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Playing a Quirky Character Role

For Three Decades, Either/Or bookstore in Hermosa Beach Has Provided an Eclectic Refuge for Literary Buffs

March 07, 1997|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sign that welcomes visitors to the Either/Or bookstore in Hermosa Beach, a small treasure for those of a literary bent, speaks volumes about the store's funky character:

"No food or drink, no smoking, no dogs, no unruly children" and, as a reminder for surfers straggling in from the beach a block away, "no wet people."

This ain't no Bookstar, no Super Crown, no Barnes & Noble combination mega-store and java house. This is one of the enduring independent bookstores in the Los Angeles area, a 31-year survivor rich with character and its own history, a place dedicated to service and selection, and the idea that books and intellect and ideas still matter in a culture that celebrates People magazine.

"Our customers are not the kind of people who appear at a hot dog stand," said Peter Pott, the store manager. "They're readers."

You want best-sellers? Of course, Either/Or has them. You want hard-to-find magazines--such as Global Skate and Tattoo? Either/Or has them. You want the 12-cassette audiotape of The Odyssey by Homer? Either/Or has it.

Are you a browser? Books fill nooks on five levels. The store typically carries about 75,000 titles, and customers are encouraged to leaf through as many books as they care to pick up, taking as much time as they wish.

Either/Or, located on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, is an unabashedly eclectic place. Receipts are still written by hand. The green carpet is worn. The air is usually filled with the fragrance of incense and music--it's not uncommon to hear the sounds of bells such as one imagines tinkling at a temple in Tibet. For sale at the front counter are sweatshirts (blue or gray, $25) proclaiming "Team Bukowski," a reference to poet and novelist Charles Bukowski.

Avid literature buffs, of course, know that the name of the store is itself a reference. Either/Or is the title of an 1843 tome by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

For 20 years, the place was home to a black cat, Justine, named after the novel by Lawrence Durrell and, until she died earlier this month, another sign by the front door politely reminded customers to keep the door closed to prevent her from wandering off.

Founded in October 1966, Either/Or has strived to maintain its reputation as a welcoming place for authors and readers. Bukowski used to be a regular customer, Pott said, often coming in to draw little pictures in the front of his books.

Elusive novelist Thomas Pynchon, author of "Gravity's Rainbow," would drop in when he lived in the late 1960s in Manhattan Beach.

Over the years, celebrity customers have included Ron Kovic, author of "Born on the Fourth of July," and comedians Jay Leno, Garry Shandling and Roseanne.

On her most recent trip, Roseanne bought vampire books and Tarot cards, Pott said with smile. Shandling, he said, is a "nice guy and a very intelligent reader."

The store's strengths are in its literature and poetry collections and in books devoted to psychology, health and well-being, New Age, parenting and travel. The travel section, for example, carries not only the usual guides to Paris and London but backpacker-friendly guides to destinations in Africa and Asia.

But what Either/Or really specializes in are books it doesn't have on hand. It's a point of pride, Pott said, that an order for virtually any

title can be filled in a day or two. Well, sometimes three or four--but no more.

One recent afternoon, Neil Edwards, a 31-year-old messenger company dispatcher, wandered around the store--which takes up most of a block on Pier Avenue--before deciding he wanted "In the Open: Diary of a Homeless Alcoholic," a non-fiction account by Timothy Donohue that had gotten good reviews.

The book had to be ordered. Two days, maybe three. Edwards was delighted.

Anyone who wants to work at Either/Or has to take a quiz--"it's an application," Pott insisted--that tests knowledge of books and current events. A sample: Who is T.S. Eliot? "If they write 'dishwasher,' we know they're on a different level than what we want here," Pott said.

The staff, meanwhile, is devoted to Either/Or--remarkable in large part because no one there is getting rich selling books. Pott has been with the store, on and off, for all 31 years--his most recent stint for the last 10 years.

Customers are loyal, too. Nellie Irwin, 62, of Yorba Linda, makes a pilgrimmage to Either/Or two or three times a year. "I browse a lot, and this place is wonderful to browse," she said.

"We love our customers," Pott said, adding a few moments later in a wistful reference to the financial hardships facing all independent bookstores since the arrival of Barnes & Noble, Bookstar and the other superstores: "We have our loyal people. We just need more of them."

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