«Rather than just selling books I wanted to convey a point of view. If people come in knowing what they want they would be disappointed». In conversation with founder David Jacob Kramer
Family Books in Los Angeles
Family Books’ white-washed facade is an anomaly on the streetwear boulevard of Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. The store boasts of a collection of hard-to-find titles and collectibles to pick the interest of their clients. Walter Benjamin’s unpublished works, issues of beat magazines from the sixties, a book on Ghanian film posters, and a collection of rave party flyers in New York from the eighties, vintage Japanese playing cards as well as zines from a small-press in India.
This five-hundred-square-meters space, with a semblance of an art museum, is a universe brimming with secret finds. «Family is about introducing people to things they wouldn’t come across in other stores in the States». A den for creatives and literati, the store exhibits titles ranging from mini-comics, zines, limited edition artists’ books, ephemera, anthology, self-published books, journals, graphic novels, monographs, independent-magazines as well as experimental literature.
Punctuating the books on the shelves is an assortment of products such as ceramics, t-shirts, tote bags, lamps, and art installations. With its exploration of counterculture themes, Family Books, about the size and dimensions of a bus, is a preferred spot amongst hipsters. Fairfax Avenue is one of the north-south thoroughfares of Central LA. Its five-mile length is home to city landmarks like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LA Farmers Market and The Grove. A decade ago, the orthodox Jewish community characterized the strip, with streets populated with kosher restaurants, synagogues and Judaica-focused bookstores.
Over the years, Fairfax witnessed a confluence of the skate culture and old-world Judaica. The neighborhood has evolved into a streetwear fashion Mecca characterized by sneaker stores and pop-ups by rappers. This area hosts a mix of old Jewish people, rap musicians, hipster skaters as well as creative types. «I got to meet Young Thug, two doors down, a couple of years ago. The group Odd Future used to jam on the streets. We also did their book launch in our store», says Kramer.
David Jacob Kramer, Sammy Harkham, Tahli: Family Books’ founders
Three friends – David Jacob Kramer, cartoonist Sammy Harkham and his wife Tahli – created Family Books in the year of 2006. The idea of starting a store stemmed from the desire to evoke the feeling of nostalgia. «I always wondered if through a bookstore we could manifest the same excitement that we would get when visiting record stores», says Kramer.
An Australian by descent, David Jacob Kramer, arrived in New York City at the age of twenty-four. Graduating in Journalism, he then began contributing to magazines and journals, to spend time in the Big Apple «the idea was to just hang in the city», he adds. Upon a telephone call from his childhood friends, he decided to relocate to Los Angeles, to open a bookstore.
The trio had met while studying in the high school in Sydney. A decade later, when Harkham and his wife living in LA reached out to Kramer about having found a space, he said to himself, «if we are ever going to do this, then let’s do it now. We don’t know if it is going to last for a day or a year. The idea was to just get this off the ground. Fifteen years later Family Books still exists».
After establishing the store, the couple announced their exit owing to their newborn baby, making Kramer the sole proprietor of Family Books. He, then, found inspiration in creating a store carrying all things that caught his eye. «It was a way for artists to discover other artist work. To engage in conversations with each other», he adds.
David Jacob Kramer’s Imprint Projects
Kramer describes bookstores as a democratic space. «Different books speak to different people. At any point you will see people with all sorts of identities and income brackets. There is no entry cost. Everyone, in fact, can come in and browse».
Reminiscing the influences that shaped his perspective during his teenage years, he adds, «a bookstore space being a point of engagement is what appealed to me when I was young. Even if I didn’t have much money, I knew I could walk into a bookstore just to browse, listen to records, and still be able to buy a three dollars zine».
Commenting on the discourse about print versus digital, the forty-two-year-old bookseller adds, «print is becoming more relevant as the digital space invades our lives. A book, in fact, is an intimate experience that can’t be mimicked». For Kramer, Family is a product of his passion. «The bookstore doesn’t make money and has a low overhead. I, therefore, have a job outside. The purpose of Family is not profit motivated. Instead, it is about generating a feeling».
Kramer is also the Creative Director and Co-Founder of Imprint Projects. A post-advertising creative agency founded with the mission to replace advertising with cultural production and community-driven dialogue. «I get to work on projects with many of the same people whose books are also on the shelves at Family», he adds.
Lampoon review: Family Books’ store interiors
The facade of the store appears to be a blank canvas. The store’s logo was redesigned by Kramer’s friend Harsh Patel, an artist, publisher, and teacher from Nairobi living in Los Angeles. Patel also created the tote and t-shirts merchandise for Family. In 2015, the facade wall showcased a mural of a dog scooting done by artist Ben Jones.
The space aesthetics have evolved in the past decade and a half. In the beginning, the store interiors showcased shades of extravagance. A twenties’ art deco-inspired wallpaper that they hand-silk screened, a rotating installation in the glass storefront, the floor made of cork to stand on while browsing the books as well as a living soil garden by artist Saelee Oh.
Over the years, the cork floor got destroyed and, therefore, Kramer made a shift towards a minimal approach by toning down the interiors. «I didn’t want anything to compete with the information that we were showcasing. The most crucial time to design the space is when you are launching and that’s when you also know the least. It’s an irony», adds Kramer.
Today, art books and magazines with a plethora of illustrations and colors work as artifacts on the store’s white-washed walls. The back wall of the store is built into a ziggurat. A pyramid staircase with staggering steps. «It is like a grandstand for people to sit on. Before we had people sitting on the floor during and then we built this», adds Kramer.
For the bibliophile bookstores are a living space meant for people to hang out, exchange dialogues around culture, and broaden their horizons. At one point, a part of the store evolved into a designated gallery space, hosting art exhibitions for the artists’ book launches. «We stopped doing the art exhibitions now as we are focusing on other stuff», says Kramer. Some of the artists’ works they exhibited in the past are Hamburger Eyes, Mike Mills, John Wiese, and SFV Acid.
Events and activities at Family Books
The bookstore lends itself as a jamming space for band rehearsals. «Our musician friends take over the store to practice before an album launch». Jam sessions and music performances held at Family include Will Oldham, Sonic Youth, Ariel Pink. You can find a hand-picked selection of DVD’s, musical compilations, small-label record releases, as well as VHS-tapes here.
They also host artists’ book presentations such as discussions, signings, and slide shows. Shiela Heti, Stanya Kahn, Trinie Dalton, Torbjorn Rodland, Jonas Wood, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Doug Aitken have launched their books at Family. Kramer culled his preferred picks to populate the shelves at the store. «We are idiosyncratic about our selection. Rather than just selling books I wanted to convey a point of view. If people come in knowing what they want they would be disappointed».
Further, Family boasts of a multilingual selection of books. Self-published poems written in Aramaic and Hebrew from the thirties, Iranian photographic propaganda books published in 1979, Japanese manga from the sixties. «I try to represent an International voice. Whether it’s in English or not», says Kramer.
There is no order of books or arrangement scheme at Family. «We place the stuff as we please». Vintage ephemera mixed up with new books. Ceramics placed with cassette tapes. About tracing down under-the-radar titles, he adds, «we have been around for fifteen years and have a strong international network. Every day, in fact, there are thirty submissions and ideas in my inbox».
The importance of art book fairs and future development at Family Books
Kramer acknowledges the importance of art book fairs. «They are a great forum for publishers as well as bookstores from around the world to come together. The phenomenon of book fairs has been helpful to us, and I think, for the culture of book production in general». Family participates in the LA Art Book Fair organized by Printed Matter every year.
Shedding light on the challenges of running an independent bookstore, Kramer adds, «the audience for unusual books is limited. Our biggest overhead is trying to be adventurous with our selection. The shipping cost for international zines is quite high». Family Books model is built around the community of musicians and artists.
Not having a physical space at the beginning of the pandemic was a challenge. «For me, the space doesn’t exist if it’s not for the people. It is very antithetical to the concept of the bookstore, which is a space for people to hang out in and communicate», adds Kramer. As for the pipelines, «we are going to be publishing several books in 2021. It’s our key focus, as during quarantine we’ve been generating concepts with different folks», says Kramer.
436 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036, United States
The store exhibits titles ranging from mini-comics, zines, limited edition artists’ books, ephemera, anthology, self-published books, journals, graphic novels, monographs, independent-magazines as well as experimental literature.