People flock to the famous book tunnel at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles to create the ultimate bookstore self-portrait. Now there’s a new tunnel in town, and it’s made of plants.

Garden and Bookstore

Deanna Kizis

To enter Lost Books in Montrose, California, you must first walk through a tunnel made entirely of plants. Creeping Charlie and sea grape cascade down the walls, while lights twinkle like fireflies, and a set of bookshelves peeks through the greenery. It feels like being transported to a magical place, where something you lost will soon be found. It’s so mystical and charming that, let’s be honest, you need to take a selfie immediately.  

If there’s something familiar about this scene, it’s because this verdant tunnel is the photogenic cousin of the book tunnel in Los Angeles’s Last Bookstore, the sprawling 22,000-square-foot home to thousands of used books along with galleries and art installations. As anyone who’s made the pilgrimage there knows, that tunnel is a selfie sensation. Quite literally made of literature, people flock there to snap photos of themselves while holding a book, holding hands, holding their dog, and even holding an engagement ring.

“When building out the store, my husband was like, ‘Do whatever you want,’” Lost Books creator Jenna Spencer said. The husband in question is Josh Spencer, who opened the famed downtown store in 2005. “But he did want some sort of tunnel entrance,” she says. “Something that felt like an enchanted, garden experience.”

Jenna, who previously owned Nailing Hollywood, a celebrity manicure agency (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence and Dolce & Gabbana were clients), immediately knew who to ask.

Making Magic

Five hundred feet from the front door of the Last Bookstore is a restaurant called Yuko Kitchen. Owned by a woman who calls herself “Yuko Kitchen” but everyone calls Yuko, the restaurant features Japanese rice bowls and is decorated with a tangled jungle of plants that hang from the ceiling like they want to tickle the customers. The plants were originally for decoration, but when Yuko stopped serving food due to the coronavirus pandemic, she decided to sell her ferns and ivy instead.

An admirer of the restaurant’s lush environs, Jenna approached Yuko about the tunnel, who agreed to do it on one condition: “I said, ‘I can do this,’” Yuko recalled, “’but you need to hire someone to water the plants.’”

Jenna not only agreed; she decided to care for them herself.

To say that Yuko took the idea of a plant tunnel and ran with it is an understatement. David Lovejoy, a Los Angeles artist and woodworker whose sculptural assemblages can be found in the Last Bookstore, built the frame. (It bears mentioning that Josh’s dad, Alan, designed the famous book tunnel and Lovejoy constructed it.) Yuko covered that in paper, then covered that with dry moss, a process which she said took about 80 hours. Next, she hung plant pockets—365, to be exact—and filled them with approximately 20 plant varieties, including spider plants, Swedish ivy, bird’s nest ferns, and live moss. Her hope is that the foliage will “crawl up and grow into each other” as the tunnel matures.

Looking at her work, Yuko decided the tunnel was too dark. The firebugs she loved to visit at a lake not far from where she grew up in the Japanese countryside of Hiroshima came to mind. “The lake has a fairy tale kind of feel,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, and the firebugs are everywhere.” She installed twinkling lights, and enchantment ensued.

Family Branches

Yuko’s merging plants can be thought of as a metaphor for the Spencer family itself. Josh and Jenna first met in Maui in 1999, where their fathers were both pastors. They dated but it didn’t work out, though they introduced their dads who are still best friends. Cut to two years ago, when Jenna and Josh were both living in Los Angeles. They reconnected, fell in love and got married. If the story has a mythical feel to it, well, that just goes with the atmosphere.

Jenna asked Josh’s father, Alan, a carpenter, to build book crates that would snake through her space in a movable labyrinth. He flew in from Maui and made 180 crates by hand, sleeping in the space every night for three weeks, until he questioned his own sanity and they brought in help to build 820 more.

Last Bookstore: New Plant Tunnel
Owner Jenna Spencer wanted book crates to snake through Lost Books in a movable labyrinth.

Deanna Kizis/Sunset Magazine

Meanwhile, Jenna flew in a cousin from West Virginia to help cover the bookstore ceiling in dried reindeer moss, a 100-hour process that ended in an all-nighter complete with moss falling in their mouths.

It was also decided that the store should not only display Yuko’s plants but sell them, too. For Jenna, this strikes a personal chord: “Growing up in Maui, my dad had property and he would constantly walk me through the gardens and say, ‘This plant is called this. That plant is called that,’” she said.

Which isn’t to say she’s an expert. Jenna says Yuko has taught her things that would have taken her years to learn on her own. “One thing I love that Yuko’s taught me is that most people think they don’t have a green thumb, but that’s not true. It’s just that they love the plants too much,” she said. “They give them too much sun, or too much water. Yuko says it’s better to make the plants’ roots work for it, or they’ll get lazy, just like us.”

Lazy doesn’t seem to apply to Lost Books. After everything Jenna—and Yuko and Lovejoy and the Spencer family—put into the store, she stresses there’s still work to do. The store doesn’t have a website yet. There’s a custom-built aviary in place but the live birds haven’t been added. A five-foot panoramic aquarium is still to come.

In other words, the store—like the plant tunnel—will continue to mature. Which is the whole point.

“The Lost Book store is a chance to be in an environment I love,” Jenna said. “I want people to feel at home here, to come every single day, and to feel like they’re growing.”