One store specializes in Latin American literature, though it also offers tomes on the early atomic era and Eskimo art. Another stocks a staggering collection of materials on architecture. A third deals strictly in art. And a fourth is crammed with texts on ancient religions and modern first editions.
Rare-book stores are no longer a rarity on Santa Monica's Third Street Mall. Five shops specializing in hard-to-find books have opened on the outdoor shopping plaza, and more may be coming.
"It's indicative of what's happening in the field," said Howard Karno, owner of Howard Karno Books. "Most of us are pinning our hopes on the mall."
The Third Street Mall, located in a seedy section of downtown Santa Monica, is undergoing a $10-million restoration and is expected to eventually attract upscale theaters, shops and restaurants.
Karno said rare-book store owners hope to benefit from the arrival of new businesses and new customers.
They foresee a day in the not-too-distant future when intellectuals and book collectors will descend on the mall in droves, searching for the obscure and out-of-print gems that line the shelves of Karno Books, Kenneth Karmiole, Morrison & Kline, Hennessey and Ingalls and Arcana Books on the Arts.
"The Third Street Mall has the potential to become the Charing Cross Road of Los Angeles," said Arcana manager Gary White, referring to the London Street known for its collection of shops specializing in antiquarian books.
Thomas Carroll, director of the Third Street Development Corp., a nonprofit organization responsible for the restoration of the mall, said the influx of the rare- and out-of-print book shops was unexpected but welcome.
The bulk of the restoration work will not be completed for several years. But Beverly Karno, Howard Karno's wife, said business is already strong.
The outdoor mall, which is bounded by Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard, attracts a steady stream of pedestrians. And Beverly Karno said that customers from all over Los Angeles have started to realize that the mall has become a hub for rare-book stores.
Most of the same stores used to be located on Westwood Boulevard. Beverly Karno said they were driven away by rising rents and the shortage of parking.
She said rare-book store owners usually congregate in the same area because customers appreciate the broader selection of material. On the Westside, rare-book stores also can be found along Melrose Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.
"There is not a lot of competition in this business," Beverly Karno said. "Each shop is unique and each has its own brand of specialization. It's friendly. The chance of finding the same book at two shops is small."
The Karnos specialize in Latin American and Spanish literature and art and have one collection of materials valued at $70,000. They also stock religion and history books dating back to the 16th Century. Recently, they obtained a collection of books, pictures and pamphlets on the birth of the atomic bomb.
Classical music played softly in the background as Beverly Karno gave a tour of the long and narrow shop that is lined with more than 1,000 titles. While the store has the imposing air of a research library, Karno said people still mistakenly wander in seeking the latest cookbook or Jackie Collins novel.
"But that's OK," Karno added. "It's a way of educating people and letting them know that there's another book world out there."
For the casual reader, it is indeed another world.
Arcana specializes in 20th-Century and primitive-art books. Its shelves are stocked with editions containing elaborate reproductions of both famous and obscure art.
Kenneth Karmiole Books has more than 20,000 out-of-print titles covering a broad range of subjects.
Hennessey and Ingalls offers 10,000 square feet of space devoted solely to art and architecture. Morrison and Kline stocks a variety of old religious texts and some modern collectibles such as a note from Ernest Hemingway.
The bookshop owners purchase much of their material from collectors and estates and cater to people who have a strong interest in a particular field. Their primary function is selling books. But many of the stores are also open to researchers from area universities and even motion picture studios.
"We work a lot with colleges, museums and universities," Beverly Karno said. "One thing that's marvelous about the book business is that there's always something else to learn."
Carroll said that the old bookstores have pumped some new life into the Third Street Mall. The only concern now is assuring that other types of business locate there so that the Third Street Mall doesn't become known strictly as a book mall, he added.
"We want the mall to serve the entire community," Carroll said. "So we are looking for a range of businesses."