The National Emergency Library is here for Los Angeles

Libraries, how we love them—especially when they’ve got plenty of room and don’t cull the weird stuff that nobody has checked out since 1923!

Back in the good old days, earlier this month, we were still spending our Tuesdays at the Huntington Library, where we’d split the day between peering through a magnifying lens at unpublished negatives of Grand Central Market, reading snarky editorials on the foibles of the Golden Age Hollywood set in Rob Wagner’s Script magazine, and wandering the holy gardens.

These visits have kept us sane while battling to preserve Los Angeles landmarks from the relentless forces of what we’ve long suspected, and what is finally being proven, to be rampant public corruption.

But the Huntington, like so many wonderful places in Los Angeles, is now closed for the duration, and it’s right that it’s closed. We’ve all got to hunker down like bears in our dens and wait out the viral peril⁠—but there’s no rule that says we have to be bored or zoned out while we wait.

The good folks at the Internet Archive have taken the nation’s temperature and written a marvelous and healing prescription: their enormous collection of scanned books, which in normal times is available for free check out, but with use limits, is now 100% free and always available. You can browse a selection of 1,428,426 volumes, and we bet at least 3,745 of them would be exactly what you’re looking for right now!

To get you started, we’ve curated a short list of L.A.-centric titles that will enhance your understanding of this improbable and baffling city, and get you familiar with this terrific digital resource.

But we must remind you that these books, however fascinating, are all written about a place very different from the Los Angeles of 2020. When we get through this public health crisis—and we will get though it—our shared history will be one of a metropolis that faced the greatest threat imaginable at the same time that the DOJ was taking down a big chunk of its corrupt city government.

If you put a twist this screwy into a script, they’d throw you out of the writer’s room. Yet it’s happening, right now, to us. And when the risk of disease has passed and the cancerous rot of corruption has been cut out of the halls of power, we’re going to need a new story to tell about what it means to be an Angeleno in 2020 and beyond.

Luckily, we’ve got nothing but time on our hands to study the past and imagine L.A.’s bright future and what each one of us can bring to the table.

So be well, have faith, be careful out there, and enjoy! And do share your recommendations for great reads that you find in the National Emergency Library in the comments below.


ESOTOURIC’S SELECTED TREASURES FROM THE NATIONAL EMERGENCY LIBRARY

Update 3/28/20: as this information has circulated, writers have complained that the Internet Archive’s loan policy change violates their copyright. Please use the links below responsibly, enjoy older, weirder, out of print offerings, and buy books by working writers.

Piccolo’s Prank (1965) by Leo Politi: a rambunctious monkey runs amok on old Bunker Hill, and if you love this one, there are many Politi treats in the library

Exploring California Byways in and Around Los Angeles; trips for a day or a weekend (1967) by Russ Leadabrand: a slow-paced guidebook to out-of-the-way places still worth seeking out, once the quarantine is lifted

Historic California in Bookplates (1936, reprint edition) by Clare Ryan Talbot: reproducing the miniature works of art that identified treasured volumes as the property of notable Californian individuals and institutions

La Reina : Los Angeles in three centuries (1929) published by Security Trust & Savings Bank: a collection of historic photographs used by the pioneer bank as part of its branding efforts

The Los Angeles Guide Book (1972) by Annette Welles: because sometimes it’s fun to imagine we’re time traveling tourists, it’s a great reference if you happen to be writing a period mystery in quarantine, and who doesn’t want to know that Norms diners used to suck?

L.A. Bizarro! The Insider’s Guide to the Obscure, the Absurd and the Perverse in Los Angeles by Anthony R. Lovett and Matt Maranian (1997): an over-designed pre-internet marvel celebrating the weirdos, visionaries and benign hustlers who have been largely displaced under our pro-development City Council, but who we sincerely hope can bloom again in the new L.A. to come

Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County by Leonard and Dale Pitt (1997): an essential companion for any dedicated Angeleno, packed with fun facts you never knew about familiar places

Los Angeles, City of Dreams by Harry Carr (1935): the first great insider’s take on modern L.A., by a crack reporter who spent four decades chronicling her transformation from sleepy backwater to modern metropolis

Bread & Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles by Paul Greenstein, Nigey Lennon and Lionel Rolfe (1992): the astonishing story of how the bombing of the L.A. Times building inspired the creation of a new kind of city in the desert, a site we will be visiting with Paul Greenstein on our likely rescheduled Desert Visionaries tour

The Dream Come True: Great Houses of Los Angeles by Brendan Gill and Derry Moore (1980): a loving survey of domestic architecture historic, contemporary and celebrity, richly illustrated with original photographs, and including some rare lost gems

A Slight Epidemic: The Government Cover-up of Black Plague in Los Angeles: What Happened and Why it Matters by Frank Feldinger (2008): recommended for obvious reasons, in the hope that we not repeat the mistakes of 1924

Exploring George Johnson’s Wonderful Wartime Negro Business Directories

Before his death in 2006, George Johnson held the distinction of being California’s oldest citizen at 112 (and change).

Friends, caretakers and family members would often drop in on his Richmond home to hear stories of a colorful life, from a prankish Pennsylvania boyhood to stateside service in the Great War, encounters with Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, and of course the abiding rumors that his father was the love-child of President Andrew Johnson.

An undated snapshot of George and Ida Johnson at a party at their Richmond Annex home. The couple loved to entertain, and though they didn’t smoke or drink themselves, they were happy to accommodate their guests. (Collection: Chris Treadway)

And sometimes, they’d look at his books. A man can collect a lot of books in 112 years. Among the most interesting was a rare and fragile volume that had belonged to his wife, Ida. She was an advertising executive who in the early 1940s had solicited listings for The Official California Negro Directory and Classified Buyers Guide, a sort of West Coast Yellow Pages for black-owned and affiliated businesses.

After George died, Melinda McCrary at the Richmond Museum of History reached out to the Internet Archive and asked if the Guide, which was falling to pieces, could be made accessible to a wider audience. After a painstaking scanning process, this fascinating time capsule can be virtually enjoyed without the risk of further damage. Skip ahead to page 80 for the Los Angeles buyer’s guide section.

And there’s even more in store for lovers of Los Angeles lore in the form of a second rarity from George Johnson’s collection, The Official Central Avenue District Directory: A Business and Professional Directory (1939). This L.A.-centric volume too has been digitized, and it’s packed with lively ads for BBQ joints, beauticians, decorators, druggists, entertainers, haulers, plumbers, pool halls, psychics and the natty Dunbar Liquors motorcycle delivery crew.

Glad as we are that these directories survive, there’s an undeniable sadness to them. In other parts of Los Angeles, a mid-century listing of nearly every business would include some we’d heard of, even some that had survived into the present. But after decades of economic hardship and the riots and fires of 1965 and 1992, there’s very little that has lasted into the 21st century in South Central Los Angeles. These fragile business directories reveal a world almost entirely lost. Thanks, George!