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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.

September 15, 2000|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Goldman chased the scofflaw down the block before catching up. "He had stolen about 15 reference books. And was dropping them on the street along the way."

A little sideshow only ups the ante, says poet and on-again-off-again employee Tosh Berman. "The store has always been an interesting mix of rock 'n' roll andHollywood show biz people."

Moreover, because it has a knowledgeable staff and specializes in subjects of interest to its clientele--art, photography, film and literary fiction--it preserves "an old-fashioned, one-on-one book culture," says Berman. "There's something about discovering a new author--not just someone from the year 2000--but someone from the past as well that you wouldn't have if you hadn't seen it on the shelves."

The erudite Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW's literary talk show, "Bookworm," makes the store one of his weekly stops, despite the fact that he receives a small library's worth of reviewers' copies from publishers. "I've discovered things like 'The Mineral Palace,' by Heidi Julavits, just because of the way it stood out here," says Silverblatt, fingering the cover. Today, on this first day of Indian summer, he has rushed out in shorts and a T-shirt to buy a couple of cartons of Winstons and two fresh-off-the-presses copies of the cult lit journal McSweeny's. "They go so fast!"

Afterward, he will make his way next door to Book Soup's annex--an orphanage of publisher's remainders and castoffs. "You cannot fail to mention this!" he says with a finger wag. "They get the best hurt books! The best selection of the city, and they know what they have."

That sort of anachronistic attention to detail is a rarity in an era of mega chains, online shopping and nontraditional competition--from the likes of Starbucks and Costco. But maybe that's why some independents may be getting their second wind. (One study conducted by the American Booksellers Assn. reported this year's revenues are up more than 10% in almost half of more than 1,100 shops surveyed.)

But despite his store's high profile, Goldman doesn't operate as a man who thinks that he has it made. He picks his words as carefully as he picked the Sunset Strip as his locale. He also takes pains in choosing his eclectic 45-member staff (the employment application includes essay questions) and in the look of his store. "The original idea was to surround the person with books," he says.

And when the store moved down the street from two blocksaway in the late '80s to more spacious digs, "I wanted to carry that out again. And, frankly, I was worried."

*

You always have to have the next chapter on your mind, Goldman knows. Not only did he open the annex, but he dabbled with a restaurant next door. Book Soup Bistro closed after a five-year run when the building in which the restaurant was housed was sold to USA Network. Now he has launched a Web site, http://www.booksoup.com, which is due to eventually become part of the growing online independent book-selling network.

Goldman periodically entertains the idea of a second store in Southern California--"one that also reflects the personality of its neighborhood." But right now those thoughts are fleeting.

How could his business get better? "I, of course, think the store was never more perfect than the day I opened, when I hand-selected every title," he laughs. But certain pleasures never dim. Occasionally, he'll find himself behind the counter with a customer: "There's something about the idea of actually pressing a book into someone's hand. Finding exactly what they want and having a personal hand in that."

It boils down to that exchange (not so simple in an era of focus groups and guesstimates), which marks the makings of a modest shopkeeper whose store makes the quite immodest claim to being "bookseller to the great and infamous."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Meet the Authors at Book Signing

Book Soup's 25th anniversary author event and book signing will be held tonight at 7:30 p.m. Authors featured: William Claxton ("Jazz Seen," "Steve McQueen"), Bruce Wagner ("I'm Losing You"), Aimee Bender ("An Invisible Sign of My Own"), Mary Woronov ("Swimming Underground"), Mark Danielewski ("House of Leaves"). Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, (310) 659-3110.

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