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Closing the Book on Chatterton's

May 15, 1994|Lionel Rolfe

One of Los Angeles' last great bookstore is dying--with the proverbial whimper, not a bang. The end is near, says one dejected employee--maybe in weeks, maybe in days.

Chatterton's Bookshop, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., is the last of the great Los Angeles literary and political bookstores. On the same block of Vermont Avenue as the Los Feliz Theater and the Onyx Cafe, billed as the city's oldest coffeehouse, the bookstore seems to have given up on its mission of carrying on as the city's only real literary and political citadel.

Once shelving more than 75,000 volumes on subjects from Zen to Anais Nin (who had been a frequent customer), the store's new book stock has dwindled to nothing, and even its once exciting magazine and newspaper rack is mostly bare--even of the standard titles. Its dwindling staff, once the font of cutting-edge knowledge in political and literary goings on, are dispirited, and all complain of never being told what's going on.

The proprietor, William (Koki) Iwamoto, rarely shows up anymore; the general manager, artist Tom Antell, is no longer on the payroll; Tony Russo, the former poet (he made a decision years ago not to write anymore) who serves as what there is of management, sometimes will admit his frustration at how little he knows of what's really going on.

Even Chuck, the young anarchist who usually prides himself on the latest exciting developments in the fast-paced world of techno-anarcho-syndicalism, seems to be just going through the motions now. Margaret, whose former husband, Paul Vangelisti, an early partisan of Charles Bukowski, mostly wears a beatific smile and avoids all questions requiring direct answers about anything having to do with the store. Vangelisti led a modern European avant garde poetry movement centered around his magazine "Invisible City," whose activities defined much of the atmosphere at Chatterton's throughout the store's heyday in the '70s.

The decline has been particularly precipitous in the last few months. For a good long while, it was as if everyone was in a state of denial. No longer. Now the staffers only declare, "Each day I come to work I'm amazed we're still open."

It is no accident that Chatterton's drew on the tradition established by Papa Bach Paperbacks in the '60s, when that late, lamented West Los Angeles bookstore was the center of the city's then burgeoning counterculture. Koki was an employee of Los Angeles poet, publisher and Papa Bach proprietor John Harris.

Ten years ago, when Papa Bach closed, Koki, a tall, healthy and strapping man who was almost always on the premises at Chatterton's, took stock. He closed the second Chatterton's he had opened in Pasadena, and despite his horror at the battle that his and other bookstores were up against, namely the extent of illiteracy in the upcoming generation, vowed to fight on.

The difficulties of Chatterton's fight for survival have been apparent just by looking at the empty shelves. Then, during the Northridge earthquake, signs went up in its windows announcing that the store was closing a few days for earthquake repairs. Actually, earthquake damage was not the only thing getting fixed. Problems with creditors were so bad that something had to be done. So Koki declared personal bankruptcy. And the store gained another small lease on life. Short of a miracle, though, the prognosis now is grim.

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