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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Reading Room : As huge chains put the squeeze on smaller bookstores, independents strive to find their niche.

November 10, 1994|CYNTHIA WALKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The bookshelves at the Wild Iris Bookstore in Claremont stand half-empty. The lilac walls are covered with paintings, masks and T-shirts for sale, one of which reads "Eve was framed." Two small cats scamper across the soft carpet, landing atop each other in the corner.

And cornered is how Genevieve Beenen, owner of Wild Iris, is feeling these days. Last year, she said, the recession and the nearby opening of a Barnes & Noble bookstore nearly put her small bookstore for women out of business.

Beenen struggled through the year, but last month was again on the verge of shutting down. Her bookshelves, once stocked from floor to ceiling, are down to about 4,000 titles. She is supposed to put in her book order soon but doesn't know if she'll have the money.

At the other end of the valley, in Pasadena, is Vroman's bookstore, one of the most venerable independent bookstores in Southern California. Vroman's, on Colorado Boulevard, celebrated its 100th year in business at the end of October and plans to double in size next year.

During the past few years, bookstore chains have given birth to book megastores such as Barnes & Noble and expanded beyond suburban shopping malls to the city streets that were once the domain of independent booksellers.

With the superstores' vast selections and discount pricing, some of the small independent booksellers complain of overwhelming competition and unfair business tactics by publishers. But National Independent Bookstore Week, which ends tomorrow, finds other small bookstores in the area holding their own and even thriving.

One of the most successful is Vroman's. Founded by photographer A.C. Vroman in 1894, the bookstore now offers more than 110,000 titles and has become something of a cultural institution. With the demise of Fowler's Books in Downtown Los Angeles six months ago, Vroman's is now the oldest bookstore in Southern California, said Karen Watkins, Vroman's vice president.

"Specialty stores and very well-established independents will survive," said Lise Friedman, president of the Southern California Booksellers Assn. and manager of Dutton's Brentwood, a large independent store.

Many independents have closed in recent years, Friedman said, but not solely because of book chains. The recession and the move of society toward television and away from reading are other reasons, she said.

"But it's definitely scary, because they (the chains) have a lot of money," said Friedman. "My customers tell me they go to Crown for their bestsellers, but come to my store for special orders, which I lose money on."

The newest of the eight Super Crown Books outlets in the San Gabriel Valley opened on Foothill Boulevard in Pasadena in February, just a few blocks from the site of Mr. Books, which had closed three months earlier. Its expansive front windows are blanketed with posters advertising 40% off all New York Times bestsellers.

Inside the massive space, the rows of more than 200,000 perfectly organized books are daunting. Displays of heavy hardback bestsellers dominate various intersections in the store. Beautiful coffee-table books abound, and with Playboy magazines adjacent to the classic literature section, the store seems to provide something for everyone.

The first Crown Books, specializing in discount pricing of big sellers, opened in Maryland in 1977 and was an instant success, said Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president. There are now 241 stores nationwide, 80 of which are Super Crowns, a larger version of the original.

"They are here to stay," Gonzalez said. "Bigger and better is what everybody wants."

The San Gabriel Valley has nine Waldenbooks, eight Crown Books--including two Super Crowns--seven B. Daltons and two Barnes & Nobles.

"We're not trying to put independent bookstores out of business," said Jeanie Prukop, district manager for B. Dalton. "We just want to see people reading, and we're trying to stay ahead of the game, just like everybody else."

Last year, the valley saw the closure of two independent bookstores. Hunter's Books and Mr. Books, both in Pasadena, apparently closed for different reasons, but today there are separate Super Crowns just doors away from each site.

Mr. Books, which once advertised its store as "destined to be as famous as the Rose Parade," closed a year ago. According to several local bookstore owners, the store was simply in the wrong location at the wrong time. The former owners were unavailable for comment.

Hunter's, once a thriving chain with stores all over the West, closed its last California store in January after three years on Lake Avenue in Pasadena. The store was one of the largest in the chain and offered more than 370,000 new books and paperbacks. A year before its closure, a Super Crown opened down the block.

Adrian Kalvinskas, owner of Distant Lands, a travel bookstore in Pasadena, said he was not surprised by Hunter's closing.

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