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The Independent Bookstores: Down but Far From Out

December 16, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

When book people talk about a real bookstore they're apt to describe a delightfully cluttered place where old or rare volumes gather dust on warped shelves and customers bent on serendipity step gingerly around untidy stacks of esoteric paperbacks.

It is a place only distantly related to one of those neon-flooded storefronts sandwiched into a mall between a cookie shop and a place that sells running shoes, where the clerks don't know the difference between Tom Wolfe and Thomas Wolfe.

But, in Los Angeles, soaring rents, clogged freeways and proliferating shopping malls have combined to place the real bookstore on the endangered list. The number of independent booksellers dwindles; only last week Hunter's Books announced it will close its Beverly Hills and Westwood stores on Christmas Day. Papa Bach and the George Sand Bookstore are history.

Rents Escalate 'Irrationally'

Louis Lengfeld, whose Beverly Hills Hunter's books opened in 1924, will tell you business was fine until rents began escalating "irrationally."

"If you just stand a cashier at the desk and take people's money, then you can afford to pay it," he said. "But we're simply old-fashioned enough to want to give service. And it isn't possible to pay more in rent and salaries alone than you can possibly net." (Three other Hunter's bookstores--part of Lengfeld's Northern California-based Books Inc.--are alive and well in Pasadena, La Jolla and Scottsdale, Ariz.)

Lengfeld believes the adage that Southern Californians read less than Northern Californians. (The number of independent booksellers in Southern California has dwindled to about 80, while in Northern California there are still more than 300.) Even so, he takes the pulse of Los Angeles and finds a thriving, eclectic book culture, albeit one with progressively fewer outlets.

Neither the discount houses such as Crown Books, which Lengfeld refers to as the "drugstore people," nor the foibles of publishers bent on spending good money "to promote bad books" has convinced him otherwise. "We deal with Southern Californians who read first-class literature," he said.

Until it closed last May, many book lovers frequented Charlotte Gusay's George Sand bookstore on Melrose Avenue for its sophisticated, high-brow, esoteric selection and commitment to customer service. Gusay laughed, "If they asked me to stand on stilts out in front of my store and flip to get a book for them, I'd do that. In most stores, you're lucky if you can get somebody's attention."

Eventually sidelined by long hours ("I was working between 12 and 18 hours a day"), rising rents (hers was to go to $1,500 a month) and, finally, the birth of her daughter, Gusay nevertheless left behind a clientele that included entertainment headliners and major movie houses. And a legacy of hundreds of cars driving around Los Angeles sporting "I'd Rather Be Reading Jane Austen" bumper stickers.

Still, among the survivors there is a thriving network of independent stores, each with its slice of the L.A. book scene.

Just 18 months ago, when others were closing their doors, Idalia Gabriel, Nola Butler and Gabriel's son, Philip, took the plunge into the book business, hanging out the Butler-Gabriel shingle in a one-time corner jewelry store on Westwood Boulevard close to UCLA.

The two women had met when they were working at Hunter's Books. Gabriel, who was born in Puerto Rico and is, by education, an architect, laughs as she admits, "I guess we're sort of financial ignoramuses. We just sort of muddle through."

The store is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Sunday, when it closes at 6, and the three of them, plus one woman volunteer, are the total staff.

Computer Not Spoken

People come to Butler-Gabriel for titles from small presses and for personal service, including special orders. "We are so tiny," Gabriel said, "and so different." Computerese is not spoken here. "We write everything down like little dopes," she said. "Every single title we sell, we write it down in a little notebook."

Among its clientele are undoubtedly some who frequented the venerable Westwood Bookstore. A 1983 casualty, it was forced to relocate from its original Westwood location to another in a high-tech, upscale but off-the-beaten track storefront and soon went under despite efforts of book lovers to save it by establishing a nonprofit foundation to run an in-house lending library.

"I don't think anybody in the book business makes a whole lot of money," Gabriel said, but just as important is that "the people are really glad that we're here and they tell us, and that makes you wish to stay."

"We do strange books," she observed. One of their big Christmas sellers is "Quiddities," a philosophical dictionary from the Harvard University Press.

"We're having a lot of fun, we really are," Gabriel said. "But we never get a day off. I think people (in this business) just get tired after a while."

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