"Interview with Sean Christopher (Unabridged)"
"World Spark" Interviews
I had the pleasure of talking to Sean Christopher, owner of Lhooq Books and The Exrealism Project. Lhooq Books, located in Carlsbad California, is a distinct bookstore with art plastered everywhere, and the unexpected inside. This bookstore is one of my favorite spots to stop by when I walk around Carlsbad, as it is its own little world, and Christopher answered all my questions.
Part of your store leads out to an enclosed area with a big screen, chairs. I understand that occasionally you host movie nights in this spot that can also be used for readings and lectures–why did you decide to utilize your space in this way when you can instead use it to hold more books?
I think the most important flip of the script here is that I got the screen and projector with the original intent to host live / virtual events similar to how you would use face time of video conference like Google talk. I had basic pitches for artists, academics, activists and very famous artists. The general idea was utilizing amazing technology that was already available, and be able to host live, completely interactive events, giving them an intimate feeling while connecting people and ideas and stories from around the world.
For example we have had a Physics Professor from Cambridge do a virtual live lecture on his passion project, “Collective conscious.” It was an amazing lecture. He’s a very intelligent man and he was intelligent enough to focus on explaining the subject in plain English rather than trying to show off his intelligence with confusing rhetoric. This is common behavior among snobby pseudo intellectual types. Trying to sound smart, rather than focusing on simply doing the best work they can. Then we had a very difficult experience scheduling a reading with two authors who are colleagues of mine through a same publisher/editor. The publisher/editor lives on a Grecian island, the opening Author and extreme activist was based on London, but as we were planning the event she was part of a peaceful protest in Spain. Some rouge protestors threw molitoff cocktails and burned part of the building they were protesting in front of and two Spanish officers were killed in the fire. Anyone that really knew this woman absolutely, 100% knew that she deplored violence and thought it was the worst way to to fight for a cause, effectively ending any real chance for change, and she was proven right by the actions of these strangers. As one of the few leading members who organized the formal event, she was put on a terrorist list and as a murder suspect for what happen. She had to go into hiding, but she insisted she wanted to do this. So now not only did we have time and basic technical issues, her issue was intensified with security, hackers hiding her location, and still getting her message out and getting as much media coverage as we could to help.
Then finally, we had the main author who was reading live from Syria from his new “fictional” book about a man about his age with a family very much like the author’s own family who grew up in the very same town (but it was fiction so it could be published outside of Syria without breaking any laws). During our rehearsal and run through mostly to get the timing right, a mortar shell went off about 40 ft away, by his estimate halfway into his reading. I learned more about what was happening in Syria and why from a historical view point, and I also learned a lot more about what was the real feeling on the streets and with the protestors in Spain, which I was very personally saddened by because in all my travels, I tried to make sure I got as much time to chill out in Spain as possible because I just loved their culture and way of life, which I could not recognize at all in the last few years. Heartbreaking really.
Anyway, that along with eventual live streaming and then edited versions available online for all the events is the goal. But we had the high end projector and the screen and a friend set us up with a high end surround sound theater system so now we also play your typical fucked up art house films and also great classics once a week. But it was definitely an after thought and action. That’s one example of how rough it is to bring real culture to a place like this. People don’t even want it, but it’s simply because they are ignorant and they prefer to stay ignorantly blissful. If they have the harsh reality of the world shoved in their face they wouldn’t know what to do with it or their emotions or really their entire reality.
Carlsbad is a community rich with culture, and your bookstore lands in “the village” which locals see as a top destination for eating food and shopping. What went into your decisions when it came to choosing location? Did you look into other places?
Before I pretty much fell into the space and the options where wide open, I think Carlsbad was near last on my list. Sure it is full of “culture,” but not the kind of culture we were selling and I grew up here so I knew better than anyone how real the minivan army, now SUV, McMansion, keeping up with the Jones, upper middle class lifestyle paid for by 60 hour work weeks–with mom and dad at work and/or living on borrowed money and pilling up as much stress and displaced aggression as the amount of debt they also had. A million dollar lifestyle on loan. It’s tough. SO my justification was that it is some kind of Culture war front line. I expected to be in the Pacific North. West protected and insulated by like minded people, etc, etc. But I also realized I feed on angst. And here at least I know what and who and why it and they and this is my what I am fighting against. IF I was in somewhere like Portland I’d start hating people that basically looked and acted like and had very much of the same world views and political ideas I did and eventually I’d start being annoyed by them. I am at base anti-social, not by choice, I have social anxiety, but I know who and what to avoid down here. IF I was in more ideal places (and I know this from living in the Bay area on both sides of the bridge for many years each), in different eras and modes, I started getting annoyed by the most well intended individuals and almost in essence I begin hating on myself. Thank god the techies came in to focus my rage against. And no matter what I will always have “the Man” to really get pissed off at regardless if anywhere I end up.
I noticed that you have an online component to your bookstore. How successful has that been towards fitting your desires/needs for the bookstore? Did you feel pressed to have an online component due to bookstores such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon?
I didn’t expect to own or operate a bookstore in this order. When I was in High school, I was a serious skateboarder. I have traveled and seen more of the world at 15 than most people do in a lifetime, and when I was asked to start a new Skateboard company with two of my best friends and all time heroes, they told me it was my time to turn pro. For me this met I had reached my lifelong goal and it also met that I had to decide if I was ready and willing to commit to not much more than you would think; I felt I would have to commit my life to skateboarding. This wouldn’t have been an issue, but leading up to this opportunity I discovered reading and I read ferociously. I went through classic and obscure lit., philosophy, religion and history like an addict. I learned not just about new worlds, I learned about the history and culture and secrets of the world that existed all around me and I realized that I had been in a small bubble of reality–in that bubble I was on top–but I started to realize what I knew and understood and was very little compared to the world outside this bubble. So in a moment of deep contemplation about my life, my future, running through all the possible scenarios, especially what I wanted to be, I realized I had to understand the depths of the human condition in as many ways as possible. SO I chose, quite dramatically, to quit skateboarding, everything about it and travel the world and learn everything I could about life.
Wait, what was the question? Oh yeah, our website and online business. The point was I was living as a purist for decades and all I did no matter how good or bad, how spiritually enlightening or how terribly self destructive I was I did it all for the sake of understanding the human condition and I did that for the sake of my art and craft as a writer. I figured one day after I was a successful author I might own a quaint little bookstore and either have my office above it or my entire home above it and I would write and occasionally come down and chat with the regulars. Then when my first child was on his way and my brief hiatus from writing and publishing had become a long sabbatical or something nearer to an early retirement I realized I had to do something more than getting a short story published in a literary journal for $300 bucks or write for a magazine at 35 cents per word on average. I was offered a job as a managing editor for, ironically, a skateboard magazine, but it meant I’d be working 60+ hours a weeks with an average 3 hour round trip commute. It was good money, but I wouldn’t even get a chance to see my son grow up. Around this time a former professor of mine, a crazy neurotic professor that taught full time, had recently started working on his second PhD and also owned a small bookstore. The bookstore was about to go out of business and he asked me if I would help. I turned down the 6 figure 9am to 5pm job for random pocket cash as I tried to help save my former professors bookstore. The problem was it was just too far gone, and too late. He had already received eviction notices and there wasn’t one sign that he or anyone else had ever managed to store–especially not the bookkeeping and there was just nothing I could do to save it. But he knew how hard I tried. He got lucky and was offered a very prestigious position at UCLA where he could continue teaching and finish his second PhD in total comfort. In turn he basically handed over the bookstore to me. OF course the physical space was gone, but his collection was amazing and I also got all his connections, plus months and months of training prior to the closing of the physical store.
The big selling point was that the online store via Amazon was a gold mine. He had multiple storage units filled to the brim with the best books and books that sold and at this time Amazon was little more than a middle man. It was perfect for me. I was making great money from the online account and when I was offered a writing gig I could take it and disappear for a couple weeks, even three weeks at a time and still manage to keep the online store going strong. It was a great time for online business and I almost liked Amazon, but as time passed more and more rules and regulations were put into place, and always more and more fees and percentage points going to Amazon. Fast forward a few years and it became a nightmare. Without taking ten pages to explain everything lets just say I felt like a slave to the system. I was no longer an independent bookseller who happened to sell through Amazon, I was simply a buyer for Amazon and my boss was an algorithm and everything had become designed to help the large companies and cut out the independents–you basically had to keep up with the speed of a computer system and give far too much of a cut to Amazon and worst of all they literally did not care one iota about the individual sellers. So, like the French, I boycotted Amazon and quit selling online.
We currently have a website, but it’s basically shit. Eventually, actually very soon, starting early 2019 it will be great. My fiancé is a genius backend and front end computer wizard. She will be building and operating our website, but it still is not designed to be primarily an e-commerse site. Of course we will have a bookstore, and art gallery and merchandise, but we will also have a monthly webzine, a streaming sow that is a hybrid of our events, interviews and anything art, literature and revolutionary. We hope both in the way it works and with the content. We want to help connect artists, activists, creatives of all types and revolutionaries from around the world, from pacifists to militants, speakers to fighters. We don’t want to just tell their story, we want to help and be part of their story. Once again use the internet for a greater purpose. It’s something that is so complex, something that is so original, something that will actually create true change that the idea or the mission statement itself is something that has not been fully conceptualized. It will take all these great minds from the most diverse circumstances and skill sets to come together to actually conceive of the yet unconceivable. It is the only way we can possibly help and change the world under the noses of the powers that be. AS far as sales go, it’s common knowledge that to diversify is the way t grow and make more money, so in that sense I am sure an online store would help bring in more money, but to think you can’t survive without it, even an independent bookstore is rubbish, that is a type of capitalist / corporate propaganda. We have our website. When I put it up I knew I was no web designer so I made the simplest site I could and I’ve kept it up, but as it is, I am too embarrassed to even look at it now. I’m just waiting for our wizard and I hope then, once it is set up with the option to connect we will start promoting it and I hope people get it and join in and help us make something special. Back step. Somehow I ended with that quant little bookstore and my house is not exactly above it, but it is on the same property and I do spend most my time writing at my desk and occasionally coming out and having a conversation or two wit hour regulars and I am still really into organizing our events and we are still working on our physical expansion and renovations. It started as a project and I had a vision, things have changed only slightly along the way, but we haven’t completed my vision yet. We hope to do that in early 2019 as well. But I worry once I complete my vision I won’t have much more to give and thus I won’t have that much more to do with it so I hope it grows beyond me and my ideas live on in a mixture of its own identity and new life and ever evolving with other lives involved with the place now and more in the future.
Were there any unexpected challenges to owning this bookstore?
Oh my god yes. I knew I wanted to create a space that followed the traditions of places like City Lights, Shakespeare & Co, and even the cafes in NYC’s East Village where artists and the angst ridden creatives and true intellectuals of now and our future could come to share their work and ideas. And we also always wanted a nonprofit connected like a sibling to help creatives, activists, children, and basic equal human rights, help protect our environment and all the great things that we have the opportunity to help thrive and also help stop all the terrible things happening in this world locally and globally. Some people may call that naive and idealistic, but life is so subjective and there truly is no guarantees that if you do this or that you will be safe and secure so if you are going to live, live for the greater good of all things. But you can’t just do that and ask the local, state and federal governments to trust you. We were shut down as soon as we opened. We were profiled as radicals before we even realized we were doing anything radical. We would not have made it through the “unexpected challenges” of owning a bookstore if it wasn’t for two basic facts.
One, I did not create the place to be a business, I considered it a project; an art project, a social project, a cultural project, but never a straight for profit business. So I built it on my own and with the help of family, friends and former lovers. I never used a credit card or took a loan and I didn’t expect it to make a ton a of money, I wasn’t sure if it would make any money. They first tried to just shut us down like squashing a little bug thinking no-one would notice or care, but thank god and thank you to our community for their amazing support because the city quickly realized we had the majority of the community on our side. But there was still one guy who had it in for us, I can only speculate why, but I really don’t know, anyway, he tried to choke us out financially by holding us to these agreements I conceded to while we were supposed to be working out the little details to get out business license back. I figured it would take them 6 weeks to two months, and agreed to these rules that really were set up to make it impossible to maintain any business, let alone a brand new, tiny independent bookstore by someone who may have degrees in literature and philosophy , etc. But my business experience was limited to a few months of minimum wage customer service on telegraph street in Berkeley so I had no idea what I was doing on the business end. But because of the way I began I was able to wait him out . Which leads to the second reason why we survived. I am one of the most stubborn individuals on this planet, especially when it comes to any authority figures telling me what I can or cannot do. So I nearly went bankrupt, but we are still here and that guy I spoke of eventually resigned from his post quietly.
On your web page you mention that you are hoping to start a zine and perhaps your own publishing house. Can you tell us more about that?
Well, I think I kind of covered that when I went of subject a bit when you asked about online sales and dealing with the looming literary torture of Amazon. Seriously, I honestly believe Jeff Bezos is single handedly killing literature. I read some financial report where he makes more in ten seconds what the average Amazon employee makes in a year. He makes hundreds of millions in a day and the average median annual income for an Amazon employee is $28,000. Strange because he actually started off selling books from his garage, probably at his mom’s house too. And now he is in la la land playing with spacecrafts. It’s hard to know if a man like that is just stupid and lucky and an evil genius. SO our website. Yeah, if we had even a fraction of Bezo’s money, it really would take relatively so little, but it’s far beyond my current means. Although, we have plans to set up honorable/respectful fundraisers and basically beg for money from people that have some to share and believe in a good cause and do so with truth and integrity. I hope we can create a site that is a kind of cyber mecca and marketplace for the most interesting people in the world.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your bookstore or your experiences owning it?
I love my bookstore and I am determined to fulfill the vision and ideas I started with and I hope they flourish and grow well beyond my original little idea and space, but until then I will nurture it as one of my own and take care of it. And most importantly, share it with the people who so desperately want and need a place to come that is truly authentic and timeless. We have books and an aesthetic that many people consider nostalgic. But the funny thing is if a very old woman may consider it nostalgic in reference to the 1920’s, 1930’s or 40”s, others feel the spirit of the rebellious 50’s beat writers or the hell and chaos and love of the 60’s. But then you also have young people come in and they feel right at home in a truly contemporary space. And it is all the above. WE won’t want to be labelled one thing or another just like most people. We just want to be and share the truth. And unfortunately, I have to admit that our current political/government system is not designed to help the independent small businesses. That’s a terribly sad fact.
|Category: Lhooq Books in magazines and newspapers | (18 March 2020)|