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Saturday, 15 August 2009

Mystery and Imagination

In the comments section, Good Dog wrote:
...if you’re stuck for something to do next weekend, the Mystery & Imagination Bookshop at 238 N. Brand Blvd in Glendale is having a signing/celebration for Ray Bradbury’s 89th Birthday on Saturday 22nd, August starting at 1:00pm.

When I last stopped by (some years back) they were still in the tiny premises around the corner on East Broadway so I don’t know what the new location – a few blocks down from where Warner Bros Feature Animation used to be - is like. More space for a start, obviously. Still, the owners are really great people. They were certainly happy when I bought a fine hb copy of Harlan’s Strange Wine for $75.
The heads-up info is much appreciated. As it happens I found the M&I on my very first night in LA, which confirms my belief in some kind of supernatural karma-driven radar - Steve Jones had mentioned it to me in an email but I wasn't specifically looking for it, just doing that thing where you've landed and you're tired and wired at the same time, so you go exploring.

My motel was right by the Americana Mall, which has sprung up complete in the past couple of years and isn't a mall in the usual sense - that function's served by the enormous Galleria Mall that all but adjoins it. The Americana is a bizarre open-air retro small-town square, style of Disney, feel of Futurama, with performing fountains and piped Tom Jones and Dean Martin from speakers hidden in the street furniture. Some Angelenos seem to hate it but for me... well, I clearly have debased tastes because I thouight it was fun, not least because of the way that its enormous Barnes & Noble - about six strides from my motel - stayed open until 11pm.

The new M&I premises are maybe a five-minute wander up the street, with stuff to look at along the way. I can't say what the area was like before, but my impression is that North Brand has been given a boost by the development... maybe not a huge boost but it's created that fringe of cheaper-renting premises where the more interesting businesses are always found. And though, for some reason, town planners never get this, it's always those businesses - the stamp shops, the second-hand bookshops, the woman who makes her own jewellery, the bloke who fixes old watches - that make a place a destination.

The frontage looks like something out of a Bradbury or a Wells story. Once you're inside, the stock goes way back deep into the building and there's an upstairs room for readings and talks. And I got recognised! They asked me to add to their signature wall in the stairwell. I found a space and wrote big. I could barely get my ego out through the door afterwards.

I'm reaching a point now where the town feels like it's opening up to me, and instead of seeking out tourist high-spots I'm beginning to find those quirky little pleasures that don't need to feel like a 'day out'. They just call for an hour here and there.

So this afternoon I'm heading for the long flight of steps in Silverlake, up which Laurel and Hardy made repeated attempts to lug a piano in The Music Box. Not only are the steps still there, but some devotee with time on his hands has scrutinised the footage and established from cracks in the concrete that they're still the originals. Gonna walk 'em all, whistling and saying a silent thanks for hours of childhood pleasure.

And speaking of childhood pleasures, and while we're under the Mystery and Imagination banner... Network DVD have released all the surviving episodes of the '60s series of that name. It set an unmatched standard for television treatment of the supernatural and macabre.
This highly acclaimed anthology series presented a selection of Gothic tales by major 19th century writers. Among the adapted works featured in this collection are Robert Louis Stevenson’s nihilistic The Suicide Club, Sheridan le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula and a commendably faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A distinguished cast includes Ian Holm (Chariots of Fire), Denholm Elliot (Indiana Jones), Patrick Mower (Callan) and Freddie Jones (The Elephant Man), who gives an astonishing performance as the demented barber, Sweeney Todd.
While checking their website for the link I noticed that in September Network will be releasing the Ted Willis-created Sergeant Cork, which I remember as a hugely atmospheric Victorian procedural.

Laurel and Hardy on Bob Monkhouse's Mad Movies, Sergeant Cork, Mystery and Imagination, The Avengers... my God. Is that what ITV Saturday nights used to be like?

UPDATE:

Well, I found it. I parked on Sunset Boulevard, just across from what appeared to be a strip club, a one-story windowless building with no name but a neon skunk for a sign. In the dark and with the sign lit, the skunk's tail would be animated and would flicker back and forth. Pepe le Phew, perhaps? I have no idea.

The stairway begins about a hundred yards or so from Sunset. Where once it ran up a largely open hillside, it's now lttle more than a narrow alley with properties right up against it on either side. First thing I saw was a toilet bowl which had been dumped, along with a pile of ruined old suitcases, just behind where the nursemaid is standing in the picture.

But f*** it. They're the Music Box stairs! A blue civic signpost tells you so, top and bottom, and there's a small plaque let into the lowermost step honouring L&H.

I climbed to the top. The stairs there end at a street of houses that seem to have been built on shifting ground -- the sidewalks are buckling, the driveways are sagging, and perimeter walls are bursting outward under pressure from tree roots.

Of course, when I got up there I had that dorkish feeling. Because there was nothing for it but to check out the view and then turn around and go back down.

At which point I heard it - someone, no more than two or three houses away from the top of the steps - was practising the piano.

Sweet.

I didn't take any shots. But I did find this YouTube video made by someone else.

5 comments:

Gail Renard said...

What's wonderful is that Stan Laurel saw not only those stairs but also deathless comedy. Savour L.A. for all of us.

Good Dog said...

Ah, I know where M&I is now. The N Brand premises housed a used bookstore before their move from East Broadway. Getting to Glendale early and having time to kill before the meeting at WBFA, I went in there and picked up the 1982 Berkley pb edition of Shatterday.

As much as I liked the convenience of the larger malls, whether it was the Glendale Galleria, the Burbank Mall or even the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, they only had your Waldenbooks/Borders and Barnes & Noble stores. Great if you wanted a recent bestseller, but for more obscure titles there were the likes of M&I, Dangerous Visions on Ventura, Creature Features on West Olive, and Barry Levin’s brilliant store on Santa Monica Blvd. (Amongst his inventory, Barry Levin lists a 1953 Ballantine Books limited edition of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 that has an asbestos cover. Nice. And a snip at $18,500.)

Although websites like AbeBooks make it that much more convenient to find any books you’re looking for, it robs you of the thrill of the chase. Up in San Francisco it was fun to ride around on the trolley cars, check out the sights, and then stop at Little Joe’s for dinner, but the best day was going from Kayo Books on Post Street to City Lights then across the bay to all the stores in Berkeley, ending up at Dark Carnival on Claremont Avenue.

As for the steps... Well, progress seems to have done a number on the location. Still, Ray Bradbury’s collection The Toynbee Convector includes the bittersweet short story The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair in which a couple meeting at a dull cocktail party flee to the steps whose location becomes an integral part of their brief relationship. Apparently Mr Bradbury read it to the assembled audience at the fundraiser to place that commemorative plaque on Verdone Street.

He later revisited the location in the short story Another Fine Mess, from the collection Quicker than the Eye, in which a nearby resident hears the ghosts of the comedians running up and down the steps late at night.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Ah, Kayo books... I was only half-kidding about the karmic radar. Exactly the same thing happened on my first-ever night in San Francisco about eight years ago -- turned a corner four blocks from my hotel and there it was.

Levin's store is on my list for a visit. I wound up yesterday in Amoeba records on Sunset, as it was only a mile or two from the steps. A great noisy barn of a place, and something about it made me feel around fifteen again. I'll have to go back because as soon as I stepped inside I went blank on anything that I needed to search for.

Now THAT never happened when I was fifteen.

Good Dog said...

It has been so long ago, but I think I wandered past Kayo books early in the morning (a few blocks or so from where I used to stay) and, because of the late-morning opening time had to wander aimlessly around the rather bland Borders on the corner of Union Square until I could head back up Post like a shot. A wonderful store and I’m glad it’s still going strong. On that first visit it was upstairs that I found a fine copy of the Dell pb of Deathbird Stories. It’s probably very, very sad but I can look over at the books on the shelves here and pretty much remember from which store I bought each one.

When you visit Barry Levin’s shop, a block or so across Santa Monica Blvd from the marvellous Hi De Ho Comics, make sure you check out the back room. I think the reason I prefer the small stores is that bigger places, especially the “barns” are so overwhelming that I can’t remember a damn thing I’m particularly looking for. Now I end up having to scribble titles down on a post-it or record card and carry that around with me.

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