Specialty bookstores in the San Fernando Valley area say they can compete with the big chains by offering selection, expertise and service.
Ron Schroeder, owner of Autobooks in Burbank, noted that he got a call recently from a man looking for a workshop manual for a 1982 Maserati. He happened to have one in stock.
"Large chains actually send people to us," Schroeder said. "Where they have a bookshelf full, we have a whole bookstore full."
Autobooks is one in a wide range of Valley stores specializing in such niches as children's books, building contractor manuals, Russian-language tomes and theater.
Owners of these stores say their focus on specific subjects allows them to offer books that wouldn't be found in a general-interest store.
"A chain wouldn't carry the wealth of maps that we have: topographic maps, aeronautical maps, raised relief maps, and globes," said Brian Draker, owner of Geographia Map & Travel Bookstore in Burbank, who counts film-industry location scouts among his regular customers.
In addition to a strong selection of books on a particular subject, most specialty stores cite their expertise as a key advantage.
Darlene Daniel, an educator who owns Pages Books for Children in Tarzana, said she and her staff guide their young customers, along with parents and teachers, to appropriate books.
"We really are in a book-selling niche of people who care about children," she said. "Our store is staffed with people with teaching experience or other professional experience with children."
Some specialty stores also try to capitalize on the shared interests of their readers by offering opportunities for them to socialize.
The Mysteries, Movies & Mayhem bookstore, which opened two months ago in Sherman Oaks, has launched an ambitious schedule of author readings.
Last month's guest was Alan Ormsby, who discussed his screenplay for "My Bodyguard."
"It gets people in the door," said owner Terrill Lee Lankford, himself an author.
The Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, which specializes in science fiction, fantasy and horror, also attracts buffs in its genre with readings and book signings.
"We've developed a good relationship with a lot of authors over the years," owner Arthur Cover said.
Even so, Cover said the selection is the key. "We carry a large, in-depth selection--out-of-print books, whatever," he said.
Another factor is knowing what customers want, said Dan Weinstein, owner of Iliad Bookstore in North Hollywood, which specializes in books on literature and the arts, particularly film.
He says he buys books with an eye to his customers' needs and preferences rather than trends. "We've developed a relationship with our customers over the years," he said.
The widening opportunities to order books online would seem to be a threat to independent specialty bookstores--after all, someone who can't find a rare auto service manual locally could simply try his luck on the Internet.
But the opportunity works both ways, as local specialty stores say they are increasingly filling orders for online dealers.
"Two of our biggest customers are ABE (Advanced Book Exchange Inc.) and Barnes & Noble," said Iliad owner Weinstein. "Occasionally, we'll wind up with a new book in our inventory that is out of stock at the warehouse, so they buy from us and mark it up from there."
At Autobooks, Schroeder says he is planning a Web site--which he hopes will expand his market nationally and abroad.
"I didn't want to be like Amazon and lose a lot of money," he said. But ultimately, he determined that a presence on the Internet will help attract more business.