Jeff Garlin's Serious Side
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It’s one of L.A.’s best-kept secrets: the coolest book club in town.
By Debra Ollivier
Jeff Garlin is best known as the beloved and haimish Jeff Greene on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” This fall, he re-entered the comedy landscape in a new role as a tempestuous dad lording over a 1980s family in the ABC series The Goldbergs. Off camera, however, in a town defined by the surface glitz of its celebrity flora, the real-life Jeff Garlin shines bright as a star of a very different stripe.
For the past two years, Garlin has hosted a book club at the iconic and venerated Book Soup on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. One of the few remaining independent bookstores in the city, Book Soup is a deliciously eclectic, literary Shangri-la that has long been a requisite pit stop for authors on tour. Garlin is a fixture here, where he holds court over a book club that is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Although everyone is welcome here, the club has remained surprisingly intimate, with anywhere from 10 to 25 regulars and non-regulars who gather to discuss Garlin’s literary picks and bask in the glow of his radiant enthusiasm.
If people end up buying the books on Amazon, Garlin is not happy. “That would suck,” he says, “because I want Book Soup to sell lots of books.”
“I’ve always loved books,” says Garlin. “They’re good for the soul. I’ll read one to three books a week, from start to finish. If everything falls apart and I’m really busy shooting stuff, then maybe one a month. That’s a slow, slow month.” Garlin picks big, smart books for his club, from Bernard Malamud’s A New Life and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution. Next up is Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. No date is set yet, but expect it to happen before the end of the year.
The club has an informal salon atmosphere to it, but if there’s a large turnout and people end up buying the books on Amazon, Garlin is not happy. “That would suck,” he says, “because I want Book Soup to sell lots of books.”
And herein lies his primary motivation for having a book club: As Amazon’s digital footprint expands, Garlin is on a quest to help indie bookstores flourish. Book Soup, with its richly diverse literary picks and its knowledgeable staff of book zealots, is his personal house of worship.
“I have a very strong theory,” he says. “I believe that independent bookstores will be around forever and that Barnes and Noble–type bookstores will be gone. And here’s why: What’s the difference between a chain and an indie bookstore like Book Soup? Passion. That’s it. Passion is what separates one store from another. You can go into any store, look its employees in the eyes, and say: ‘I don’t have to come here, you realize that, don’t you? I can get everything you sell on the Internet cheaper.’ To survive, you have to offer people an experience. And that experience comes from the aesthetics of a bookstore and from employees who can say: ‘Hey, we can discuss this book with you; we can show you what to read.’ Then you can sit in the store, read the book and feel it in your hands. If you don’t offer that experience and you don’t treat people nicely, who gives a shit if you close? Go ahead and close. I don’t want you open.”
All Book Soup employees know Garlin, but no one has his literary tastes down better than Amelia Cone. Garlin’s de facto personal shopper, Cone regularly walks the stacks with him and recommends books; Garlin often leaves with as many as 10 that he’ll voraciously read within weeks. “Garlin is a very busy guy,” says Cone. “But I think he’s also a closet bookstore owner.”
Garlin credits his parents for his love of literature, particularly children’s books. ”I loved P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? and Go, Dog. Go! They were great. And I loved pop-up books. I’d read them over and over again until they got ripped up and didn’t pop up anymore, which depressed me.”
As a grown-up, Garlin’s zeal doesn’t stop at the printed page. He regularly hosts and records his “By the Way, in Conversation with Jeff Garlin” podcast in front of a live studio audience at the Largo night club in Hollywood. Michael Moore, Zach Galifianakis, Lena Dunham and, of course, Larry David are a few of the guests who’ve shared the stage in conversation. Garlin is keen on stimulating minds and laughing hard in the process.
I like it when Americans are literate. I like it when people read and think. It helps me as a comedian and as a filmmaker. Books make us smart.
In the movie Dealin’ With Idiots, which came out this summer, Garlin plays a famous comedian named Max who tries to coach his son’s baseball team and get to know its impossibly annoying parents as inspiration for his next movie. “My imagination couldn’t come up with the stuff I’m seeing; this behavior,” Max says of the parents. No surprise that since famous comedian Garlin also wrote and directed Dealin’ With Idiots, there’s a big dollop of autobiography here. If Garlin believes that passion is what makes a difference in this world, he’s also a firm believer that this world needs more smart people — or at least fewer idiots.
“There’s a dumbing down of the world,” he says, sitting amidst tables piled high with children’s books. “I observe that as a comedian. I like it when Americans are literate. I like it when people read and think. It helps me as a comedian and as a filmmaker. Books make us smart.”
Garlin does not curb his enthusiasm for making sure that books do, indeed, make us smart – and the world is a whole lot better off for it.
- Debra Ollivier, OZY Author Contact Debra Ollivier