Papa Bach.

I was looking up a Pound poem in my prized copy of Personae when I noticed the handsome bookmark from Papa Bach Bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A., where I presumably bought the book back in December 1978 (over forty years ago! — and I still remember the thrill at finding a reissue of the book, which I’d been wanting for years), and I wondered about the store; turns out it was a legendary institution for a couple of decades (1964 to 1984), with two distinct periods, which you can read about here (old owner) and here (new). Google Books found me a nice potted history in Lionel Rolfe’s Literary L.A.:

Even in the fifties and sixties, with the exception of the Modern Library’s wonderful classic series, hardcovers were expensive and people were resistant to the idea of paying a lot for them. On the other hand, quality paperbacks were the basis of mass left-wing publishing projects of the political thirties; in fact, most of the country’s important new writers published by Grove Press, New Directions and City Lights reached thousands of readers because they were first published in paper covers. Paperbacks were obviously more democratic and hence a bit subversive; and this aura rubbed off on Papa Bach when it dedicated its shelves to them in 1964.

Papa Bach quickly became the center of the city’s burgeoning counterculture and remained so during the twenty-odd years it continued to be a fixture on Los Angeles’s cultural scene. Papa Bach was a meeting place and a cultural institution in its own right.

And I suddenly realized that “Papa Bach” was a pun on “paperback,” and that pleased me, so I thought I’d commemorate it here.


  1. Science fiction, which is what I write, didn’t go strongly hardcover until the 1970’s, presumably as a profit thing and not evolving from left-wing in the slightest. If left-wingism entitled me to paperback publication I’d be delighted. But my politics were subtle and Baen Books published Newt Gingrich the same year as my first book.. I sold better than Newt. But not enough to make Jim happy. I take joy in Newt’s failed fiction career. He’s a bigger loser than me.

  2. Richard Hershberger says

    And here I assumed that Papa Bach referred to J.S., as contrasted with C.P.E. or J.C. or the rest of them.

  3. It can, of course, be so used, but I submit that my interpretation is more likely for a store that sells paperbacks rather than classical music.

  4. Jen in Edinburgh says

    ‘And this father, this old Bach, you understand me, had written piles and piles of musical scores in the pantry.’

    ‘A whimsical place to compose in, perhaps; but then birds sing in trees, do they not? Why not antediluvian Germans in a pantry?’

  5. It was pointed out to me by a Hamburger that most English speakers pronounce the vowel in Bach more like bark than back, as it is in German. It may be worst with the English & Irish, and I’m not saying you do it (I do, though), but anyway it’s perhaps one reason why Papa Bach is not obviously paperback for the first forty years.

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    One reason, but the completely different first vowels in papa/paper and the different stress patterns in PAperback/papaBACH seem like better ones.

  7. At first sight I thought it was an affectionate Welsh way of referring to Hemingway.

  8. I’ll give you paper, but PAPA Bach, MAMA Bach and BABY Bach, not to mention the big bad hardback Virginia WOOLF?

  9. John Cowan says

    Papa Bach, Mama Bach, and Baby Bach were hanging upside-down in a big empty cave.

    “Well, here we are, just the four of us”, said Baby Bach.

    “What do you mean, dear?” said Mama Bat. “There are only three of us.”

    Baby Bat lost it. “You know very well I can’t count!”

  10. Kate Bunting says

    Jen, I appreciated your Patrick O’Brian reference (having also supposed at first that the thread title referred to JSB).

    Speaking of English pronunciations of German composers’ names – my late godfather, who was Norwegian, once asked “Why do you English say BATE-hoven? B-E-E-T isn’t pronounced ‘bate’ in English.” I could only explain that it’s the sound nearest to the German of those that come naturally to an English speaker.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Yes, and if you’re Scottish or Canadian, it’s even the exact same thing.

    I’d stress the second syllable, though, not the first.

  12. Trond Engen says

    I think this is as much about Norwegian phonology as English. We map the German vowel to our /e:/ and the English to our diphtong /ei/. This hasn’t always been the case. 19th century borrowings like cape “piece of wardrobe” [ke:p] got a monophtong — and face even > Norw. fjes [fje:s]. The former is a fashion industry word that might be explained by Norw. sociolinguistics, but the latter used to be colloquial to vulgar and wouldn’t have had the same restrictions on diphtongs.

  13. Sounds similar to Finnish — /eɪ/ is usually adopted as /ei/, e.g. bleiseri ‘blazer (type of jacket)’, feikki ‘fake’, geinit ~ geinssit ‘gains (in bodybuilding)’, kreisi ‘crazy’, leidi ‘lady’, meikki ‘make-up’, versus in older cases /ee/, as in eekkeri ‘acre’, kveekari ‘Quaker; dandy, hipster’, reelinki ‘gunwale’ (< railing), treenata ‘to train’. But then the latter can be often suspected to be Swedish-transmitted (kväkare, reling, trena), which is entirely obvious in some other cases that do something else yet (e.g. keksi ‘cookie’ < kex < cakes). Maybe analogous Danish transmission could be partly involved in Norwegian too?

  14. Cookie isn’t a translation of kjeks in Norwegian, or der Keks in German, som kan være søte som kaker eller mettende som brød. Ordet kjeks er avledet fra det engelske cakes, ‘kaker’ men på engelsk kaller man kjeks biscuit (Americans confusingly think biscuits are scones). In other words, unlike the American & computer word ‘cookie’ kjeks & Keks have the same meaning as the English word biscuit. Not “cookie” or “cracker”.

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says

    But a cookie is a biscuit, although I’m not sure if a biscuit is necessarily a cookie.

  16. I have probably mentioned this before, but my daughter, until about when she turned three, did not distinguish between a “cracker” and a “cookie.” She treated them as synonyms, and the distinction between the two was one of the very, very few things that her mother and I endeavored to keep her from learning. If she asked for a cookie, we could give her a cracker, and she would be perfectly happy with that. In part, this was enabled by the fact that we ate a lot of Carr’s whole wheat crackers*. They are basically Graham crackers as originally envision, with whole wheat flour.

    * I did not remember the brand name, but I knew they also baked good rosemary crackers, which should be a little more distinctive. I had typed “rosemary c” into my phone, and Google correctly suggested that I wanted to search for “rosemary crackers.” However, the thumbnail picture it showed to the right of the proposed completion was not of a baked good but of Rosalind Franklin.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Cracker = Salzkeks.

    I think.

  18. John Cowan says

    Pfft. American biscuits are no more scones than French fries are chips; that is, there is a general resemblance, but it’s all in the details.

  19. Brett: a great idea, that, with your daughter. And I’m glad to see that Rosalind Franklin is so popular now. Rosemary crackers are my favorite but I also love rosemary biscotti (I’ve never tried this particular brand; rosemary homemade biscotti are the best, obviously, for those with enough eh… time).

    Total respect for the quality of your own freshly baked biscuits, John. I don’t bake much myself, but my mother was at one time a professional scone-baker and there are kinds that you may not have tried.

  20. John Cowan says

    Point, AJP. Scones in the U.S. are undoubtedly in their infancy.

    While I do bake biscuits, I admit I don’t bake them from scratch.

  21. Trond Engen says

    J.Pystynen: Maybe analogous Danish transmission could be partly involved in Norwegian too?

    I don’t know. It may depend on time of borrowing and definition of Danish. Transmission through Danish proper stopped abruptly in 1814. Filtering through Dano-Norwegian is what I mean by Norw. sociolinguistics.

  22. Thanks for the updating. I came across a Papa Bach bookmark of my own not long ago, in a book that had traveled with me intercontinentally for some years without being opened again.

    I frequented the shop in 1979, buying a number of titles, before leaving the area. Sorry to learn of its demise (but not surprised, knowing the fate of so many independent bookstores).

    Yes Papa Bach & paperback, and of course a sketch of the elder Bach for the “logo.”

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