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Almost the Last Word

Earmarking a page from Hollywood Boulevard history

September 21, 1997|Danny Feingold

The ghosts of Faulkner and Hemingway may still haunt Musso & Frank, but no one ever mistakes contemporary Hollywood for a literary mecca. Still, it wasn't so long ago when you could browse the shelves of more than a dozen bookstores between Vine Street and Highland Avenue, from mainstream outfits like Pickwick (later B. Dalton) to independents such as Atlantis.

These days, word-lovers strolling Hollywood Boulevard all end up at the same place: Book City. It's one of the last refuges from the bevy of schlock-laden souvenir shops, a haven that's survived Hollywood's epic decline. Located near Hollywood and Cherokee Avenue, Book City is crammed with an inventory (about 90% used) that co-owner Mitch Siegel estimates at 500,000 books.

Siegel, whose shock of long black hair makes him look more like a Sunset Strip rocker than a bookworm (he moonlights as a guitarist), was 17 when his parents, Allan and Frances, relocated from Brooklyn in 1973 and set up shop with three of Frances' brothers. He's been working at the store ever since and has watched one bookseller after another drop by the wayside.

"It's a very tough business," says Siegel in the Brooklyn inflection of his youth. "People don't buy books like they used to."

Book City, which has an adjoining collectibles store along with a second location in Burbank, has stayed in the game by adjusting, remarks Allan Siegel in a Brooklyn accent that's thicker by half than his son's. That has meant beefing up the film, animation and special-effects sections as well as stocking books that customers are unlikely to find anywhere else. In the art and rare books room, numerous Shakespeare sets share space with the Encyclopedia of Horticulture, erotic art books and the debates of Congress (along with an old piano that customers are encouraged to play).

Book City's eclectic selection has made it a magnet for writers and artists. The late Charles Bukowski once wandered in drunk and offered to sign any book for a dollar. Celebrities that over the years have included Steve McQueen, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin and John Waters tend to keep a lower profile. On another occasion, a man came in on a scorching summer night with his jacket pulled up over his ears. "I said, 'What's he doing? You got to watch these guys,' " recalls the elder Siegel. He didn't realize that the man was Michael Jackson, a regular.

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