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Don't Write Chatterton's Finale Yet : Landmarks: The bookstore may have fallen on hard times, but fans and employees refuse to give up.

July 29, 1994|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At its zenith, it was dubbed many things: City Lights South, Papa Bach East. As alternative bookstores go, a veritable shower of supreme bohemian accolades. But of late, Chatterton's Bookstore in Los Feliz rests precariously on its hard-earned laurels, cushioned only by its memories. Loyal customers have been polite enough to ignore the empty shelves, the scaled-down staff, the quiet deterioration. Community commentary is often succinct, rhetorical: "Seen Chatterton's lately?" a waif in granny dress and monkey boots asks her dreadlocked lunch date over a pot of jasmine tea at the neighboring Onyx cafe.

In a neighborhood that in the early- to mid-'80s threatened to metamorphose into a scaled-down, west-of-the-Mississippi version of Greenwich Village--a string of cafes, restaurants, flower shops, a live theater space and movie house--Chatterton's Bookstore sat at its heart.

It was a jam-packed treasure trove on the northern stretch of Vermont Avenue at the foot of the Los Feliz hills, brimming with everything from hard-to-find Zen volumes and little-house presses to underground self-published pre-'zines.

But in the last decade it began to take that hairpin turn many independents have had to negotiate. Stock began to slim around the middle. A receding magazine rack, vanished bookcases and grimy floors began to show for the world to see.

Persistent signs of life suggested otherwise. From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. familiar faces still offered spirited repartee from behind the counter just as they had for more than 20 years.

But the latest blow to Chatterton's was the passing last Saturday of its founder-owner, William Koki Iwamoto, after a long battle with AIDS.

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"He wanted to start an alternative bookstore like Papa Bach (a now long defunct Westside bookstore and gathering place founded by John Harris). He felt we needed one over here," says a longtime clerk who wished to remain anonymous. "He wanted to make it more than a retail venture. He wanted it to be a community thing. For a while we had live music here, readings. Coffee and tea. There were always lots of people. It really was a part of the community."

And that it still is. But now with that stretch of Vermont in the throes of its own transition of sorts, Chatterton's serves the community in a different sense.

On a recent morning, visitations begin early. A longtime customer drifts in, asks for the time and place of Iwamoto's memorial service, then requests a piece of string--for one of the homeless men outside. "He's having a time keeping his pants up."

Another transient wanders in, picks up a free newspaper and then doubles back to reveal his true purpose: a request for the keys to the bathroom.

Other customers slip inside to browse the spare shelves. A woman, runway-model-tall, in a blue sun dress and blue lace-up sneaks, asks for "L.A. 411." None in stock, the clerk politely informs her, but suggests another shop where she might explore, including precise directions.

All the while the phone rings incessantly.

It is a testament to the Chatterton's staff, many customers and locals agree, that the store has survived this long. As one independent bookseller after another has taken a fall--victims of a plummeting economy, superstores such as Crown, Bookstar and Barnes & Noble or just plain fatigue--Chatterton's valiantly pushes on, has brave designs on going the distance.

For those who frequented the store in its scenester heyday, it is mere slip of its younger, uber-hip incarnation.

Allen Ginsberg once rested his black Danish school bag on these floors, before signing copies of collections of poetry and, later, photographs. Other literary luminaries in for a signing or a reading or out on a browse: Hubert Selby Jr., Diane DiPrima, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Richard Price, John Rechy, Anais Nin. . . .

"Well I don't think Anais Nin actually came in," says Elizabeth Berlot, a 20-year-plus customer who ritually stops in to pass some time, visit with friends. "She was too old at that time, sort of frail."

"No, I heard she came in sometimes," the clerk says. It's an old argument gathering steam once more. Just like the old days.

In a city that nurtures many distractions, it's a miracle anything survives. Through the cruel whims of economy and nature (the store was flooded during a freak summer storm a few years ago), Chatterton's clientele has remained loyal for the most part.

The reason: a selection that caters to customers' wide-ranging tastes--university presses, self-published self-help or poetry, alternative magazines. But, admits a staffer, "The last couple years have been real slow. I'm sure the chains did have some impact. The (Los Feliz) theater closed for a year. That hurt."

And the renaissance that was to remake this neighborhood, complete with a string of interested merchants cruising the Avenue, architectural visions? Well, the merchant says, "The economy. That took care of that."

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