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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Chain Reaction : Westwood Booksellers Warily Await Opening of Huge Store by National Rival and Wonder, Can the Independents Last?

September 29, 1994|PENELOPE MOFFET | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Independent bookstores these days face crushing competition from large retail chains--and nowhere is the trend more evident than at Westwood Boulevard and Rochester Avenue in Westwood.

Borders, a large national book chain, is opening a mammoth outlet there next month--directly across the street from Sisterhood, Los Angeles' first feminist bookstore. Though the location is the same, the contrast couldn't be more striking.

Sisterhood makes do with 1,200 square feet of space in what was once a three-room house, built in the 1920s. The place is crammed full of books (because the store isn't computerized, no one can say how many) and also offers magazines, pottery, jewelry, T-shirts and handbags that for the most part are made by women.

The Borders Books and Music outlet across the street will be the 62nd and largest of the chain's outlets, featuring 170,000 book titles, 65,000 music titles and 8,500 video titles. Its 43,000-square-foot space will also house music listening areas and an espresso bar above a three-level parking garage.

Small wonder that Sisterhood's owners, former sisters-in-law Simone and Adele Wallace, see the new arrival as a threat to their store's existence. At a time when independent bookstores across the country are struggling to survive while chain stores thrive, the Wallaces are not sanguine about their prospects.

"I sort of feel like we're the family farm, and look what happened to the family farm. Look what happened to the horse and buggy," Simone Wallace said. "It's not that I want to be pessimistic about it, but who knows? Looking into the future, I just don't know."

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Borders and Sisterhood both began small, in the early 1970s. Borders was started in 1971 as a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., by two brothers who loved books, Tom and Louis Borders. The next year the Wallaces began Sisterhood in a storefront off an alleyway near Olympic and Westwood boulevards, moving it to its current site six months later.

Sisterhood has remained small-scale. Its books, in many cases from feminist presses, are divided by genre and category into small groups covering general literature, women of color, spirituality, mythology, feminist theory, recovery, violence against women, women and creativity, humor, and children's literature, among other areas.

A closet-sized room in the back contains free literature about programs for women, as well as a bulletin board spackled with feminists' business cards, housing information and miscellaneous announcements.

Sisterhood has hosted many readings and book signings over the years. It has stepped up such activities in the past year in response not only to news of Borders' arrival but also to the region's tough economic times.

A monthly salon series that features talks by prominent women and group discussions kicked off last Saturday with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal. On Oct. 15--the day Borders is scheduled to open--UCLA women's studies professor Sondra Hale will talk about her field research on women's social movements in Eritrea. A women's book group, led by store manager Julie Mitchell, began in June.

Every Sunday afternoon there are appearances by local writers. Recently the store hosted a publication party for the editors of a new quarterly publication, "The Lesbian Review of Books."

"What we're finding is we need to do much more promotion, much more events, to get people to come to the store," Simone Wallace said.

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While Sisterhood stayed small, Borders became a behemoth--though not immediately.

After developing and marketing an advanced computer inventory tracking system, the Borders brothers sold what had become a 22-store chain to the Kmart Corp. in October, 1992.

The brothers are no longer involved in bookselling, but their chain lives on. Having firmly established itself in the Midwest and East, Borders Inc. has been expanding steadily in the West. It plans to have 70 to 75 stores in place by the end of the year.

Borders' first Southern California store opened in Mission Viejo on Labor Day Weekend. The Westwood store's opening will be followed by an early November unveiling of a Torrance store, and construction will begin soon on a Santa Monica outlet, company officials say.

At Borders, shoppers will be able to find much of what they find at Sisterhood--frequently at lower prices.

The chain offers 30% discounts on bestsellers, and it sells most other hardcover books at 10% off. The Westwood Borders will feature about 1,500 women's studies titles and 1,000 men's studies titles, with many of these books broken out into lesbian and gay fiction and lesbian and gay studies sections.

Like other Borders stores, the store will be "fairly nicely appointed without being luxurious," said Dan Conetta, Borders Inc.'s vice president.

Chairs and benches will be scattered throughout to make browsing easier, the Cafe Espresso will have 50 seats and wallpapered walls with wood trim are intended to create a cozy feeling in the store.

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