The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies

I love hearing about Frances McClellan’s literary excursions.  Today she is sharing a visit into the life of Steinbeck, I can’t wait to visit myself.  Check out Frances’ past contributions, Hicklebee’s, The King’s English Bookshop, Bookbuyers Used Books and Media, and The Twig Bookshop.

Hoping to share a unique experience with a good friend and Steinbeck admirer who was in for the weekend from Los Angeles, my husband and I took him to The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. Housed in the Martin Luther King library on the campus of San Jose State University the center is open most days. Having already visited the center in the past for readings, I endeavored to experience this place anew.

My own experience during past visits to this Steinbeck sanctuary included introductions to emerging authors and poets as well as a brief handshake with Steinbeck’s son, Thomas. This visit was one of discovery compelled by my desire to know more about the man so many admire.

Getting to know an author is a complex, involved business. Reading works of literature, poetry or commentary can’t quite give a reader the full understanding of the person. The works will never fully show the author’s method of writing nor the instrument or influences used in the craft.

Walking up to a side table, I noticed a ream of paper sitting there for anyone to pick up and review. Curiosity getting the better part of me, I picked up the stack of paper as the docent walked over to describe the item I was holding. The long, legal sized papers were copies of Steinbeck manuscripts. Holding them up to read, I noted for the first time that John Steinbeck had minute and scribbled penmanship, practically illegible to the untrained eye. The pages are chock full of line after line of minuscule, quickly written prose. Paper was scarce when Steinbeck wrote so he literally filled pages with words creating his masterful stories, allowing only a slight margin on his work pages. In addition, I am told that he wrote in pencil, never pen.

The center is modest in size with two small offices in the corner and a visitor desk welcoming inquiries. High windows, allowing the warming California sunshine into the room also providing ample light for reading and exploring the space. A quiet place, with its worktables, colorful posters and broad bookshelves housing the largest collection of first edition, John Steinbeck works. The collection of books, is augmented by thousands of related materials such as personal letters, photographs, original manuscripts and even a few of the author’s own pencils, giving this archival collection a singularly refined focus.

We are shown by the docent, Steinbeck family pictures as well as pictures prepared by the publisher. Studio posters are available for study as they tout a movie based on the various books. Steinbeck is, after all, an American classic.

A Steinbeck enthusiast would have to make the pilgrimage to this place in order to appreciate the depth of these collected works and artifacts.

The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies

San Jose State University

Room 590, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library

San Jose, CA 95192 0202

T:  408.808.2067








Libros Schmibros is the Artist-in-Residence at the Hammer Museum

What happens when two of my favorite things pair up?  A unique bookstore fills the gallery of a contemporary museum.  A while back David Kippen, book critic and former director of literature for the NEA, noticed two things:  the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles didn’t have a bookstore while the local libraries were cutting hours, and that he owned 7,000 books.  In response, he opened Libros Schmibros, a small store front in Boyle Heights where the community can borrow books or buy them at a heavy discount.  It is run by volunteers, that’s right, it’s a true labor of love.  All of literary LA loves this concept, so much so that the Hammer invited him to the westside of LA to take over the lobby gallery for six weeks.  Think a pop up bookstore museum style.  Same rules apply here, books are available to borrow or buy at a discounted price.  In fact, residents of Westwood and Boyle Heights can buy the books for a dollar.  Anyone else heard of a local bookstore selling books to locals for a buck?

Part of the back mural

The store is packed with books under a banner on the back wall depicting Los Angeles literary figures.  The banner itself is worth entering the gallery.  But the books won’t disappoint either.  They’re all arranged alphabetically by author, fiction, non-fiction, all genres are shelved together (with the exception of California history and art books).  I like the mixture, it felt strangely efficient.

What would a bookstore or a gallery installation be without related events?  Libros Schmibros hosts several over the next few weeks.  I attended a quiz about LA History last weekend in honor the reissue of the Los Angeles in the 1930s:  The WPA Guide to Los Angeles.  Halfway through the quiz, my team was in the lead.  I think this is more indicative of my ability to pick teammates among strangers than it is of my knowledge of LA history.  Unfortunately, I had to leave before the second half of the quiz began so I don’t know the ultimate winner.  Even on days without events, the website lists the hours of well known volunteers (guest workers) such as authors and film makers so the public can stop by and ask them about their artistic work.

It’s a charming space, stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

Libros Schmibros at the Hammer Museum

10899 Wilshire Blvd

Los Angeles, CA 90024

T:  310.443.7000