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Final Chapter at Oldest L.A. Bookstore

March 23, 1994|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It began in 1888 as a "Church and Sunday School Supply House" in the small and distinctly unbookish pueblo of Los Angeles. It went on to be linked to a 1920s Hollywood scandal as the last known whereabouts of a murdered film director. It survived six Downtown locations to become the city's oldest bookstore, cherished by politicians, movie stars and lesser mortals for fine novels, good pens and expert advice.

But that colorful history ended Tuesday as Fowler Brothers bookstore and stationery shop closed its doors forever.

The 7th Street store had lost customers, as many independent bookshops and office supply businesses have, to discount chains. Retailing's decline along 7th Street--with recent departures of Robinson's department store and Brooks Brothers clothiers--also hurt. And the store never recovered from disruptive subway construction just outside the window, its proprietors said.

"We kept hoping times would get better again," said owner Siegfried Lindstrom, 66, whose grandfather was one of the store's founders. "But all you have to do is look outside and see all the empty stores around here and see that is not happening now."

His son Bill, 29, who also worked at the shop, said it has been losing money since 1990. "With the Crown and Super Crown stores on one end and Staples and Office Depot on the other end, business has been on a gradual slide," Bill Lindstrom said, referring to the giant discounters in books and stationery.

Those chain stores may have some lower prices, but not the antique oak bookshelves and glass cases that Fowler Brothers moved from previous sites to its last location in 1975. Chains may have huge stacks of bestsellers, but not the many obscurities found at Fowler Brothers such as a guide for "Woodland Walks in South-East England," textbooks for independent paralegals or road maps of Austria and Arkansas.

Nor do most chain stores display copies of customer registries dating back to the turn of the century. At Fowler Brothers, guest books from the 1920s show signatures from composer John Philip Sousa, author Zane Grey, aviator Charles Lindbergh and actors Tom Mix and Douglas Fairbanks. Customers in later years included then-governor and later Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

A particularly intriguing 1921 signature was from silent film star Mabel Normand. A year later, Normand was a suspect in the unsolved murder of her friend, director William Desmond Taylor. On the night before Taylor was found shot to death at his home, both he and Normand had visited the bookstore. Taylor reportedly had bought two copies of "Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety" by Sigmund Freud.

"Anybody who had anything to do with Downtown has gone to Fowler's," said Doug Dutton, owner of Dutton's bookstore in Brentwood. Despite the toughening competition from national chains to independent shops like his and Fowler Brothers, Dutton said he was shocked by the closing. "I'm just sick about it," he said.

Also saddened was science fiction author Ray Bradbury, who credits the store for his marriage. He met his wife, Maggie, at the store in 1946 when she was a fiction salesclerk there. "Every single person there was top quality. They all had high IQs and knew their own subject," Bradbury recalled. "There are not that many bookstores left where you are going to get that kind of service or that kind of intellect."

The Lindstroms kept their decision to close fairly quiet because of an agreement with the liquidation company that is to auction the stock or hold a discount sale at a later date. Even the gold-leaf motto sign, hung high above the sales floor, may be sold. It quotes the 18th-Century British historian Edward Gibbon in proclaiming: "The early and invincible love of reading which I would not exchange for the treasures of India."

There was no closing notice posted Tuesday, no farewell bargains and no crowds of souvenir seekers. Only a private farewell party for the 15 employees and friends was planned. Customers flinched when they heard the going-out-of-business news.

"It's really a shame," said Terry Lewis, a loan officer at a nearby bank. She said she used to order specialized business books that she could not find anywhere else.

That apparently was the case in 1888, shortly after the bookstore opened on 2nd Street. According to family lore, one early customer was a grizzled prospector headed for the hills and looking for some books to take along. On the recommendation of John W. Fowler, the miner left with "Ramona" and "Ben Hur."

The store's fifth location, on 6th Street near Pershing Square, was a local landmark for 41 years and part of a celebrated Bookseller's Row. But as the row dried up and Pershing Square declined, Fowler Brothers moved to 7th Street, which was supposed to become Downtown's shopping mecca.

Business was excellent through the 1980s, until subway construction turned 7th Street into an obstacle course that discouraged shoppers, Siegfried Lindstrom said. Last year's opening of the Red Line subway and Blue Line trolley station a block away was a hopeful moment, but new transit commuters were not enough to make up for the many customers who lost their jobs in the recession, he said.

"Downtown used to be at the center of things," he lamented. "Those days are gone."

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