Bound and Determined
By Lena McGee
Published Apr 1, 2017 8:00 AM
A Bruin family has kept Caravan Book Store successful for more than 60 years.
When Morris Bernstein ’47 and his wife, Lillian, opened Caravan Book Store on downtown Los Angeles’ Grand Avenue in 1954, he had no idea how much impact he’d have on the local community. At a time when the streetcar was the main source of transportation and people dressed up to go downtown, Caravan — once adjacent to the former “Bookseller’s Row” — was the place to go. To book lovers, it was Disneyland, a place where you could find old, rare and curious manuscripts you couldn’t get anywhere else.
And it still is: When you walk in, you want to read and purchase everything. It’s small enough not to overwhelm you, but big enough to hold some remarkable collections. Caravan is a piece of living literary history, a place where they still wrap your books in brown paper, as in the ’50s.
Morris attended UCLA, pausing his studies to serve in World War II and returning to graduate in 1947. When it was time to turn his treasured book nook over to a new generation, he looked no further than his son Leonard, who attended UCLA before leaving school to work in the store. Leonard continues with the system he watched his father use, embracing an approach marked by excellent customer service and maintaining of the inventory by hand, not by computer. He knows every book in the store and where to find it.
And somehow, in this age of relentless digital technology, Leonard has managed to succeed without marketing or advertising. Word of mouth from dedicated customers has kept the store successful. Caravan today remains a place where heart, community and culture come together, a crossroads of the world. Visitors from everywhere come to browse, talk books and share their world perspective … like the day Caroline Kennedy walked into the store.
“Human connections and excellent customer service are the keys to success,” Leonard says, but he insists it’s really his mustache that keeps folks coming back. That, and the well-known Caravan Christmas tradition of displaying an old-time train — complete with whistle — in the front window.
And even Caravan can learn some lessons from today’s connected culture. Leonard’s three kids (two of whom are UCLA grads) have introduced him to social media. And with his first grandchild on the way, Leonard is looking forward to sharing his selection of pop-up books. Something to entice the next generation of Bruins to one of L.A.’s most beloved traditions.