Where the booklovers are


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Dutton’s Brentwood Books, among the best-known and best-loved of Los Angeles’ independent bookstores, will close on April 30.

It is hard not to take this as a sign of the times.

Over the past few years many local independent bookstores have gone the
way of the local movie theater, the local hardware store and the local
stationery shop — disappearing — as much victims of a changed retail
and commercial real estate environment as a victim of our changing
consumer and lifestyle habits (more on that later).

All my favorite haunts of my post-grad years in New York have vanished:
Books & Co., the Madison Bookstore, Canterbury Books, Shakespeare
& Co. In Beverly Hills, no general bookstore remains, only
Taschen’s retail outlet. In Santa Monica, we have lost bookstores big
(Crown) and small (The Book Nook in the country mart).

However, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that best-selling author, we have come not to bury Dutton’s but to recall the good times.

First some history: Doug Dutton’s parents were booksellers and ran
Dutton’s in North Hollywood, which Doug’s brother, Davis Dutton, took
over after them (and then closed in early 2006). Doug Dutton opened the
Brentwood location in 1984.

Dutton’s extends across several different rooms on the ground floor of
a two-story building on San Vicente Boulevard, and at its heart is a
central courtyard that seems tailor-made for readings and book parties.
The site also provides ample parking behind the building (an important
draw in Los Angeles).

The two-story U-shaped building, with its stairways lining the central
courtyard, have always reminded me of those Bauhaus-style structures
that dot Tel Aviv and are meant to express a functionality in harmony
with the Mediterranean climate and an indoor/outdoor lifestyle. How
toddlers love those stairs! How parents eyed them nervously!

Duttton’s itself occupies almost 5,000 square feet. The main room, on
the west side of the building, is filled with literature, mysteries and
current non-fiction in both hardcover and paperback. To the north is
housed the non-fiction, as well as music offerings and audio books; to
the east are the children’s room, the travel books and cookbooks, and
the gift and stationery items and, a relatively recent addition, a cafe.

The whole place always had a ramshackle feel, with frayed carpets and
crowded shelves. Each area is its own empire, and one felt free to
wander among them, and trusted to take a book from one area to the
other without being accused of running off. The staff has always been
friendly, knowledgeable and, on occasion, eccentric (Dutton’s had a
staff poet in Scott Wannberg).

Oh the book signings and parties I’ve attended at Dutton’s! Lots of
white wine and cheese cubes under the bridge. Dutton’s was a place
where you went to support your friends, to buy copies of their books,
to hear them read. I recall attending events for friends such as
(alphabetically) Robert Cohen, Roger Director, Seth Greenland, Mona
Simpson and Deanne Stillman (and those are just ones I remember).
Dutton’s was a place you took your out-of-town friends to show them
what Los Angeles had to offer in book culture. It was where you took
your author friends to ask Dutton to let them sign copies of their
books. It was a place you went to get a peek at your writing idols when
they came to town.

I myself had one or two book events at Dutton’s, and the feeling of
sitting behind the counter and looking out at a room of friends and
readers crowded between the display tables was a heart-warming sight
for any author. It made a writer feel, for a long moment, part of a
community.

Dutton’s was old school: I had a house account there that allowed me to
sign for books for which I was billed monthly; my 10-year-old daughter
had signing privileges on my account. I had imagined the day would come
when she would have her own account, but that is not to be. (This
reminds of the time my father was approached about buying a “lifetime
membership to a health club,” and he replied, “My lifetime, or your
company’s?” He outlived that business by several decades.) So it goes.

No more stopping by on a Saturday afternoon to wander among the display
tables, to run into friends, to discuss new books, to recommend
favorites. No more going to get a signed first edition of a friend’s
new work (talk about an author’s heartbreak: Mark Sarvas was scheduled
to read from his new novel, “Harry, Revised,” at Dutton’s in early May;
Dutton’s closing on April 30 forecloses that, as well).

Which brings me to Dutton’s closing — who to blame and what to do about it?

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One could blame a world in which handbags regularly sell for more than
$1,000, where coffee can cost more than $4 a cup and a tart frozen
yogurt is a $5 treat as explaining a retail environment that demands a
greater return than books can deliver. Or an inflated real-estate
market that calls on developers to achieve a greater return than the
current structure can deliver — but Doug Dutton himself will tell you
that the developer who owns the building, Charles Munger, who plans to
redevelop the property into something more high-rent, is not the
villain here. From Dutton’s announcement of his store’s closing:

“Given our
situation as it now stands, the pride we feel in our past achievements,
and the vagaries of the current book market, shuttering our doors seems
the only realistic solution. It is important to note that Charles
Munger has committed to a significant amount of financial support for
the difficult process of closing the store, and we appreciate his
generosity.”

In 2004,
Dutton’s opened a Beverly Hills branch with incentives from that city,
but when those conditions changed, the bookstore could not continue and
closed at the end of 2006. More than anything, it was the difficulty of
being a bookseller in the current marketplace.

I remember a conversation with the owner of the Book Nook before it
closed. He told me that people’s habits have changed. Today, the
majority of bestsellers are purchased for 40 percent off at Wal-Mart or
Costco. The small book that becomes a success because of independent
bookstores has become as rare as the independent movie that succeeds by
word-of-mouth — it happens, just not often enough to sustain a
business.

There continue to be, and there will be continue to be, great
independent bookstores in Los Angeles, from Skylight Books in Los Feliz
and Book Soup in West Hollywood to Village Books in the Palisades and
Equator Books in Venice.

However, this is the way we live now: If you want to see a busy
bookstore, go to an airport. The enemy, as Pogo said, is us. I need
only look to my own buying habits. If there’s a book that I know I
want, either a new title or an obscure one, I will often buy it from
Amazon.com or AbeBooks.com. I spend a certain amount of time browsing
at Borders or Barnes & Noble, but I can’t tell you the last time
that I bought a book there because of a bookseller’s recommendation (at
press time, Border’s has put itself up for sale). Times change, customs
and behavior changes and Dutton’s is just one sign.

I stopped by Dutton’s this week, and while I won’t go as far as to call
it a shiva visit, as I crossed the courtyard I spied two successful TV
writers bemoaning Dutton’s closing. Seeing Doug Dutton, one woman got
teary, talking about how she had grown up with Dutton’s and what the
loss of the bookstore and its community means to her.

Which brings me to another point. Dutton’s, like any good independent
bookstore, represented more than a retail enterprise, and its closing
affects our quality of life. The question then becomes one of whether
we could change the market reality of bookstores. Can we instead
protect, encourage, support and value those aspects of places like
Dutton’s that mean so much to us?

Where will we go to get that sense of community, that feeling of being
in a place where books are a valued part of our culture? Where can I
take my daughter to imbue her with that same sense?

In a world where the bookstore is less and less viable, where do we go
to find like-minded others of all ages who enjoy books and other
cultural delivery systems such as graphic novels, comic books, games,
videos and CDs? Where can we go to see and hold in our hands not only
current titles but also a long tail of widely diverse offerings —
where will we find knowledgeable guides to help us find what we are
looking for or make suggestions? Where can we go to see our literary
idols?

Perhaps Dutton’s closing is a sign of our times. I will miss it, and we
— our community, our city, our world — are the poorer for its loss.
Perhaps the bookstore is no longer commercially viable. But we need not
abandon the bookstore experience.

Again, I can only turn to my own experience. I will tell you where I go: To the public library.

Recently I stood at a display case in the Beverly Hills Public Library
reading original copies of letters written by Dashiell Hammett, James
M. Cain and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Last week, I was at the Central
Library to hear Richard Price talk about his new novel “Lush Life.”

Perhaps when Dutton’s closes we need not feel we’ve lost all we value.

Have you visited the Santa Monica Public Library’s new main branch? Not
only is it airy and comfortable with plenty of parking, not only is
there a great kids area that has books and computers with games, but
for those who got used to associating a bookstore with noshing, it also
houses a great and reasonably priced cafe.

Stephen Schwartzman of Blackstone Group recently announced a $100
million gift to the New York Public library — a rare but inspired
gift. More often the case these days is the library that is laying off
staff and is hard-up to buy new books. Those that thrive do so with
community support. It will take more donations and public support to
libraries and “friends of the library” groups to keep our cultural
communities strong. However, if the marketplace can’t support
bookstores, and we still believe that books bring people together, we
will all have to do our part to affirm the value in people coming
together in a place that values books.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else,
he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every
other week.

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