Lee Kaplan’s Love Affair with Arcana: Books on the Arts

Lee Kaplan’s first paying job came at the age of eight. It was the summer, and his grandfather paid him to catalog his extraordinary library of books. The experience instilled in young Lee just how important books were. Books were a repository for culture and society and were to be handled properly and treated as venerated objects. This knowledge paved a path for Lee that has guided him throughout his life.

A couple years later Lee got a job at a local bookstore as a stock boy. His payment? Books. There was just something about them. The smell of the paper and the weight of one in your hand. He wanted to be around them constantly. He enjoyed them both as objects, and for the content that was inside of them.

It only made sense that one day he would own his own bookstore. That dream was realized in 1984 when he opened Arcana: Books on the Arts in a one-bedroom apartment in LA’s Westwood. He named it after a classical 20th century composition by the composer Edgard Varèse, and after a music column he wrote for a local paper in the early 70’s. And, for marketing purposes, he wanted something that started with an “A,” because back then you wanted your business to be at the top of the listings in the Yellow Pages.

Three years after opening, Arcana: Books on the Arts had outgrown its small space and moved to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which at the time was a run down, depressed walking mall that had very inexpensive rent. The little bookstore Lee had created in an apartment, suddenly became a giant one with over 100,000 new, used, rare, one-of-a-kind and out-of-print books.

For 25 years Arcana: Books on the Arts stayed on the Promenade, weathering the shift into what the Promenade is today. A shift that was unwelcome for Lee. He is of the belief that bookstores should be something sacred. “The Internet has emboldened people and has skewed the public’s knowledge of what is permissible behavior in a bookstore,” he says. Not amused with the steady stream of tourists that would stop in daily wanting a Barnes and Noble type of experience where they could browse through books while holding a coffee in one hand, and taking Instagram shots in the other. “A bookstore should be a place where you can come to discover things you didn’t know existed.” It is not a place to be used as a library. And definitely not a place to bring in liquid when there’s thousands of rare books around.

In 2012, Lee and his co-owner, his wife Whitney, packed up their books and made the move to 4,400 square feet at the Helms Bakery building in historic Culver City. This change of venue has served them well, providing a clientele that is more aligned with the original vision of Arcana: Books on the Arts. Their patrons now are artists, gallerists, and photographers who appreciate what books stand for.

Although Lee has seen the best days of his profession come and go, his love affair with books remains. He takes pride in helping people find the right fit. “I get enjoyment from putting the right book in the right person’s hand,” Lee explains. “I think a really important trait of a great book seller is to be able to size somebody up and show them something they didn’t even know they were looking for.”

He realizes his industry is dwindling with each e-Book sold and every Amazon purchase, but he has faith there will always be people who prefer the actual thick of a book. “There’s a whole generation who grew up with their grandparents reading them books while they sat on their laps, turning the pages,” he says. And that’s what he believes in. That’s what drives him to continue. That, is the true power of books.

Lindsay DeLong is the Managing Editor of The Fullest. In elementary school she used to stay inside at recess to read. She has a feeling Lee Kaplan would approve. Find her at lindsay@thefullest.com or on social media via @lindizzaster.

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