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An Honest Dollar : Bookshop Owner Trusts Patrons to Serve Themselves After Hours

February 28, 1991|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORWALK — You gotta be kidding. It was nighttime and the bookstore on Firestone Boulevard was shut tight. But on the sidewalk in front of Book Raj, there were two bookcases and eight boxes of books, some 300 volumes, most of them hardback fiction.

"Honor system," a sign proclaimed. "Select book or books. Place cash or check in the mail slot (envelopes provided)."

"No money? Your credit is good. Pay us tomorrow or whenever. We trust you. All we ask is that you do not litter the streets with books."

Rex and Mary Lou Jones, owners of the Book Raj, started their honor system about a month ago and they say everything is going fairly well so far.

Granted, there is not a lot of money in after-hours sales. The books on the sidewalk go for $1 each; it is a good night if $5 has been dropped through the mail slot.

And they already have lost a box of about 15 books to thieves, Rex Jones said.

But the Joneses say they will continue the honor system because of the promotional value, and because it helps get literature out to a public that is more interested in flipping channels than pages.

"Obviously I'm not making anything with this," Rex Jones said. "It's just a little service."

The Joneses opened their used bookstore two years ago. Rex Jones, 51, is a former college professor and museum curator who holds a doctorate in anthropology. Mary Lou Jones, 42, was an activities director at a convalescent hospital.

The store is open seven days a week, with one or both of the Joneses running the counter. It is not an easy living. Book Raj used to occupy another storefront in Norwalk, but the Joneses moved into the old part of the city near the intersection of Firestone Boulevard and San Antonio Drive last October because the rent is cheaper.

The Book Raj carries a wide selection of books--about 75,000 in all on homemade pine shelves that run along the sides and down the center of the narrow shop.

The store specializes in gambling books. Jones, a semi-professional poker player in the early 1980s, wrote a book on poker. He also has edited and written for various gambling publications.

"I'm trying to build this into a comprehensive gambling collection," Jones said. "I'm probably the only bookstore in California that specializes in gambling."

But most of the bookshelves hold reading material of general interest. The store has a few rare books, and there are several shelves of modern first editions. A first edition of Gore Vidal's "Empire" goes for $10.

The majority of the shelves are filled with common hardback and paperback editions. Some of the popular paperbacks sell for as little as three for $1.

The Book Raj's bestsellers are Spanish-English dictionaries, automobile repair manuals and cookbooks, Rex Jones said. Paperback science fiction, mysteries and romance also move fairly quickly.

But "since the war started I've sold more Bibles than ever before," he said.

Last December, the couple kicked off a "recession sale" by putting some of their $1 books in front of the shop. They hauled in the books each night. Then Rex Jones decided to save some energy and make a name for his bookstore. He said he had heard of a similar honor system in an Ojai bookstore.

"He decided we needed to do something different to call attention to ourselves," Mary Lou Jones said. "I said 'Rex, you're crazy.' "

But Rex Jones had a feeling that his books would be around the next morning.

"Most people who deal with used bookstores around here are very honest," he said. "I haven't had a check bounce."

The Joneses said they had not noticed that a book was missing until last week, when someone stole the box of about 15 volumes. Jones dismisses the theft as "a prank. Probably some kids stopped at the (traffic) light and decided to take them."

"The only value those books have out there is for people who want to read them," Jones said. "There's no resale value. And if they want to read that badly, then take them."

The Joneses are careful not to put out any first editions or any other books with a high resale value. On a recent afternoon, there was a paperback edition of "Chesapeake" by James A. Michener. A book on the life of Henry Fonda was soiled as if a passerby had accidentally dropped it while leafing through the pages.

The honor system has been well received, the Joneses said.

"I had a transient come in here the other day," Mary Lou Jones said. "He said, I just wanted to thank you folks for trusting the community."

Norwalk Chamber of Commerce Director Dick Bass echoed that sentiment.

"I like that openness," Bass said. "This used to be the kind of town where you didn't lock the doors. It's a flashback to the good ol' days, and we need more of that."

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