I arrived just after 8 p.m. with my partner, an air mattress, a pile of blankets and pillows, and a bag with Trader Joe’s wine in tow. The others had already arrived, and Powell was ready to kick off a casual tour.
“Self-help, memoirs, science, math, philosophy, poetry, writing,” he rattled off as we wove through the bookshelves.
“I’m going to pop an edible, read all the self-help books and leave here a new person,” my partner joked.
Soon enough, Powell was recalling the spookiest things he’d seen in his years at the store. He described coworkers who’d heard or glimpsed figures moving around the corners, and instances where people watched books fly off shelves for seemingly no reason.
“That corner is where books fall off sometimes, in sci-fi, for some reason,” he said.
As we passed the portal, a hidden nook where my partner and I had signed up to sleep, we realized it was both secluded in the back corner of the store with books on U.S. history and located closest to the “haunted” shelves that books fall off of. We quickly decided we wouldn’t be sleeping there.
For the first hour or so, everyone dispersed. Nelson Aguilar, an L.A. native who said he first fell in love with books when his dad took him to the L.A. Times Festival of Books, immediately raced to the rare book annex.
“I lived at the Row across the street for five, six years, so I used to come here all the time,” he said.
When he saw the bookstore’s post on Instagram, he ran to his wife, Marcelina Stardust. As they contemplated the $500 price tag, the choice became obvious.
“She was like, ‘Wait, it’s kind of like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This isn’t gonna happen again,’” he said. “I like to waste money on things, and she’s the reasonable part of my brain.”
The books picked out that night
Nic Chatree Sridej: “Night Terror” by John Kenn Mortensen, “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut, “The Kindly Ones” by Melissa Scott, “Blackbirds” by Chuck Wendig and “The Body Scout” by Lincoln Michel
Jessica Gonzalez: “Three Dark Crowns” by Kendare Blake, “Strega: A Novel” by Johanne Lykke Holm
Nelson Aguilar: “By Any Means Necessary” by Malcolm X, “Opium: Diary of a Cure” by Jean Cocteau, “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath
Marcelina Stardust: “The World of Picasso” by Lael Wertenbaker, “Henry Miller: Watercolors / Drawings / and His Essay ‘The Angel Is My Watermark’” by Henry Miller
Reanna Cruz: “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base” by Annie Jacobsen,
“Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears” by Michael Schulman, “Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts!” by Lynne Margulies, “The Book of Jose: A Memoir” by Fat Joe,
“The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves” by Arik Kershenbaum
Aside from the private, peaceful shopping opportunity, the couple decided to lean into the fun of sleeping away from their place in Melrose Hill by bringing a tent and a projector, where they could play footage of a real campfire.
“We were supposed to bring camping chairs, but we figured that it’s a little bit too much,” Aguilar added. “We didn’t want to overdo it. We’re already overdoing it.”
And instead of taking photos for Instagram, Aguilar brought his dad’s old-school camcorder to document the night on tape.
“I’m bad at taking photos or shooting videos of myself, so when I look through my phone, it’s just a bunch of screenshots,” Aguilar said. “So I thought that this would be nice in case we have kids and we can pass it along to them.”
Nic Chatree Sridej and Jessica Gonzalez also booked their spot at the horror vault hoping it would be a night to remember.
“We’re big fans of the store,” Gonzalez said. “I have been for a very long time. I just saw it on their Instagram page and he was sitting next to me on the couch.”
“There were two seconds of ‘Is it too much money? No, it’s worth it,’” Sridej said. “Because we figured the money’s going to support the bookstore.”
“We were worried that it wasn’t going to make it through the pandemic,” Gonzalez added.
Sridej and Gonzalez, who are both horror writers based in Koreatown, thought the vault could even be a nice place to get some work done.
“We both have our laptops,” Gonzalez said. “Like I said, we’re both writers, so we might end up writing up there.”
With an air mattress, laptops and a few card games in their rotation, both felt like they could roll with whatever the night had in store for them.
“He may not sleep,” Gonzalez said. “I’m definitely going to sleep at least a little. We didn’t really make a plan. We were gonna kind of come and see what the vibe is. Like, if people want to hang out, we’ll hang out. If they don’t, then I’m sure we can find something to do.”
Hollie Hopf and Kendall Vanderhoof had more abstract expectations.
“I saw it on Instagram,” Hopf said. “I called Kendall. I thought it sounded really weird. I don’t know, it was kind of a joke when I called her up. I was like, ‘Yo, look how weird this is.’ But then we’re kind of like, ‘What if we actually did it?’”
Hopf and Vanderhoof, who live in Venice and Santa Monica, respectively, decided to snag the tunnel spots.
“If we’re going to sleep in the bookstore, I want to sleep in the coolest spot in the bookstore, and I deem that this tunnel,” Hopf said. “We did discuss all the other spots, but I thought that some of them were too creepy.”
“The vault and the horror [spot] — I would cry,” Vanderhoof said. “I’d be like, ‘No, I’m moving my little sleeping bag.’”
As for the next 12 hours, both friends had no particular plan. As Vanderhoof put it: “We came in minds blank.”