Chatterton's Bookshop (est. 1972) was celebrating its survival. Neither flood nor Judith Krantz nor the proliferation of the discount temples of pop literature had closed its doors forever.
It was Sunday afternoon and a salon of sorts was under way at Chatterton's, a literary landmark tucked in between the Los Feliz Theater (where "The Gods Must Be Crazy" is currently billed among attractions coming "sooner or later") and a liquor store and sharing the 1800 block of Vermont Avenue with a Thai restaurant and a surgical supply house.
Chatterton's was celebrating its reopening with wine and cheese for perhaps 500 loyalists who, together with the late Anais Nin, a pre-teen Jodie Foster and assorted poets and writers, both published and hopeful, have browsed its shelves through the years in search of the classic, the occult and the obscure.
There have been some shaky times for Chatterton's in this age of books on tape, books on thinning one's thighs or fattening one's ego--and books on discount. As if that weren't enough, nature conspired against Chatterton's, sending down a massive spring rain that arrived right after the roof had been removed for the building's earthquake-proofing, destroyed a third of the inventory and forced sporadic shutdowns while Chatterton's finished the job nature started and overhauled the interior.
But last Sunday, above the strains of classical music, beneath the air-conditioning ducts that were flaunted, rather than disguised (Chatterton's never before had such a luxury), the literati came to talk about poetry and politics and Jung and Proust. And about Chatterton's.
Poet From Ocean Park
"How can you be against something called Chatterton's?" asked Steve Richmond, a poet from Ocean Park. Richmond was sipping wine and engaged in spirited debate on the merits of poetry readings (as opposed to poetry reading) with two other poets in front of a shelf displaying picture books of Madonna, Culture Club and Bruce Springsteen.
Richmond's denunciation of poetry readings as "superficial, theatrical" was challenged by Julia Stein, who had just bought a copy of Richmond's poetry, "Red Work/Black Widow" (Duck Down Press, Missoula, Mont.) and was asking for an autograph. (For the record, Chatterton's also carries Stein's book of poetry, "Under the Ladder to Heaven.") "That's highly debatable," Stein countered, "It's a discipline. Poetry originally was oral."
Richmond was becoming more adamant: "The poem belongs on a page, where it can be read in Turkey or Liverpool or in San Pedro, especially San Pedro. Let the poets write and the actors act."
Michael Dalberg, a poet-carpenter who had joined in the conversation, suggested that to a degree the debate might be academic: "Most of the performing poets choose to go into rock music because that's where the money is."
This, then, is Chatterton's, a place that longtime patron Lester Ehrlichman, 80, described as a "browsing meadow."
It seems altogether fitting that the bookshop is named Chatterton's--no, no, not Chatterley--for a doomed young 18th-Century English poet, Thomas Chatterton, with whom proprietor William (Koki) Iwamoto, 37, was smitten while an undergraduate at UCLA. "A brilliant poet," Iwamoto said, "a hero for the Romantics."
For the uninitiated, Chatterton, the posthumous son of a poor Bristol schoolmaster, snuffed out his own life at the age of 17, downing a glass of arsenic and water in a pitiful garret room in London in 1770. Penniless, starving and tormented by feelings of failure, he died virtually without notice. But the Romantic Age was just around the corner and the poet prodigy was destined to become a cult figure embodying the elements of tragic youth and neglected genius so beloved by the Romantic poets such as Shelley, Keats and Coleridge.
"We bought some things at Crown they didn't have here at Christmastime," Lester Ehrlichman confided. "But that's not the kind of reading we do. We don't read best sellers."
Ehrlichman, a Los Feliz resident who described himself as a retired typesetter and "an anthologized poet, which means I'll be immortalized for at least five years," said he has been coming to Chatterton's "since they opened the door." For himself, he buys "the radical trash, which I bring back and resell, and translations from the French, like Proust. I grew up on Proust." For his wife, he buys anything and everything by Virginia Woolf. (New Woolf editions are put aside for her by Iwamoto.)
"I think the uniqueness of this store," Ehrlichman said, "is that the owner is a reader first and a businessman second. You can get things here nobody else has heard of."
"It's family," said Arnie Sherwood, an urban planner who lives in the neighborhood. "It's got the right Gemuetlichkeit. " Often, he said, the staff will recommend books but "if you don't like it, you can bring it back."
Visits by Celebrities