A Literary Tour of Charles Bukowski's Los Angeles

Charles Bukowski | Photo courtesy of Bukowski.net
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Author Charles Bukowski’s work invites us to imagine him as a man alone (or in messy company), sharing a small apartment with a stray cat near L.A.’s Thai Town ‑ drinking and typing his life away. However, in tracing his steps as a literary tourist, it soon proves that the cantankerous scribe left his mark all over L.A.'s magnificent sprawl.

A Bukowski tour doubles as a tour of 20th century Los Angeles, through every kind of social landscape. “Buk” (a nickname among his fans, and also how he signed his drawings and sketches) would have appreciated a literary tour as he was a literary tourist himself. “Fante was my god,” he wrote on the introduction to a reissue of Ask the Dust, “…and I knew that the gods should be left alone, one didn’t bang at their door. Yet I liked to guess about where he had lived on Angels Flight and I imagined it possible that he still lived there. Almost every day I walked by and I thought, is that the window Camilla crawled through? And, is that the hotel door? Is that the lobby? I never knew.”

Hollywood

Charles Bukowski's apartment at 5124 De Longpre
Charles Bukowski's apartment at 5124 De Longpre | Instagram by @staceymccool

This was Bukowski’s stomping ground during the long period in the 1960s and 1970s where he lived in a succession of apartments in the area that’s now Thai Town—and produced most of his signature works. “This is the place,” Bukowski told an interviewer with nostalgia in the early 80s. “This is where the people are.”

Bukowski lived for almost a decade at the now legendary De Longpre apartment (1964-1973). The small apartment at 5124 De Longpre Ave. rented for $29 a month at the time. In 2007, it was discovered that the building was about to be demolished and redeveloped. A grassroots campaign of Bukowski fans saved it and the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission declared “Bukowski Court” as HCM 192, a historical cultural monument of Los Angeles literary history to be preserved for posterity. Bukowski resided here from 1963-1973 during the most prolific period of his literary career. His first novel Post Office, Notes from a Dirty Old Man, South of No North, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, The Days Run Away like Horses, and Factotum were all written at De Longpre. The property is also the setting for his novel Women. In one of his last poems in 1992, he wrote to a friend, "and thank you/ for locating me there at/ 5124 De Longpre Ave/ somewhere between/ alcoholism and/ madness.”

Outside the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard
Frolic Room | Photo courtesy of Marc Evans Photography, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

As his fortunes improved, Bukowski stopped frequenting dives and blending into some of the more traditional Hollywood bars and restaurants like the Frolic Room (6245 Hollywood Blvd), which proudly proclaims its Buk association; and everyone’s favorite Old School institution, Musso & Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood Blvd), where during the 1980s - after the overseas and film money started pouring in - Bukowski would entertain celebrity friends like Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper. Musso & Frank appears in his 1989 novel Hollywood.

Los Feliz

Pink Elephant Liquor
Pink Elephant Liquor | Instagram by @fotoyfilm

Close to the intersection of Franklin and Western, you’ll find that the Pink Elephant Liquor Store (1836 N Western Ave) still stands in all its kitschy glory. The liquor store, a favorite haunt of Bukowski’s, appears in his 1978 novel Women. It was, by many accounts, his favorite liquor store in the neighborhood. Pink Elephant had a booze delivery service so Buk could avoid driving and continue writing. Its iconic mid-century neon sign, a cheeky reference to the delirium tremens of hardened alcoholics, still lights the way.

Skylight Books
Skylight Books | Photo by Timothy Norris

Stop by nearby Skylight Books or Wacko’s Soap Factory and pick up some volumes of Bukowski’s prose, poetry, columns or interviews. These two bookstores are carefully stocked by people who care about Buk’s status as one of the city’s laureates and are determined uphold the legacy of Los Angeles beat and literary life. (Remember, with Bukowski the legend is fun, but the words are the thing.)

University of Philosophical Research
University of Philosophical Research | Instagram by @va.nessa.e

Head north toward Los Feliz Boulevard to the one-of-a-kind campus of the University of Philosophical Research/Philosophical Research Society, the center of wisdom and mysticism founded by the Los Angeles philosopher and occultist Manly P. Hall. Hall himself married Bukowski and Linda Lee on Aug. 18, 1985 at the UPR/PRS facility. Buk rented a Rolls Royce for the occasion. The UPR/PRS holds open lectures about philosophy, religion and myth, and its library of esoteric wisdom (also occasionally open to the public) is one of the city’s hidden jewels that should be visited by anyone interested in the secret history of Los Angeles.

Downtown L.A.

Exterior of Richard J. Riordan Central Library in Downtown L.A.
Richard J. Riordan Central Library | Photo courtesy of LAPL

No tour of Bukowski’s Los Angeles can avoid Downtown L.A., where the young poet discovered literature and toiled in a job he disliked. Start at the L.A. Central Library (630 W 5th St.), an architectural gem where Bukowski delighted over another local literary legend, John Fante. In 1986, after a fire almost destroyed the institution, Bukowski poured his feelings of gratitude into the poem The Burning of the Dream: “meanwhile/ while other young men chased the/ ladies/ I chased the old/ books./ i was a bibliophile, albeit a/ disenchanted/ one/ and this/ and the world/ shaped me.”

Nearby, one can still find the USPS Terminal Annex (900 N Alameda St.), where Bukowski toiled in simmering unhappiness for many years (1952-1955 and 1958-1969) as a mail carrier and a sorter. He quit after Black Sparrow Press’s John Martin became his publisher and patron in 1969. Inspired by this ordeal, he produced his first novel Post Office, published in 1971 when he was 50.

Back bar at Cole's
Photo courtesy of Cole's

Several bars in the area claim him as a regular, but Cole’s - one of L.A.'s longest-standing historic bars - was apparently one of Bukowski’s favorite haunts. As a high-schooler, nightlife entrepreneur (and son of the late L.A. artist Ed Moses) Cedd Moses became friends with Bukowski through a common passion for the horse races, and even dated Buk’s daughter for a while. Moses, who owns and meticulously renovated Cole’s in 2007, has spoken of the writer’s passion for this unmissable DTLA landmark, which he witnessed firsthand once he was of drinking age.

Venice

Beyond Baroque in Venice
Photo courtesy of Beyond Baroque, Facebook

Bukowski’s association with Venice Beach is less obvious than his association with the Eastern parts of Los Angeles. Venice has had a thriving poetry scene for decades, with interesting intersections with the Beat Generation crowd from other parts of the country. The epicenter of all things poetic in Venice remains Beyond Baroque, an independent Literary Arts Center celebrating 50 years of existence in 2018. Beyond Baroque bills itself as dedicated to expanding the public's knowledge of poetry, literature and art through cultural events.

Many of L.A.’s most talented poets are represented on the Venice Beach Poets Monument, which includes Bukowski, securing his place among the ranks of rockstar and celebrity writers like Jim Morrison, X’s Exene Cervenka or Viggo Mortensen. There are 18 verses carved in the concrete— Bukowski’s verse is in the section near Muscle Beach. Other writers include Wanda Coleman, Manazar Gamboa and Philomene Long. This public Monument was dedicated in 2001, and it has been periodically repaired.

Grab a drink nearby at Barkowski (2819 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica), the Westide’s own Bukowski-themed dive bar.

Santa Anita & San Marino

Opening Day 2015 at Santa Anita Park
Opening Day at Santa Anita Park | Photo courtesy of Santa Anita Park, Facebook

Horse races took up a lot of Bukowski’s time. He was a lifelong gambler and appreciator of the sport. While his favorite racetrack was the now defunct Hollywood Park Racetrack in Inglewood (soon to be the home of L.A.’s new football stadium and the Super Bowl in 2023), he also frequented Santa Anita Racetrack (285 Huntington Dr, Arcadia), which his widow Linda said was one of the reasons why Bukowski’s papers ended up at the nearby The Huntington Library in San Marino.

It would seem incongruous for the legacy of such a Poet of the People to end up in one of the most elite cultural centers in the Los Angeles area, but the Library has treated Bukowski with a level of respect that he would have enjoyed. The Huntington’s 2010-2011 exhibit “Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge” displayed first editions, rare “little magazines,” correspondence, art, manuscripts with the kind of curatorial care reserved for literary giants.

San Pedro

Korean Bell of Friendship
Korean Bell of Friendship | Photo courtesy of Shawn S. Park Flickr

In the late 1970s, Bukowski purchased a comfortable two-story house in San Pedro. Ironically, the address itself is near Bandini Street and Bandini Street Elementary School, which refers to John Fante’s alter-ego and thus Bukowski’s first literary hero and role model. It has been reported that there are plans to turn the house “complete with dirty ashtrays” into a Bukowski museum, upon his widow’s death. Linda Bukowski told NPR in 2011, “This house, upstairs where he had his little typing room, there's a balcony that overlooks the whole industrial harbor there. And it's the seaport, and it's gritty, and it's the kind of element that's perfect. He didn't want the pastoral ocean view.”

Visitors are encouraged to visit the Korean Bell of Friendship Pavilion for a great view of the sunset, grab a drink at one of the local bars, and explore 6th Street in Historic Downtown.

Spend some time browsing the wonderful selection at Downtown Books (414 W 6th St, San Pedro), where the sandwich board proclaims announces among its specialties: “Used Books, Rare, Out of Print, Bukowski Books, Ephemera.” Again, it’s his words that count.

Charles Bukowski's grave at Green Hills Memorial Park
Charles Bukowski's grave at Green Hills Memorial Park | Instagram by @lunabeat

The last stop, of course, should be the Green Hills Memorial Park cemetery (27501 S Western Ave, Rancho Palos Verdes, Plot: Ocean View #875). Bukowski’s gravestone is no-frills, like the man it commemorates: “Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. — Hank — “Don’t try” — 1920-1994.” He died of leukemia at 73 in San Pedro on March 9, 1994. Between the dates, the gravestone shows a small abstract image of a boxer, ready to go another round with whatever life (or death) throws at him.