Deep in the jungle of edifices that is downtown Los Angeles lies a literary nook incongruous with its surroundings. Nestled amidst contemporary skyscrapers on South Grand Avenue, the Caravan Book Store appears to be out of a much more antique epoch, and stepping inside its walls only confirms this feeling.
Lining its shelves are books big and small, some with crumbling ancient pages and all beautifully bound. Old models of trains and sailboats, as well as a collection of small tidbits of American history only add to the magical vibe of the store.
But perhaps as much of a hidden gem as the store itself is its pensive store owner, Leonard Bernstein. Buried between Civil War statuettes and old political relics, Bernstein sits quietly at his desk in the back of the store, almost going unnoticed at first. Yet upon speaking with him, it becomes clear that Bernstein’s innate knowledge of the complex nation that is the United States of America is nothing short of extraordinary.
“Most of what I have is what I like, which includes Western American history, literature and art and overlaps into cooking, fine bindings, first editions and signed limited editions,” Bernstein said. “But the Western American experience is my passion.”
A UCLA anthropology alumnus himself, Bernstein is also passionate about the Bruins and their past, digging up an old book about UCLA with iconic pictures of its construction over the years.
“All I know is that when I went there, the tuition was a lot less. And you had free parking,” Bernstein said. “It was a different world.”
Founded in 1954, Bernstein’s bookstore became part of “booksellers row,” the name adopted for the row of bookstores that lined both sides of its downtown street for blocks.
“Since then, there’s been a lot of changes,” Bernstein said.
As part of his extensive collection, Bernstein has many volumes on former President Abraham Lincoln about which he can knowledgeably speak of as if he’d known the authors. Among these is “Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life,” which he keeps in a glass shelf in the center of the store. Written by William Herndon, who was both Lincoln’s friend and law partner, the book is a first edition published in the late 19th century.
Another antique collection is Carl Sandburg’s “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years,” which Bernstein said is one of his favorites because of Sandburg’s beautifully poetic writing style.
Coming up this week is the store’s annual transformation in honor of the Christmas holidays, where they set up train sets and other decorative collectables that liven up the holiday spirit.
“Every year I say I’ll never do it again, but every year the customers tell me we have to set it up,” Bernstein said. “It’s really quite a production.”
Among Bernstein’s customers are celebrities such as Dustin Hoffman and Sting. But beyond that, Bernstein enjoys the company of those that share his passions, or are merely looking for a glimpse into the past.
“People come to me because they want to know what was before. We go so fast we don’t remember, so by buying a book that has to do with the Golden Gate Bridge or an early author like Mark Twain, they can reach out and actually touch the past,” Bernstein said. “And that leads to other interesting things and a lot of questions. So they go out and try to find the answers to them, and that’s what research is, what university is ““ the sharing of ideas. So it’s a little university here.”