Chatterton’s Bookstore: The Legendary Forerunner to Skylight Books

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

I pulled a copy of Leland Hickman’s Great Slave Lake Suite off a shelf of a corner bookcase the other day and found a bookmark from Chatteron’s Bookstore poking up out of it. Chatterton’s was the most important bookstore on the “east” side of town back in the glory days of the various poetry scenes in Los Angeles in the 1970s. it was founded — perhaps I should say inspired — by Papa Bach Bookstore in as much as the strategy for the Chatterton’s specific location was modeled directly after Papa Bach’s. Both bookstores are gone now, but the movie theaters that were in close walking distance from each bookstore are still in operation. The NuArt movie theater (just off the 405 on Santa Monica Blvd.) in West LA, and the Laemelle movie theater on Vermont, still screen interesting films, as was the case back in the early 1970s, when a clerk at Papa Bach realized that he could start a similar store on the other side of town and probably have equal, if not greater success. Indeed, William Koki Iwamoto did start such a store. Like Papa Bach, it featured live readings by poets. I remember giving Lee Hickman a ride on the back of my motorcycle on evening to Chatterton’s to give a reading there in the mid-1970s.

It’s hard to say which store had a more comprehensive poetry section. Chatterton’s, however, had a space at the back of the store that was set aside just for readings, so it was a better venue for poetry. Chatterton’s also had chairs to sit in, whereas Papa Bach was mainly a stand and listen affair with only a handful of chairs. There was a brief period when a backroom of the adjacent building was rented for readings at Papa Bach, and I remember Joseph Hansen giving a very fine reading there. On the whole, though, poets enjoyed reading at Chatteron’s more.

It was a long haul from Ocean Park to the north end of Vermont Avenue, however, so I rarely got to those readings. I did, however, make many day-time trips there to deliver books, and Koki always paid me upfront for the books. There was no such thing as an invoice paid in 30 days. Koki knew that I most likely still owed money to the printer, so he paid cash for everything I hauled to his store in a bag that perched on my motorcycle gas tank.

I have long suspected that it was Koki’s recommendation that convinced Ted Reidel at Papa Bach to name me as the first poetry editor of Bachy magazine. We had spent a fair amount of time at the book counter talking about poetry in the weeks leading up to that appointment, and Koki had shown me a few of his poems. I admired his poetry, but he was very reluctant to publish. As far as I know, he never allowed any of them to circulate beyond a few close friends. I have five of them in an envelope that will most certainly go into my archive at some special collections. If anyone wants to honor a person who was an authentic hero in the LA poetry renaissance, then let them find a way to publish these poems in a beautiful chapbook that would honor the memory of William Koki Iwamoto.

Chatterton's Bookmark - 1974

Here are some links to articles about Chatterton’s. I would note only one correction. Lionel Rolfe is an astute historian, but just as I recorded errors in Holdouts, his article does contain one mistake. Koki was never an employee of John Harris. By the time that John Harris owned Papa Bach, Koki had long moved on from the store and started Chatterton’s. One must remember that John Harris did not even begin working as one of the editors of Bachy until the early fall of 1973, when I suggested to Ted that he replace me as the poetry editor. It was around that time that Ted and Eva began to think of opening up a branch of Papa Bach in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and John began to see the store as his chance to start a second career. In early 1974, Chatterton’s was in full swing, so there is no chance that John served as a mentor to Koki while he was employed at Papa Bach.

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