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Zeitlin Auction: A Bittersweet Final Chapter

February 04, 1988|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

For 40 years--until it closed Nov. 3--Josephine Ver Brugge Zeitlin welcomed visitors to the red barn on La Cienega, the home of Zeitlin & Ver Brugge, Booksellers. This week she has been telling them, tongue in cheek, that the old building "is going to become a mini-mall."

For days bibliophiles have been trickling through, sneak-previewing today's auction of books, furniture and oddities that will be the closing chapter in the story of Jacob (Jake) Zeitlin, book lover, mentor, friend of the famous, raconteur.

At 10:30 a.m. today at 815 N. La Cienega, auctioneer George Lowry, president of Swann Galleries of New York, will offer to the highest bidders an eclectic collection of 273 lots that includes Zeitlin's books, antiques, scientific apparatus and even his file cabinets.

"There really wasn't anyone who could step into his shoes," said his widow, Josephine Zeitlin, explaining the family's decision to close up shop after Zeitlin's death last August at 84.

For Josephine Zeitlin, for 48 years his wife and, for 45, his helpmate in the book business, the closing of the red barn is a "painful" time. For six years, from 1948 to 1954, the building had been both bookstore and home. The loft-like upstairs, later an art gallery, had been family bedrooms. Once, there were kitchen, living room and dining room where the offices now are. Son Joel, 45, a math professor on sabbatical from Cal State Northridge, recalled with a twinge of nostalgia how, as a kid, living there, he was free to ride his bike up and down La Cienega.

Some time in the future the 3,500-square-foot barn, with its raftered ceiling, weathered brick fireplace and plank flooring, will go up for sale. The property, which began as an antiques emporium in 1940, was bought by the Zeitlins in 1948 "for $31,500," as Josephine Zeitlin recalls.

Prime commercial properties in West Hollywood at $30,000 and change are history but, she is able to say with a certain amount of satisfaction, "Los Angeles is growing all the time as a book center."

In the world of booksellers, Zeitlin stories abound. He was always something of a fixture at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, an annual event that will get under way for the 21st time at 4 p.m. Friday at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and continue through the weekend.

At the 1982 book fair, Zeitlin held court from a seat near the entrance to the exhibit area, his broken right foot in a cast. He had explained, "I was walking downstairs reading. Reading's dangerous, you know."

"He had friends in all levels of society," said Muir Dawson, co-owner of Dawson's Book Shop on Larchmont Boulevard, a firm established by his father in 1905 (22 years before Jake Zeitlin opened his first bookstore downtown). Through the years, friends included John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley (whom he persuaded to come to Hollywood to write movie scripts that were to include "Jane Eyre"); Lawrence Clark Powell, a one-time Zeitlin employee who became UCLA's librarian; photographer Edward Weston, William Faulkner, Carl Sandburg and D. H. Lawrence.

The first of Zeitlin's bookshops opened in 1927 at 567 S. Hope St. As his fortunes improved, so did his quarters. The second shop, on 6th Street, was designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. There was a third move, to a former estate stables on Carondelet Street near Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, before Zeitlin & Ver Brugge settled in at the red barn.

Here, Barbara Rootenberg first met Jake Zeitlin, a meeting that was to change the direction of her life. It was about 17 years ago, she recalled, and there was another browser in the shop, "a wide-eyed boy of about 12. He was probably looking for a comic book. Well, Jake walks down and gets this little boy and sits him down and spends over an hour, talking to him about rare books. It was so beautiful. That's how I fell in love with Jake."

On subsequent visits, Zeitlin and Rootenberg talked and talked books. "I was kind of his protege," said Rootenberg, whose background was in literature. With his encouragement, 16 years ago she opened B and L Rootenberg Rare Books in Sherman Oaks, specializing in science and medicine.

'Really Competitors'

"We were really competitors after a while," she said, "but that meant nothing to him. When new people went into the business he'd buy something from them even if he didn't want it, just to give them a start."

She will be there today for the auction, even though she has her own private collection of Zeitlin memorabilia, "a case filled with things he had given me, letters he had written, pictures that he signed for me, my own secret stash."

If today's auction is a bittersweet occasion, Joel Zeitlin, for one, takes some solace in the fact that "a lot of things, instead of disappearing, will go to the people who were interested in them."

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