In most days you can find Yetive Moss behind the nonfiction counter at Dutton's Brentwood Books, perched on a metal stool, phone in one hand, pen in another, calling customers about special orders. She uses a voice that, despite her 92 years, is less grandmotherly than authoritative; soft-spoken and formal, it causes people to pay attention. Her daily uniform, if one can call it that, consists of plain slacks, blouse and sweater vest. It is the style of a female book clerk circa 1930--which is exactly what Moss was. Over a period of more than 70 years, she has worked in almost every independent bookstore in the city, which must not only be some kind of record but also makes her the grande dame of Los Angeles booksellers.
Her first job was at the Rare Book Department of the downtown May Co. She then worked as a clerk at Stanley Rose's store next to Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard. She progressed to Campbell's in Westwood and to Hunter's (later Brentano's) in Beverly Hills. There were stints as a research librarian at the County Museum of Art and as curator and book buyer for the Assn. of American Artists in Beverly Hills. The association's store-cum-gallery was, says Moss, the most avant-garde place in '30s L.A. The building had no windows, but it did have a central flying staircase and "was arranged so that anywhere your eye went you either saw a book or a piece of art." Its patrons included Humphrey Bogart ("an impressive art collection") and Edward G. Robinson ("a marvelous library").
Over the years, Moss amassed her own considerable library of first editions and autographed copies, eventually selling it to a private collector. "I didn't want to see them splayed across a bargain table when I was gone," she says. "I miss them, of course. Being without your library is like missing your right arm."
At one point or another, Moss knew almost every major writer who made Los Angeles home. Her idol, Thomas Mann, she says, was henpecked by his austere wife, who always called him "Papa." Henry Miller, whose novels she didn't like, was pleasant and not egotistical. Raymond Chandler was "a swell fellow with a great sense of humor"; William Faulkner, "a real gentleman." Nathanael West was "always broke--I had to buy him sandwiches."
When Moss applied at Dutton's Brentwood Books 11 years ago, at an age when most people have long retired, owner Doug Dutton jumped at the opportunity to hire her. When Moss stopped driving, the staff even found her an apartment within walking distance of the store. "Having her work at the store is like Albert Brooks' hiring Debbie Reynolds," says Dutton. "Or Steve Lavin being given the opportunity to coach Michael Jordan."