Independent publishers Unnamed Press and Rare Bird have joined forces to establish an indie bookstore, North Figueroa Bookshop, in Los Angeles’s Highland Park neighborhood. The store operates out of the same location where the publishers have their offices, and provides an oasis in what store manager Mads Gobbo calls a “book desert” midway between Los Angeles mainstays Skylight Books and Vroman’s.

“Unnamed and Rare Bird have known each other as publishers and allies for a long time, and over the pandemic we came together to collaborate in various capacities,” said Unnamed Press publisher Chris Heiser. When he and Rare Bird publisher Tyson Cornell decided to share a commercial location on North Figueroa St., landlord and arts advocate Fred Beshid showed them a space in the building complex “that seemed like kind of a no-brainer for a store.” They started planning the bookshop in February and opened their doors on November 9.

The 800-square-foot store carries a selection of general-interest books as well as featured titles from Rare Bird and Unnamed’s publisher partners Grove Atlantic, MBD Books, and small press ZE Books. “We're going to add more shelving space and a couple more sections over the coming weeks” for a total inventory of around 3,000 titles, said Heiser.

“It isn’t just a showroom for our books,” Cornell noted. He and Heiser intend to spotlight “independent publishers that have interesting identities, whether it's New York Review of Books or Europa or Two Dollar Radio or New Directions.”

Heiser has no doubt that the shop “empowers us as publishing brands,” yet he also is quick to say that “the experience of meeting readers directly has been wonderful. We knew this neighborhood wanted a store, but I've been blown away by how happy people are when they step inside this place.”

“I've been the one behind the register most of the time, and the neighborhood of Highland Park has welcomed us with open arms,” agreed Gobbo, who spent three years as Skylight’s events manager before helping Heiser and Cornell launch the new store. “We've been getting people walking by who have been waiting for weeks to come in, and we have families coming to sit at our little table and read. We had somebody do a meeting about Indigenous organizing. It feels like the neighborhood’s already embracing us both as a bookstore and as a community space, which is satisfying to see.” The space can host up to 40 people for in-store readings, and multiple doorways allow for lines of visitors at signing-only events.

Publishers in Transition

North Figueroa Bookshop represents a fresh trajectory for the indie presses, which have been rocked by surprise staffing changes this year. “Both Rare Bird and Unnamed are in transitional periods as we're moving into the store,” said Cornell. In April, longtime Rare Bird sales and marketing director Julia Callahan left to become a sales representative for IPG, and in May, Unnamed Press co-founder and executive editor Olivia Taylor Smith announced she would be taking a senior editorial position with Tim O’Donnell’s fiction team at Simon & Schuster. “We mourn those losses,” said Cornell, “but then it also opens up the opportunity to rethink where we're going. The store is that central meeting ground where we can figure out our next steps as publishers.”

Cornell, who spent almost a decade in sales and marketing at Book Soup in West Hollywood before founding Rare Bird in 2010, looks forward to bookselling again. “I miss being on the floor and mingling with people in that capacity,” he said. “It’s also important to have direct interaction with what's happening on the reader front. Often, as publishers, we joke that our sales reps and booksellers and librarians aren’t the end users. The process of building this store has made me think about what our purpose is as publishers.”

“It is a big moment for us to make decisions about the future,” Heiser reflected. His willing leap into the bookselling business is a way to “double down on the fact we’re doing well and growing in terms books and sales.” In July, Unnamed Press hired acquiring editor Brandon Taylor, author of Real Life and Filthy Animals, and brought Penina Roth on board as publicity director; the publisher has dedicated staff in L.A. and New York, for a firm East Coast/West Coast dynamic, and Heiser expresses optimism for Unnamed’s contemporary fiction.

Meanwhile, Unnamed Press and Rare Bird remain discrete entities. “We’re all working, location-wise, together, while trying to keep the [publishing] businesses operating separately,” said Heiser. That still leaves room for collaborative ventures. When Unnamed Press publishes poet Matthew Zapruder’s memoir, Story of a Poem, in April 2023, they’ll work with Rare Bird’s audio arm to create a vinyl LP of Zapruder’s work for National Poetry Month. That process is facilitated by their shared base of operations, with North Figueroa Bookshop as the new hub.