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L.A. at Large

Poets, Transvestites and a Pile of Books

Book Soup gives its eclectic clientele something to savor--and a place to chill.


When Glenn Goldman propped open Book Soup's doors 25 years ago at the center of the Sunset Strip, the remnants of the '60s purple haze were on the wane and the Eagles ruled the airwaves.

Head shops and strip joints book-ended his modest shop. Rock clubs like Filthy McNasty's and the Whisky A Go Go thudded through the night. And amid that wall-to-wall, post-psychedelia dissonance, E.L. Doctorow's syncopated look at turn-of-the century America, "Ragtime," was one of Goldman's first bestsellers.

Nowadays, the spirit of the '60s has made a comeback. And so have the Eagles. There's a strip club or two still bumping and grinding along the curve of the strip. But they now co-mingle with a host of tony eateries and spartan boutiques, film and music corporate offices--to all of which Book Soup plays host. As for the store's current bestsellers, there's a sobering sign: "American Rhapsody," screenwriter-turned-novelist Joe Eszterhas' critically slammed attempt to shave the varnish from America.

Within this ever-thickening entertainment industry stew, Book Soup has not only survived--but prospered as one of the city's top bookstores. And Goldman has been lucky--and wise--enough to weather the many personas, whims, trends of not only West Hollywood, but the equally capricious independent bookselling trade.

That's why Goldman--at the time a college student and lofty dreamer and now graying and on the cusp of 50--is slack-jawed at the expanse of the ride.

In the mid-'70s, the Long Beach native was enrolled in UCLA's arts management program and was friendly with an architecture student, David Mackler, who had a similar passion. "We were both lovers of bookstores. We'd talk about it all the time," says Goldman, a flawless bookseller specimen--lace-up oxfords, khakis and a crisp denim shirt with a hastily knotted tie (this one, a field of midnight blue dotted with tiny books).

"I just didn't want to be one of those people who kept boasting about what they wanted to do. I was compelled to act. So we started doing research on where to put the store."

Operating with limited funds--about $50,000--he says, "I really couldn't contemplate a lot of places. There had been a period of upheaval here in the '60s--of thought and ideas--and I felt that the people who lived in the neighborhood would and could really support a bookstore."

Settling on a name, "narrowed down from a list to the least offensive," he admits, Goldman opened the Mackler-designed store with a staff of two--counting himself--and struggled for the rest of the decade and well into the next. "At one point, I lived in the back of the store," he reflects. "Sold some of my belongings. I just didn't want to concede to failure."

As everyone knows, Hollywood is a tough town--full of flashy distractions. But in a certain way, the perpetual jumble and chaos of Sunset Boulevard are what feeds Book Soup's charm and has ultimately helped contribute to its success.

The bustling setting across from Tower Records, along with its well-off music, film industry and tourist clientele, has helped keep Book Soup as quirky and unpredictable as the eclectic mix of torch songs, ska bands and hard bop that filter seamlessly over the sound system. Within its tall, teetering stacks and Escher-like maze of books--which have become the store's unofficial trademarks--Book Soup serves as a one-stop for anything from Zagat restaurant guides and Star Maps to au courant and hard-to-find collectibles such as Helmut Newton's $1500 photo extravaganza, SUMO, sold with its own sleek Philippe Starck stand.


On a busy Friday night, soft-lit and jampacked, the selling floor can deliver the head-rush of an expertly concocted cocktail party: Marlee Matlin browsing the fiction stacks or Nicholas Cage crouched on the hardwood floor leafing through a biography. Scenes from a documentary about beat poet Allen Ginsberg were shot in the store during one of his last signings; Martin Scorsese and his Lincoln Town Car chauffeur (most definitely "GoodFellas" extra material) wiled away a Saturday afternoon chatting and signing books for a line of fans stretching almost two blocks.

In an age of deep-pocket superstores and beleaguered independents, "not all bookstores are able to create a distinct personality," says Gabriel Barillas, a 13-years-in-the-trenches sales representative for HarperCollins. "But I even remember years ago--the first time as a customer I went in to buy a Graham Swift novel. I was knocked out by the architecture, the facade, the curving shelves." That is what has become the store's sturdiest foundation, which would keep him coming back even if he weren't in the business, adds Barillas. Not to mention its "smart and entertaining list of events."

All of which, over the years, has lent itself to some rather theatrical times, Goldman says--like the day when ex-Gov. Jerry Brown came in to the store to shop around. "About five minutes after he left, I caught this transvestite on high heels shoplifting."

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