For those willing to seek their open spaces on the plains of the imagination, tiny West Hollywood has whole worlds to explore.
Within its 1.9 square miles are more than a dozen bookstores. Even more unusual is the concentration of specialty bookstores in the area around Santa Monica and San Vicente boulevards.
In an afternoon walk of a little less than a mile, literary escape artists can sample many distinct worlds, from a dark corner full of murder mysteries, to the airy, open world of fine art exhibits.
Nationally, the trend in book sales has been toward chains such as B. Dalton and Crown Books, where buyers can find mainstream books, bestsellers, magazines and gift items. But the owners of the small specialty bookstores in West Hollywood say they have been helped by the city's unique attitude.
"You have to remember that this community celebrates individuality and creativity," said Marilou Okano, who with her husband owns Great Ideas Books & Fun, which specializes in children's books and books for the design and entertainment industries. "We like the eclectic environment."
Great Ideas is an indoor playground with walls decorated with bright book covers. Stacks of books become impromptu chairs for customers--a surprising number of adults--flipping through simple tales of puppies, foggy days and mischievous children.
Worlds away in imagination, but a walk of only a few blocks, the West Coast branch of the famous Mysterious Bookstore of New York has a claustrophobic feel of a narrow vault.
The bookstore has stacks of books 12 feet high, interrupted by an occasional life-size poster of a gumshoe detective and even a replica of mystery's famed Maltese Falcon.
Sheldon MacArthur worked for many years in a chain bookstore, but this year jumped at the chance to become manager of West Hollywood's microcosm of sleuths, horror and true crime.
"Having spent a number of years working for B. Dalton, this is like a whole new world for me," said MacArthur. "Eighty percent of what we have here you can't find in most bookstores. We fill a need that the 'USA Today' bookstores can't, or won't."
Smaller independent and specialty stores often function almost as clubs for customers with similar interests. Weekly book signings at Mysterious, for instance, attract mystery buffs like moths to gaslight.
"If you want to talk mysteries, if you like mysteries, this place is incomparable. This is the only place to be," said one customer who said he is a regular. He moved around the store during a recent book signing by authors Robert Ray and Frank Norwood as though it were a cocktail party, striking up mystery-oriented conversations with other customers. Norwood was at the store to autograph his first book, "Man on the Moon." Ray's latest book is "Merry Christmas Murdock."
The common ground for customers at Bodhi Tree Bookstore is metaphysics and spirituality. Complete with pervasive incense smoke, free herbal tea and the collected writings of a spate of spiritual leaders, from Gandhi to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Bodhi Tree is often bustling with customers perusing Tarot cards or sitting on low stools reading snippets of spiritual wisdom.
"Not everybody is interested in this," said a long-bearded Westwood man who gave his name only as Jain. "Can you imagine asking for a book on Native American peyote rituals at B. Dalton?"
Though their inventories vary, the common spine that seems to bind West Hollywood's specialty stores together is the pride their owners take in making hard-to-find books available to the public.
"I don't think there was ever a store like this. Ninety percent of the books in the store are out of print, but every one of them is for sale," said Elliot Katt, proprietor and longtime owner of an extensive collection of books on the performing arts.
Katt's store, ringed with portraits of present and past singers, dancers and movie stars--including drawings of James Dean and Edward G. Robinson "done backstage" by Katt himself--is one way to experience show business without driving up to Hollywood Boulevard.
With a "definite edge of nostalgia," Katt has sold books here for more than a decade. Many of the books, are considered priceless such as a signed first edition of "A Million and One Nights." The book about the history of the movies up to 1926 by Terry Ramsaye is autographed by Thomas Edison who wrote the preface. But Katt is not a collector himself and sells the books, no matter how rare, with relish.
More like a museum than a bookstore, Heritage Book Shop, housed in an old mortuary, sells only rare books. Inside the locked front doors, the smell of fine old leather gives Heritage the air of an ancient library.