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!

 

 

A Last and Lasting Visit To Caravan Book Store – in 3-D!

Welcome to the seventh in a series of 3-D explorable tours of historic Los Angeles spaces, created by Craig Sauer using cutting-edge Matterport technology.

For the first time in the series, we’ve documented a space that is freely open and accessible to the public. But soon the Caravan Book Store will only exist in memory and in this captured moment in time. Because after almost 64 years in the shadow of the Los Angeles Public Library, the last survivor of Downtown L.A.’s Booksellers Row is about to become the Row’s final retail closure. If you want to visit, February 24 is Caravan’s last day.

We are grateful to Craig for rushing downtown to capture Caravan before the stock was depleted and fixtures removed (ahem, we bought a lovely little glass-faced bookshelf on our way out the door) and to Leonard Bernstein and daughter Leilah for letting us disrupt their first busy day in the shop after the news broke.

Oh Caravan! The tugboat of Downtown. How we’ll miss your dusty air and beautiful things and the calm, wry, wise presence of the great Angeleno at your heart.

In 1954, Leonard Bernstein’s parents Morris and Lillian opened Caravan at 605 South Grand Avenue so that they could spend their days together. The store evolved with the changing city, honing antiquarian specialties that interested the Bernsteins and their customers. Californiana, presidential biographies, travel, rail history, cookbooks, old newspapers, fine bindings, ephemera, and the unexpected treasures that came in by the box load whenever an old Southern California estate collection was purchased.

In 1970, L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith stepped in, and wrote:

“I found myself back in the 1930s. In that era, when you might think nobody had any money to spend on books, 6th St. in that neighborhood was Booksellers Row.

There were perhaps a dozen of them, all much like this one: narrow and deep, smelling of dust and old buckram and leather. Each shop would be tended by one man, usually a lean one, with a hungry look, who could be found at a desk at the back bent over a rolltop desk. On cold days a gas heater would be burning.

There would be a tin coffeepot on a burner and sometimes a loaf of bread and some cheese and canned milk. Most of the men had wives who helped them out, wearing sweaters to keep warm, and there were always cats.

There might be three or four customers in the shop or none, depending on the hour and the weather, though I rarely saw anyone buy anything, and I hung around a lot, not buying anything myself.

The bookman didn’t seem to mind. He talked with them, if they wanted to talk, sometimes going up to a loft to find a book or shoving his ladder along a wall and climbing it for a book out of reach. He knew where every book in the shop was because he had put it there, and once he had put it there, it rarely moved. Cronies spent the day, sitting at the back by the heater, making the coffee and talking about T.S. Eliot or Jurgen or Aimee Semple MacPherson… Now they are gone.”

But Caravan, a late arrival to the Row, found its even keel and pushed on, as Downtown Los Angeles declined and was revived more times that its current boosters would like you to know.

Photo: Ann Summa (Los Angeles Times)

By 1980, when a bank took over all the retail storefronts in Caravan’s building, the little kid who had grown up helping out in the store was a full grown bookman. Leonard helped move the store’s stock across Grand Avenue to its comfortable new digs in the Pacific Mutual Building, formerly the offices of Air Panama, and posed with his dad in the sterile space which will all too soon be so again.

Caravan is not closing because business is bad, the landlord is greedy, or because you took photos of rare items on the shelves and bought them cheap online (but if you did, shame on you). Caravan is closing because the next generation of Bernsteins have their own full lives, and because after a lifetime in business on the wild and woolly streets of Downtown Los Angeles, Leonard is ready to sleep late, have some new adventures, and see what else the world has in store for him.

The business will continue, but without drop-in hours. So make some time this shortest month to pay a visit to the last of a great Los Angeles literary tradition. And for heaven’s sake, buy something! For to quote Morris Bernstein, at the time of the last move, “The thought of moving all those books makes me wish I’d gone into the stamp business!”

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Caravan Book Store
550 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90071

Monday through Saturday: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Sunday: Closed

There will be a Store Closing Sale from February 3 through 24, with markdowns on merchandise throughout the shop. Sale hours will also be flexible and by appointment.

Contact Info
Email: caravanbookstore@yahoo.com
Phone: 213-626-9944
Instagram: @caravan_book_store
New mailing address (as of March 1): Caravan Book Store P.O. Box 550 7162 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90036

Store closing announcement