Documenting the Last of LA's Seedy, Old-School Liquor Stores

What started as a hobby for comedy writer Matt Oswalt has turned into an unforgettable photography project

February 24, 2020 7:00 am
Matt Oswalt liquor store Patton brother
"Liquor stores against desert backdrops are such an amazing combination."
Matt Oswalt

On Christmas of 2018, Matt Oswalt got a Nikon D5600 as a gift. The comedy writer, Mystery Science Theater 3000 scripter, awards show joke writer, and, yes, Patton’s younger brother, had always liked photography, but it had never really been anything more than a little hobby. With this new camera, however, it quickly became his passion. 

Oswalt started driving around the L.A. area where he lives, finding himself drawn to all the old liquor stores dotting the wide urban boulevards and desert landscapes. Already with a sizable Twitter following due to his offbeat comedy and live-tweeting of political debates, he quickly garnered plaudits for the photos. So he began selling prints of them on his website. Eventually, fans encouraged him to put together an entire book, which he would call Liquor Stores and Detours.

Oswalt ran a Kickstarter last summer which garnered over 500 supporters and earned him $30,000 — enough for him to self-publish a large coffee table book with hundreds of images as well as accompanying short stories about each liquor store location. Even at $65, Oswalt was able to sell out the entire stock in two months. (He’s hoping to do a second printing this spring.)

As Oswalt jokes, “I stood in hundreds of puddles of homeless pee to capture these awe-inspiring photos of liquor stores around Los Angeles.” I wanted to talk to him to find out what all he learned during that, uh, process.

InsideHook: How did the liquor store become your muse? 

Matt Oswalt: I’ve always loved how L.A. looks at night, so I started cruising around doing night shoots. I happened to be in The Valley and captured some really interesting photos of liquor stores. They had such a noir throwback feeling to them — the archaic signs, classic fonts, the way the neon was framed by sunsets. It occurred to me that L.A. is rife with mom-and-pop liquor stores, each with their own unique signs. Capturing them at night felt like going back in a time machine to the 1960s and ’70s. They looked like stills from Double Indemnity or L.A. Confidential. And because there are so many I knew I’d never run out of cool liquor store signs to take. So off I went. 

Do you think L.A. is particularly unique in its liquor-store aesthetic? 

I was born and raised in Virginia, where every liquor store is owned by ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control). The most boring, nondescript signs ever. Now that I think of it, there’s hardly any neon at all in Virginia. So when I first moved to L.A. I was truly amazed by the great ‘signage’ that marked the city. They’re like landmarks. In fact, when you fly into Burbank Airport at night you can see the neon below from dozens of liquor stores — in my book I described the sight like “a rainbow leading to Charles Bukowski’s liver.” I think what’s most unique about them is that they’re still so many around. With Walmarts and Targets — and of course Amazon — selling cheap booze, how some of these stores have held on is truly amazing. I like to think some of these places have to be fronts for some illegal activity, but that’s just the romantic in me.   

(Matt Oswalt)

It seems to me all liquor stores kind of have a stuck-in-the-1970s thing going on.

They’re all stuck in the past. The signs have that same Ozzie and Harriet font—a letter or two burned out. And I love how the burned-out letters have probably not worked in years yet the owners have no desire to fix it. They give them that much more character. I love ’70s cinema that took place in L.A. — Night Moves, The Long Goodbye — and so many of these stores resemble the perfect location for Elliott Gould to buy cat food at 2 in the morning. I get a thrill from watching an old Starsky & Hutch and spotting a sign from my book. 

How do you shoot them?

I do my best to capture just the stores, and try to avoid getting any modern stuff in the frame that might ruin the aesthetic. I had to stand in front of a store for a half hour waiting for a Prius to leave the parking lot. I had to lay down on Victory Blvd. to make sure I didn’t get a billboard for some dumb TV show in the same shot as one of the stores. That’s a big hurdle, capturing these stores the way they probably looked back in the ’60s or ’70s. What’s best is taking a photo and an old car pulls up — for me that’s the golden ticket. I drove by a place called The Liquor Fountain and spotted an old station wagon parked out front. I did an illegal U-turn to get back there in time to capture it. The station wagon with that creepy sign looks amazing. In my book I describe it as “The Brady Bunch on their way to the Grand Canyon right after picking up Rutger Hauer from The Hitcher.”     

Does the outside of a liquor store tell you anything about the inside?

I actually rarely enter the stores. More often than not I’m disappointed when I go inside and I feel like I’m in a 7-Eleven. In my book all my photos are just exteriors. But I make it a point to focus on the inside, so you can sometimes see a clerk behind the counter reading a paper or see what beer is on sale. Just adds to the aesthetic. I sell prints, and when blown up to 16×20, the details inside the stores truly elevate the photos.   

Do you ever find anything interesting inside though?

Aside from booze, they sell the most random stuff. Zagnut bars, Mary Jane candies for a penny, Pudding Pops with Bill Cosby still on the package. And their magazine selection: Teen Vogue next to Penthouse Forum next to Harper’s Weekly next to Beaver Hunt

The world seems to be getting less seedy than it was when we were younger, yet liquor stores will always have a certain seediness to them, right?

I think the alternate universe of the internet has eclipsed the real world when it comes to seediness, but yes, liquor stores are a community tracker beam, pulling in the seedier elements, especially late at night. But that just gives them their charm. Every once in awhile a homeless guy or tweaker will wander over and strike up a conversation, but usually it’s harmless. One time I did happen upon a guy masturbating in his car next to a liquor store — I quietly backed away and let him finish. Isn’t that what Ansel Adams would have done?      

What’s your process for finding stores to shoot? 

Usually when I go to take a photo of a liquor store I have one in mind, but liquor stores are like dandelions: you find one and there are usually three or four close by. Some are so anonymous they don’t even show up on Google Maps. I’ll just turn a corner and wham! There’s a liquor store. That’s my favorite, when I come across a store with very little in the way of signage or character yet, if I take it with an amazing sunset behind it, suddenly it comes alive. I try not to plan too much. If I head out to Lancaster to take a photo of a liquor store at sunset, I might get in traffic and not arrive until dark. Oh well, I just make do with what I have. Once I was in traffic so long that not only did the sun set but it started to rain. It just made the photo that much more amazing, the way the colors reflected off the pavement.   

What are your personal favorite stores you’ve shot?

Mojave Liquor, on the outskirts of the Mojave desert, is a favorite. I love the amber sunset behind it — it gives this feeling of isolation to it. A little store on the edge of the wastelands. I imagine if there was ever a full-scale nuclear war this would be one of the few structures in California that would still be standing when the dust settled. The blending of loneliness yet coziness in the neon, the comforting warmth of the red sunset yet the bleak landscape — I used it for the cover of the book, and it’s one of my most popular prints. 

A lot of the liquor stores I shot in Lancaster, Palmdale or Victorville are favorites for the same reason above. Liquor stores against desert backdrops are such an amazing combination. Col-Bee Liquor is another favorite, if only because it’s not that interesting of a store or sign, yet when I took the shot there was an amazing sunset behind it. I drive by it almost every day yet I’ve never seen it the way I captured it. La Brea Liquor: that was the photo I got after sitting in traffic, missing the sunset, and when I arrived it had begun to rain. Love how it came out. 

Liquor stores are often run by some interesting characters. How often does an angry liquor store owner sprint outside to see what the fuck you’re doing?

It only happened once, on Van Nuys Blvd. of all places.  I entered a store right before dusk and asked the clerk to turn on his sign (most will happily oblige) but this guy got really angry that I wanted to take a photo of his store. I just remember him screaming at me while chewing on Corn Nuts. I wouldn’t say I was scared, just bewildered by how angry this guy got.  

Sometimes when I’m out in the desert some weird people will approach. Usually old ex-hippies who look like they just got back from Burning Man. Harmless, but they’re curious folks and interesting to talk to. One guy who resembled The Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior asked me to buy him coffee because he had been banned from the liquor store I was photographing. I got him the coffee but didn’t ask why he was banned. None of my business.

(Matt Oswalt)

Has it become hard for you to just go buy a bottle of wine any more?

I’m not a big drinker, but when I do purchase alcohol I always give my business to these stores. I even steer friends to local liquor stores. A few people who have bought my book send me photos of themselves holding my book in front of one of the stores I captured. I always respond by telling them to go inside and buy something. Hopefully I’ve given the liquor stores some decent business since taking photos.  

So what is your typical liquor store purchase these days?

For all the amazing whiskey, craft beer and wine now available at these stores, I have to admit one of my favorite discoveries is Hecho, carbonated tequila in a can. Sounds gross, right? Yeah, I thought so too, but when I was at The Liquor Fountain — one of my favorite photos — I saw it in a display case and couldn’t help myself. It’s really good, like Sprite on Rumspringa. In a way I feel like a book featuring hundreds of photos of some of the seediest and archaic liquor stores in L.A. pairs really well with canned tequila. Maybe served with a slice of pizza covered in cigarette butts. And, of course, a Zagnut bar for desert.


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