Los Angeles is home to a multitude of specialized bookstores, from those oriented toward horror and mystery to others with more practical focuses, like cookbooks. Follow columnist Clea Wurster as she explores the many niche literary interests the city accommodates.
The travel bookstore Distant Lands lived up to its name.
I drove all the way to Pasadena to visit the store, which is home to guidebooks, a travel agency and a surprising selection of gear bags.
The shop was a cozy retreat from the hot sun and bland storefronts on the way, with its distinctly homey atmosphere: Soft music, dark wooden floors and comfortable shelving gave the appearance of a home library.
On the street, a sign advertised hiking guides with the cheerful, handwritten message “Hit the trails!” in chalk. But once inside, I was surprised by the hush of the store. The music was too soft to hear lyrics, so it didn’t add to the ambience, and my inability to recognize the music soon became a nuisance.
The shelves, which lined the interior, seemed like they were built into the wall, while other shorter units were scattered around the floor. I didn’t have the space to sit and find the books I could’ve been interested in. The shelving also featured a false facade that covered parts of the titles and made it nearly impossible to pull out books and read their full titles.
The clutter contributed to the home library coziness, but unfortunately detracted from my experience. I couldn’t focus my attention on any one section of books, and the titles overwhelmed me. I felt frazzled and unable to spend a moment on any particular section because I was constantly concerned about blocking another customer’s passage through the stores slim aisles.
Large, sliding ladders accented the shelves, which extended to the ceiling, creating a playful and fun atmosphere but taking up even more of the minimal space for browsing. If there had been more customers in the store, I’m not sure I would have even bothered to wind through the scattered shelves, across the multipatterned rugs and into the texts.
Though the organization wasn’t very well-thought-out, the sections blocked off with white rectangular blocks stood out from the books and made it easier to find what I wanted. Rather than being organized alphabetically, as is typical in bookstores, the travel guides were organized geographically, which added to my feel for adventure.
The selection was fairly large but repetitive. I suppose there isn’t much wiggle room for a bookstore dedicated to travel. By its nature, the shop should boast a thorough selection of guidebooks. That being said, the topics covered were broad. Texts on bird-watching, hiking and hostels in Europe neighbored one another on the shelves.
But it wasn’t just guidebooks and backpacks. I also found more historical titles that had information about various regions and cultures. One shelf was dedicated generally to Asian culture, but oddly enough I didn’t find similar shelves for other cultures.
Under the front window, there were a few larger, more picturesque books. One was entitled “Quintessentially Pure” and featured a cover with a fresh-faced woman holding large pieces of coconut, which stood out against the cool tones of the background. Although eye-catching, I am still not quite sure what the book was about.
My favorite item, which I would have bought if I could’ve used it, was a hotel guide to Europe, part of a larger series called “The Smiths’ Hotel Collection” for various cities and towns. The one for Europe was charmingly designed, with dark, solid colored pages that contrasted borderless photographs. One photo of a hotel bed dappled with sunlight instantly made me feel nostalgic and brought a smile to my face.
It was a nice store to browse, but it was hard to convince myself I needed any guidebooks as I usually use Google to find out about cities I’m visiting. I had hoped to find an interesting guide to some spots in Berlin because I will be studying there over the summer, but sadly, the books were lackluster considering their place in a specialty bookstore.
Distant Lands didn’t live up to my expectations, but it was still an enjoyable afternoon. Next time, I will definitely go with an adventure in mind so I can take full advantage of the offerings.