My friend Ashley’s car stumbled off the freeway and I cheered. After 2 turnarounds, we’d finally made it to Little Tokyo. We had nothing in mind for our day together, but we chanced upon the LA Art Book Fair. Ashley liked art. I liked books. It was meant to be.
The MOCA building, looked like a combination of old warehouse and modern museum, a maze of windowless white brick walls, with sunlight shining down from skylights in the rafters. Volunteers handed out sunset orange building maps, but this did little to help us navigate through 235 individual stands and 2 galleries. People were everywhere—at least one person manning the booth and two or three browsing. The few pictures I snapped did nothing to show just how overwhelming the experience was.
Picture a normal bookstore. Thousands of books line the shelves in neat organized fashion: first by genre, then by author’s name or possibly subject matter. A few thoughtful displays provide clusters of the newest, most popular books for easy browsing. Each cover includes a clear title, a glossy picture, and some sort of summary to let you know what the book is about. You can easily find what you’re looking for and decide whether or not you want it.
Not so easy here, where shelves are instead replaced by folding tables and books lay flat like so many rectangular patches on the tablecloth. There’s no order, no genre, just whatever each independent company offers. Some covers have no picture or no title. And nearly all the books are so obscure, there’s no way of knowing what it’s about until you open the pages and see what’s inside.
Cloth composition books painstakingly stitched with an entry about zombie movies; onions dissected by microscope; a steampunk how-to guide for caring for your octopus; Japanese pocketbooks with textured pages; philosophy written in the dry jargon of academia—these were some of the more comprehensible things I found. Looking through a single book was like viewing a college art gallery—and there were thousands of them.
One young man gave us a poster of a woman in a pool who liked to take pictures fully clothed in water. His company had collected this lifetime of photographs and put it in a book. “You find one thing and do it over and over and it becomes your mantra,” he said. Then he tried to sell us a book on bricks.
I felt a little sad. Many of the books represented the work of independent artists struggling to sell their work—much like me. The art cried out for attention, but I couldn’t give it. It was too much, too hard, too many images slamming into my brain. Hard as I tried, I could not find meaning.
So I made my own. I breathed in the white walls and found art in the collection: collections of pages, collections of books, collections of people. I could not see the details, yet there was beauty in the patterns. Rectangles everywhere: tables and books, halls and bricks—forming rows and crosses, trying to reign in the chaos, but never quite succeeding.
Food of Little Tokyo
Ashley’s vegan, so we have to be mindful of the restaurants we visit. Shojin was the only Japanese vegan we could find. It was hidden on the top floor of a dilapidated mall, which undermined its fanciness.
Inside, there were murals of red Magnolias in thick ink strokes and gold prints of a lotus root and a crescent moon. Our server laid out a sheet of paper as a tablecloth and gave us a carafe of water with a sprig of purple-rooted inside. She was attentive throughout the meal.
We both ordered sushi. Mine was called “Purple Treasure” ($12.95) and consisted of deep-fried eggplant smothered in a miso sauce on a brown rice and avocado, topped with strings of chili. The taste brought back memories of Japan, where I’d first eaten eggplant and miso sushi. The flavor was rich and deep, with a twinge of bitter aftertaste in the nicest, eggplantiest way.
Ashley had what was playfully called “Crunchy Tiger, Hidden Dragon Roll” ($13.95), which had the same brown rice and avocado base, with BBQ seitan, asparagus, tempura crumbs, and spicy mayonnaise—a more American take on sushi.
For dessert we went to a little sweets place called Mikawaya in the easy-to-find Japanese Village Plaza. I ordered two mochi-latos ($1.25 each): balls of gelato ice cream wrapped in a layer of pounded rice that’s soft and chewy and dusted with flour. My plum mochi-lato was surprisingly sweet and unique, while the coconut one tasted creamy and had tiny chunks of fresh coconut meat inside.