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A Common Cause : Rita Dyson is struggling to save her most uncommon bookstore. Turns out, she has a lot of friends.

September 13, 1993|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sturdier than she thinks, Rita Dyson has weathered everything from mysterious silent boycotts and freak winter floods to full-blown courtroom dramas--some to her own surprise, much with her trademark blast of a laugh--all to keep from forfeiting her Black and Latino Multicultural Bookcenter.

For the most part, she has proven hardy in the complicated struggle for her Pasadena enterprise, keeping the bill collectors at bay while walking linguistic minefields. Unwittingly, Dyson has sat at the center of heated debates about racial/ethnic designations-- black versus African-American , Hispanic versus Latino --only to later learn that many have wondered just which side of the fence this woman of black and Puerto Rican heritage stands on.

In June, however, stress-induced health problems, diminished funds and her own flagging spirit caused her to consider closing the doors for good. Until, that is, several independent L.A. bookstores and a quickly assembled ad hoc committee of dedicated customers and friends pooled their resources under the aegis of Friends of the Black and Latino Multicultural Bookcenter.

Their mission: to save a unique oasis that offers much more than a place to locate hard-to-find titles. For them, Dyson's store has distinguished itself as a kinetic information center instrumental in building community bridges and unlocking long-closed doors.

Dyson, 50, came to California in 1987 following an East Coast singing career, grieving over the death of her husband of 23 years. She had only vague leads and expectations.

"I had a nice resume. I came out here to do a movie . . . but they ran out of money before it was finished," she says. "I used to sing all over the country, at the Apollo with Jerry Butler . . . Lionel Hampton. I had this beautiful album. Gorgeous songs. But when I recorded, that's when music changed," shifting to styles far away from her own.

So Dyson left her trail of gowns and fancy acquaintances to pursue something worlds away. In 1989, Dyson took the $30,000 she crossed the country with and sunk it into a bookstore to serve Altadena's black and Latino population. Matching funds her partner promised never materialized, however, and the ensuing series of legal tangles tested her tenacity and her faith, she says.

"We opened up under all this turmoil. I got into debt immediately. I had to then get more of my savings to make up for what (my partner) didn't put in. Court became a horror. The store suffered. But I kept going, because I saw the people enjoyed it and wanted it."

That was only a glimpse of what would follow.

Dyson got down to work, not only with the business of bookselling. She hosted roundtables and panel discussions on controversial titles ("The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman"), and about media images and stereotypes. Mostly she lost money on such forays. "But," Dyson says, "it caught people's eyes."

Life took another curious turn when Dyson's store flooded and much of her merchandise was ruined. Although her insurance covered most of it, and a new, larger Pasadena location at 23 N. Mentor practically fell into her lap, the events only heralded a new chapter of woes.

"I didn't know that people we're angry with us for moving," she says. "The black community felt that we moved from Altadena down here to try to 'become white.' I also didn't know that when I expanded the concept from just black/Latino to multicultural that that upset people too!"

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Fueling dissension was not her intent, a baffled Dyson explains: "I didn't set out to polarize people." But she wanted to address the diversity of her own experience, as well as the region's diversity. She found, however, that even the mechanics of language bogged her--and everyone else--down.

"I used Latino , representing my mother's people, not knowing that I was now --political ," Dyson says. "OK, so now I'm political. And then black people thought I wasn't black enough, even though I carried the same books that other black stores did. . . . Then I later found out through the grapevine that a group wanted to boycott me. And at the same time the Latino people didn't like being attached to black. So now, I'm in a little pot of boiling water."

People, she observed, couldn't move beyond labels, and wasted their energies struggling for the best--read that most inoffensive--umbrella term.

"There was a whole movement against multiculturalism," says Dyson, lamenting her timing but not her plan. "But (with) everything so high-tech, computerized . . . people are clinging to their roots. Roots become culture . . . and how (they) impact on other cultures is our investigation."

But for all of those who didn't see the mission's nuances, a hardy contingent of supporters emerged who saw Rita Dyson's diamond in the rough, and were determined to find it a proper setting.

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