Remembering Fairfax: Dachau Survivors, Bob Dylan and Falafel
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Pahlow remembers life on a very special Los Angeles street at a special time in its history. This piece is first in a series.
For about five years during the 1970s, a square mile of earth in Hollywood, CA., centered around North Fairfax Avenue between Beverly and Melrose, saw an amazing confluence of people passing through. Charles Bukowski, the drunken postal worker who wrote great poetry, often stumbled down Fairfax. Gary Baseman, Demi Moore, Jack Irons and Timothy Hutton all went to nearby Fairfax High School and were all part of he Fairfax crowd. Radio station KMET was always playing somewhere (“Little bit o’ heaven, ninety-four point seven, KMET — tweedle-dee!”) and we all especially loved Dr. Demento’s show.
Canter’s Deli was open 24 hours and almost never closed, then as now. Canter’s drew legions of hungry and thirsty people — wasted musicians, actors both real and wannabe actors. Its siren call of delicious pastrami, brisket and knishes drew in the likes of Frank Zappa, Paul Ruebens and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. They came for the cranky, yet somehow loving abuse from Canter’s waiters. And after they noshed, many Canter’s regulars crossed the street to visit Lose The Blues Bookstore, where they encountered me.
Lose the Blues opened in the early 1970s, in a storefront previously occupied by the Los Angeles Free Press, an anti-war paper that flourished and then folded. Starting in 1974, I worked late into the night as a clerk/cashier (Lose The Blues closed at 2 a.m.) and I sold the popular books of the period: “The Joy of Cooking,” “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” “The Whole Earth Catalog,” “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive,” “Shogun,” “Fear of Flying.” They all sold like proverbial hotcakes. The store also sold underground comics and Judaica, including mezuzot and menorahs. I rang up the purchases on a giant, mechanical NCR cash register and processed credit cards on a manual imprinter with carbon-copy receipts. The ka-chunka-chunk sound made by the imprinter proved unforgettable.
Kenny Feldman, an ex-FREEP employee, started the bookstore. From Ken I learned much, but not how to run a business. Ken opened the bookstore so he would have a huge selection of books from which to read. That did not turn out to be a viable business model, as we say these days.
The store was also one of the few places underground comics and the magazine High Times was available. Hippie entrepreneurs drove bundles of them down from Berkeley whenever they weren’t too stoned. Gilbert Shelton’s “Furry Freak Brothers”; R. Crumb’s “Mr.Natural” and “Zap Comics”; Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead” … bundle upon bundle were dropped off, and quickly sold to a hungry audience. Those Freak Brothers were going to change the world, somehow. I can still smell the inky newsprint and feel the anticipation of seeing a new issue of Zap Comics hot off the press. It was unique product mix — there has no doubt never been a retail store like and there never will be again.
Working at Lose The Blues, I saw a depth and variety of humanity previously unimagined by a kid from Ohio. I remember selling books to and chatting with Michael Pollack and Shelly Winter, both very nice. One evening Bob Dylan came in and bought all the copies of the French existentialists that we had, which was Camus and Sartre. He mumbled and looked down and I couldn’t understand a word he said. He paid in cash.
Politicians often stumped at the bookstore. Future City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, a Fairfax High graduate, often hit the street, the bookstore and Canter’s to gather votes. Jerry Brown, onetime California Governor and the current California Attorney General, often made the rounds, and in 1976, he campaigned for the Presidential nomination from a platform set up in front of Canter’s. I took Brown’s photo then, with the brown façade of Canters in the background. It was Brown on brown.
Fairfax was a neighborhood where WWII concentration camp survivors mixed with hippies, old rabbis and Israeli immigrants wearing gold chains. Poets, revolutionaries, underground comic book fans and movie stars browsed the self-help and astrology section of our store. They all came together on that block at that unique time. And many lively discussions, arguments and rambling monologues were held late at night in that store by this mixed-up crowd of humans from all over the map.
Sometimes I’d glimpse a tattooed concentration camp number on an old person’s arm as they reached out to pay me a quarter for a Hebrew or Yiddish newspaper. Holocaust survivors were talking to me, buying newspapers and looking me in the eye; people who went through Hell and survived. I never dreamed that I would be so close to such astounding people.
I did not realize what an extraordinary time and place Fairfax was back then, as I was young and stupid. Perhaps this tardy appreciation can be my atonement.