Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux—which is itself a division of Macmillan, owned by the German media company Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.
As sponsors, Grove and MCD will support the store’s marketing efforts and events, such as book signings, says Cornell. In exchange for their sponsorship, Grove and MCD have shelves in the 800-square-foot store dedicated to their books and merchandise, as do Rare Bird and Unnamed Press. Grove and MCD also have branding opportunities inside the store, on the exterior of the store’s building, and in print and digital marketing materials. Approximately 12 to 15 percent of the store’s merchandise is from those two publisher sponsorship arrangements, says Cornell. A variety of titles by other publishers round out the selection.
Since opening in the fall, the North Figueroa Bookshop has reportedly seen great interest from the community in Highland Park and serves what store manager Mads Gobbo calls “a nice little niche” between long-established Vroman’s in Pasadena and Skylight Books in Los Feliz. “The vast majority of our customers are local to the area and are excited to have a neighborhood bookstore,” says Gobbo.
Like Gobbo, Cornell and Heiser are former booksellers. Cornell was the marketing and publicity director at the famed Book Soup in West Hollywood, while Heiser worked at beloved Iconoclast Books in Hailey, Idaho, then at Skylight Books, where Gobbo was the events manager. “Booksellers are who the community comes to for what to read,” says Cornell. “They’re the curators of the community.”
Cornell and Heiser’s decade-long friendship is grounded in their bond not only as former booksellers, but as like-minded publishers. Cornell founded Rare Bird in 2010. The press publishes fifty titles annually, including vinyl audiobooks, EPs, and full-length records by notable musicians. Heiser and his former colleague at the Los Angeles Review of Books Olivia Taylor Smith—who left the press last year and is now a senior editor at Simon & Schuster—founded Unnamed Press in 2014. The press publishes twelve fiction and nonfiction titles annually and hired Brandon Taylor last year as an acquiring editor. Cornell and Heiser have partnered on several publishing projects: In June, Rare Bird and Unnamed Press will copublish Shadows of Love, Shadows of Loneliness, a two-volume collection of essays and artwork by William T. Vollmann. In April, Unnamed Press will publish Matthew Zapruder’s forthcoming memoir, Story of a Poem, and Rare Bird will simultaneously release a vinyl LP of readings by Zapruder.
The North Figueroa Bookshop furthers the presses’ collaborative relationship and “brings us full circle with the process of seeking, curating, and creating books,” says Cornell. “What we sought to accomplish was being more directly connected to the community on a day-to-day level, and I can’t think of any other way to do that more effectively than with the bookstore.”
Once Cornell and Heiser decided to open a bookshop, they reached out to Grove and MCD with what Cornell concedes is a “slightly unconventional” proposal. “There aren’t many publishers opening bookstores these days,” says Cornell. Grove’s and MCD’s work supporting writers from marginalized communities, as well as their reach, is what led Cornell and Heiser to approach them as partners. “We know how much they care and are interested in not just having a best-selling title, but holding space for writers and readers,” says Heiser.
The fact that the publishers are based in New York also appealed to Cornell and Heiser. “It was important for us to bring publishing partners in, especially ones not based in Los Angeles, because the larger footprint that we’re hoping to strengthen is the community that brings publishers, authors, booksellers, and readers together—regardless of region or locale,” says Cornell.
Still, Cornell and Heiser face an uphill battle as booksellers. “Stores are faced with rising costs, supply chain problems, a labor shortage, and increased uncertainty,” says Allison Hill, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association (ABA). Print book sales fell 6.5 percent during 2022 compared with 2021, according to Publishers Weekly. On the other hand, the ABA reports a 20 percent increase in bookstore membership since 2020 with almost 300 independent bookstores set to open nationwide in the next two years. “Community support is still critical to [bookstores] surviving and thriving,” says Hill.
So far, Heiser says he has witnessed strong support for North Figueroa Bookshop and is hopeful that it will continue. “This neighborhood has really responded incredibly positively to our being here,” he says.
Jessica Kashiwabara is the digital director of Poets & Writers, Inc.