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Around the Foothills

'Any bookish person . . . has a dream of opening a place and having people come by.'

August 10, 1989|DOUG SMITH

On the west end of York Boulevard--a dingy stretch of road where a transmission shop, a bungalow court apartment, a Mexican carniceria and an upholstery shop line up--a man of letters has staked his personal claim to the future of the printed word.

City Desk Books, a tiny shop with iron bars over its storefront window, has struggled for more than a year where previously Mr. Rod's Flowers was unable to survive.

Its owner, Charles Cooper, is managing editor of the Northeast Newspapers, a chain of eight northeast Los Angeles papers that record events of the turf where he was born and still loves, unmistakably, to the same the degree he loves his books.

He began collecting books of the American West, then he moved to mysteries, especially Raymond Chandler, attracted by that form's gritty, honest view of Los Angeles.

He scouted for dealers, picked up about 1,500 volumes for his personal collection and indulged a fantasy.

"Any bookish person who comes along has a dream of opening a place and having people come by," Cooper said. "It doesn't always work out that way."

Cooper's vision of leisure is pinched by the fact that he is still putting out a newspaper. He's second in command on an editorial staff of six. When the ranks are thin, he still has to hit the streets.

While he is away, his mother minds the store. She was there Tuesday afternoon, snuggled down with an autographed copy of "Night Lights," a novel by Bonnie Shrewsbury Arthur.

She had found it on the $1 table and decided to buy it herself and remonstrate with her son, for the autograph alone should be worth $1. But she changed her mind later, deciding that she didn't like the book.

Saxon Cooper--her name appears below her son's on business cards he just had printed as her birthday present--showed a flair for the spoken word. In tight, declarative sentences, pleasantly enhanced by the colloquial, she told the story of City Desk Books.

Chuck got out of UCLA in '67 and chose work over graduate school, she said. He's been at the newspaper ever since and is also writing a murder mystery centered on the old Northeast Police Station down the way on York. No luck publishing yet.

A widow 20 years, Saxon recently sold the homestead up on Yosemite Drive where Chuck was born, and gave $5,000 to each of the four children. He used his share to open the store.

"It was a dumb idea, I suppose," she said, with no hint of regret.

The family rallied to the project. Her two daughters do the accounting and secretarial chores. She opens at 11 each weekday morning, noon on Saturday and Sunday.

Charles comes for an hour or two after work.

"I usually bring something for supper," she said.

The location doesn't favor walk-in trade. Oxy students don't seem to get down that far from campus. Success depends on other collectors.

"They'll buy half a dozen or a dozen books and pretty soon they're up to $100," Saxon said. "It doesn't faze them a bit."

When business goes slack, Charles will close one Sunday and hold a yard sale at his apartment.

"He's got almost twice as many at home," his mother said. "He can't get into his place. He's a typical bachelor."

Just before 6, Charles drove up to an open space outside. He carries a stout frame and a cascade of graying hair, a hybrid, it seems, of academic slovenliness and '60s protest.

His mother filled him in on the news.

"We forgot to bring the lemonade down," she said.

"Well, maybe tomorrow," he answered. It had been a rough day. He had to correct a faulty newspaper correction.

She pointed to a book, "Famous All Over Town," by Danny Santiago. Someone had called about it.

He smiled and turned it in his hands, unconsciously telling its story: It became famous all over town when its author, supposedly a young Latino talent, was exposed as an "old Jewish Hollywood writer."

He led an annotated tour of his inventory, stacked in neat order on new bookcases against the walls.

He pulled out "Land in California," by W. W. Robinson, a vice president of Title Insurance and Trust Co., back when it was more common for a businessman to be literate.

Next, "Obedience," by Joseph Hansen, "my writing teacher, who is trying to get me into print."

Last, "Paris Trout," by Sacramento newsman Pete Dexter. "God knows we need all the help we can get."

With the bluntness of his trade, Cooper assessed his own prospects.

"The verdict is still not in," he said. "We survived the first year. We've never had a really boom month. We've never had a really awful one. We'll have five bad days, then somebody comes in and spends $50 and we're back on track."

He expects at least one collectors' fantasy to pan out. At the Santa Monica Book Fair, coming up, he'll be offering Ray Bradbury's first novel, "Dark Carnival," in good condition. He expects at least $250.

It cost him 25 cents at a yard sale, a fair reward for the hundreds of trips that produced only volumes of novels condensed by Readers' Digest.

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