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In Praise of the Independent Travel Bookstore--an Endangered Species


Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant may get top billing in the movie "Notting Hill," but as far as I'm concerned its true star is the wonderful little travel bookshop on Blenheim Crescent (just around the corner from London's Portobello Road Market), where Grant's character works and where several sequences in the film were shot.

Of course, I love all travel specialty bookstores (most of which aren't part of chains). The people who work in them--many of whom happen to be women--really know their stock, are travelers themselves and take time with customers instead of pointing them in the general direction of the travel section. In these stores you meet other travelers who have been to places you want to visit. And the best of the lot don't restrict themselves to guidebooks, offering maps, gear and titles on art, history, politics and culture.

So when I heard that one of my favorite travel bookshops in New York, the Traveler's Bookstore on West 52nd Street, recently closed due to competition from chain stores and Internet book suppliers, I grieved. Recently I spoke with a number of travel booksellers in Los Angeles and found that they're feeling the pinch too.

Nancy Heck started the Literate Traveller--not a store per se, but a catalog specializing in literary travel writing--in 1986. She runs her cottage industry from her apartment in Mar Vista and is always teetering on the edge. Nevertheless, she just put out a new edition of her "Around the World in 80+ Mysteries" catalog, full of whodunits set in exotic places. "I can't stop myself from doing this, because I love it," she says.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 8, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Bookstores--The Her World column last week ("In Praise of the Independent Travel Bookstore--an Endangered Species," Aug. 1) misstated the location of the California Map and Travel Center. It is in Santa Monica, not West L.A.

Whenever I visit local travel bookstores, that's exactly the feeling I get. Take Barbara Mars, who owns the California Map and Travel Center in West L.A. with her husband, Sheldon. A mother of three with a practical air, she can't talk for more than five minutes without launching into a tale about her travels. "I hope I'm not boring you," she told me, halfway through a rather involved story about staying in a French castle, "but I just love to travel."

Previously she was a travel agent and Sheldon worked as a CPA, but they were both looking for a creative outlet. They found it 12 years ago in a rather tired-looking little map store on Pico Boulevard near the 405 Freeway. Under their ownership, the store prospered and grew; it now has 15,000 travel titles, 15,000 maps, globes, antique suitcases and gear. Among other things, Barbara organizes author presentations, spends time with children who come in seeking materials for school projects and sees to it that the stock includes the kind of small-press and self-published books the chains don't carry. According to her, independent travel bookstores reflect the care and individuality of the people who run them, which sets them way apart from the chains.

Over in West Hollywood there are Bookstar and Borders chain outlets literally around the corner from the Traveler's Bookcase. This has posed a challenge for Priscilla Ulene, who opened the little haven for travelers on West 3rd Street near the Beverly Center in 1991 with her friend Harriett Bay. They met in sixth grade, went to college together, were in each other's weddings and reached turning points in their lives at about the same time when their children left the nest, motivating them to open the store. Harriett got out of the business a few years ago, but the Traveler's Bookcase has endured, thanks, Priscilla says, to her capable staff. "We know our inventory and love to talk travel," she says. "Once someone came in planning to get married in Italy, and I was able to put the customer together with somebody else who'd done the same thing."

Sometimes, though, people forget that travel booksellers aren't travel agents, expecting to leave the shop with their trips planned to the last detail. At Distant Lands, a travel agency and book, map and gear shop in Old Town Pasadena, Louanne Kalvinskas has encountered a related problem, stemming from the library-like atmosphere of chain bookstores where no one seems to mind if you use the books without buying. Though browsing is encouraged at independent travel bookstores, they've got to sell books to stay alive.

Distant Lands has been a great place to browse and buy since 1989, when Louanne's son, Adrian, started the store. He met his wife, Susan, when she came to work at the shop, and Louanne joined the staff full-time after retiring, making Distant Lands a real family affair. When I asked how they make it work, Louanne replied, "We trust each other." Susan said, "We're not afraid to disagree." And Adrian said, "We all do things we're good at." In his case, that's long-term planning. Susan is the buyer. And Louanne has found somewhat late in life (she will turn 70 next year) that she's an ace saleswoman. "I love trying to find out what the customers really want and making sure they go off with the right stuff," she says.

With business at Distant Lands humming along, the Kalvinskases don't seem too fazed by the competition. Chain stores routinely refer customers to the store, and shopping in cyberspace isn't always satisfying. "There's synergy when you walk into a bookstore," Susan says. "It's a matter of seeing not just the book you want, but the books next to it on the shelf." That must be the reason why I never walk out of a travel bookstore without buying something.

California Map and Travel Center, 3312 Pico Blvd., L.A.; telephone (310) 396-6277, Internet http:// Distant Lands, 56 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (626) 449-3220 or (800) 310-3220, The Literate Traveller, (310) 398-8781 or (800) 850-2665, The Traveler's Bookcase, 8375 W. 3rd St., L.A.; (323) 655-0575 or (800) 655-0053,

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