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For Science Fiction Fans, Old Habit Dies Hard : Change of Hobbit Devotees Are Already Mourning Bookstore Demise

February 10, 1991|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sherry Gottlieb wonders which she will miss most--the loyal following, the signing parties or the books that made it all possible.

For 19 years, fans of the ghoulish and the galactic have faithfully supported Gottlieb's A Change of Hobbit, one of the world's oldest and largest science fiction bookstores.

They have come in search of fantasy and horror, wizards and elves, aliens, vampires, robots and more. With 50,000-plus books, the Santa Monica store has been able to offer customers the genre's most obscure items, from Ace double novels to signed first editions by the likes of Stephen King and Arthur C. Clarke.

But now Gottlieb is writing the last chapter on her store, which sits on the ground floor of a city-owned parking structure on 2nd Street. A Change of Hobbit will close its doors at the end of the month, a victim of lagging sales and soaring costs. Gottlieb and her six-member staff are selling everything in the store, including the furniture.

"I feel like my 19-year-old child is dying," Gottlieb said, fighting back a tear as she looked across rows of half-empty bookshelves. "The Hobbit has always been an extension of my living room. I had always assumed that I would be able to find anything I wanted on my own shelves."

Gottlieb opened A Change of Hobbit in 1972 in a 12-by-15-foot room above a coin laundry in Westwood. She moved later to Westwood Boulevard, then to a third site among auto repair shops and fast-food outlets on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. Finally, she settled in the 2nd Street location in the summer of 1989. The name was a takeoff on the creatures in J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings."

Word of the Hobbit's closing is cause for sadness in the science fiction publishing world as well as among Gottlieb's stalwart customers.

"This is horrible news," said science fiction writer Anne Rice from her home in New Orleans. "Authors around the world have dreamed of going to the Hobbit for signings. What's a West Coast tour if you can't visit Sherry?"

Gottlieb first sponsored a signing party for Rice in 1985 for the book "Vampire Lestat." The author has returned several times since, most recently in November to promote her book "The Witching Hour."

Gottlieb has hosted more than 200 signing parties, featuring such other noted authors as Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Frank Herbert.

The store will probably be missed most of all by its regulars, the people who visit often to browse, to read, to attend the signings. And among the things they will miss is the roguish style of the proprietor. At one time, the raven-haired Gottlieb wore a purple streak through her hair. For the last 10 years, she has kept her six-foot pet boa constrictor, Wrinklesnakeskin, in a cage among the bookshelves.

"I read about the Hobbit in Harlan Ellison's 'Strange Wine,' " recalled Michael Mattock, a Marina del Rey resident who has been coming to the store for five years. "When I walked in (the Lincoln Boulevard site) for the first time, I couldn't believe that I was standing in the very place that millions of people had read about. It was this inside-gazebo. If I remember, the snake was there."

Maurice Garnholz, a Manhattan Beach engineer and aspiring science fiction writer, expressed frustration over the closing.

"I can't believe that, with the movie industry so close, Los Angeles won't support a store of this caliber," Garnholz said. "B. Dalton and Crown Books might have a large selection, but they don't have people who know the material like Sherry's staff."

Gottlieb is candid about the financial difficulties she has faced in operating an independent book business.

"It's been 19 years of operating on a shoestring budget," she said. "There has never been enough money. The photocopier broke down three years ago. We never fixed it."

Simply put, the Hobbit was not able to keep up with its rising costs, Gottlieb said. It cost about $75,000 to move two years ago into the larger quarters on 2nd Street, an amount she was never able to fully recoup. And even though the rent charged by the city at the new location--$5,000 a month--was well below what a private landlord would charge for a comparable space, it was 40% more than Gottlieb was paying on Lincoln Boulevard.

Still, she is optimistic about the future. In July, Viking Press will publish her first book, "Hell No, We Won't Go," an oral history of draft resistance during the Vietnam War. She hopes to stay in the bookstore business. She also is hopeful that her employees will be able to find work with the experience they have garnered at her store. But she admits that she will be sad to see them go.

"I've already run through three rolls of film in two weeks, taking pictures," she said. "I'm sure I'll run through a few more rolls before this thing is over. We are family here."

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