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Best Sellers : Dave and Doug Dutton Took a Family Business, Pitted It Against the Mass-Market Chains, and Won. Dutton's Books, in Three Locations, Is the Big Little Bookstore That Could.

May 29, 1988|KAREN STABINER | Karen Stabiner is a Santa Monica writer.

DOUG AND DAVE DUTTON were literally at a crossroads. They'd spent the morning buying a private book collection and now, Doug's 10-year-old Buick loaded down with boxes of books, they sat at a Sunset Boulevard corner and debated what to do. The practical thing would be to turn right to Laurel Canyon Boulevard, go back over the hill to North Hollywood and unload the boxes at Dutton's Books, their namesake business and one of Southern California's classic, rambling, bookstore-lovers' bookstores. The speculative move would be to turn left and drive down to Lou Virgiel's Brentwood Books, which was, according to a tip they'd heard just hours before, about to go out of business.

They hesitated. They turned left.

It was fall, 1984, and independent bookstores were in trouble all over Los Angeles, watching their always-slim profit margins shrink in the wake of the chain bookstore invasion. Two blocks from Brentwood Books, the brothers saw the writing on the wall--a banner on a storefront that read "Coming Soon--Crown Books." That was the future of bookselling: One by one, idiosyncratic stores were being edged out by hundreds of homogeneous outlets whose personalities were defined by a central office somewhere outside Southern California. Lou Virgiel was about to bid farewell to a personal bookselling past that spanned more than 20 years. He'd ordered a banner, too, one that announced his going-out-of-business sale.

But he wasn't going to hang it up for four days. Brentwood Books was officially still in business.

Dave Dutton turned to his younger brother. "Let's take them on," he said. "It'll be a challenge."

THE CHALLENGE turned out to be more of a pitched battle for one of the largest book markets in the country, with B. Dalton Booksellers, Crown Books and Waldenbooks on one side and the general-interest independents on the other. Customers spent $6.2 billion in bookstores last year, and the Department of Commerce estimates that about $340 million was spent in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area and $70 million in San Diego--second only to New York-New Jersey, and the top market for a predominantly West Coast chain such as Crown.

The book business is essentially conducted in two wildly disparate ways. General-interest independent stores have traditionally believed that people will pay full price for variety: They offer a vast range of titles to lure customers into a store, and count on loyalty to a local small business to keep them coming back. Dutton's in North Hollywood, for example, boasts about 100,000 titles, with discounts on selected new books. At the American Booksellers Assn. convention in Anaheim this weekend, most of the 5,500 booksellers will be independents, strolling the aisles to order inventory from more than 800 publishers, from the giants to the small local presses.

The chain bookstores go at it from a different angle. They offer a narrow inventory at deeply discounted prices. According to Crown's president, Robert Haft, the average number of titles at a Southern California Crown Books is 6,000--which he can sell more cheaply than an independent can because he pays less for each copy of a new hard-cover on his high-volume orders. The chains practice low-risk retailing; their efficient display of high-demand items makes them the fast-food restaurants of the book world. Since they emphasize the likely hits, they don't have to do as much shopping for titles. Waldenbooks dropped out of the ABA last year, and B. Dalton recently announced that it would no longer do business with small presses whose annual volume with the chain is under $100,000.

The chains can afford to play hard-to-get. They have exploited the Southern California market with great success--the three major chains now have about 200 outlets in the area, their largest concentration nationwide. Many independents, caught in a retailing bind that precludes raising prices to cover rising operating expenses, have found it difficult to fight back. "Most industries work on a markup," says Ginger Curwen, editor of American Bookseller magazine. "The greengrocer can mark up the radicchio to cover his costs, but what can the bookseller do to absorb his increases? Mark up the books?"

Hardly. The likelier scenario has the independent going out of business. The casualty list includes some of the area's best-known bookstores--Westwood Book Store and Papa Bach's in West Los Angeles, Hunter's in Beverly Hills, George Sand in West Hollywood, Butler's Book Center in Marina del Rey--all done in by a deadly combination of more competition, lower profits and higher costs. Doug Dutton is haunted by a story he heard about a store that folded in the face of a tenfold rent increase. "What kind of business--aside from cocaine--can make that kind of money?" he asks. "A bookstore needs time to sit, and grow, and become part of the community."

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