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California and the West

Door Closes on a Literary Tradition in San Diego

Reading: Bookstore that offered the eclectic and avant-garde for 40 years falls victim to changing times.


SAN DIEGO — It was scheduled as a poetry reading, but it doubled as a requiem for a soon-to-be-departed friend: Blue Door Bookstore, which for 40 years provided highbrow literature and avant-garde politics to a city suspicious of both.

"If the Blue Door has to close, I want to be here to say goodbye," said local poet Ruth Anderson Barnett. "I am extremely grief-stricken."

So it went Sunday night in the tiny store on 5th Avenue in Hillcrest, a bohemian-gay-literati area near downtown. At night's end, Blue Door closed forever; a boutique-style clothing store will take its place.

"I'm trying not to think about it," said Blue Door owner Patti DeYoung. "I'll cry tomorrow, when I donate the books to the library."

The reasons for the closure were those often cited by independent booksellers calling it quits: competition from chain stores, the high cost of books and a lack of parking. Add a California component--rising utility costs--and Blue Door could no longer meet the rent.

"It's so sad," said Terry Hertzler, Qualcomm marketing employee, Vietnam veteran and poet, as he bought a copy of "The Dumbbell Nebula" by local poet Steve Kowit. "It's just another sign that the big corporations are taking over."

Michael Nieman, car salesman and poet, called the closure "one more step toward the complete mall-ization of San Diego--another stripping away of every aspect of urban culture."

In a Barnes & Noble world, Blue Door sought to emulate one of the most famous of the independently owned, literary-minded bookstores: City Lights in San Francisco, owned and operated by Beat Generation poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The Beats never lost favor at Blue Door. When Ferlinghetti wrote a poem memorializing Allen Ginsberg after his 1997 death, he provided a signed copy to Blue Door's then-owner, Tom Stoup.

"He didn't send it to Barnes & Noble," Stoup told a local reporter triumphantly. "He sent it to me."

If your tastes run to Sufi poets, the latest Susan Sontag, radical ecology, a revisionist history of Fidel Castro or X-rated magazines (portraying only adults, sold only to adults), Blue Door was for you.

Name the social movement--anti-war, gay rights, neighborhood revitalization--and Blue Door was its Mecca.

When literary lions in New York were debating how to react to the death sentence imposed on Salman Rushdie in 1989 by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, Blue Door did not hesitate. A public reading of Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" was organized in a show of solidarity with the writer in hiding.

DeYoung bought the store from Stoup a year ago after moving to San Diego from Kentucky, where she had run writing programs for the University of Kentucky and the YMCA. Stoup, a former high school teacher, had purchased the store in 1988 from the widow of founder William Peccolo, a bibliophile and spy novelist.

For the final weekend, everything was marked to sell: books, furniture, the cash register that never rang enough, even the sign that beckoned, "Dogs & Coffee Welcome."

"Blue Door was for people who loved literature and loved being surprised at what you'd find on the shelves," said Jim Wilkinson, a jazz musician, as he thumbed through a Noam Chomsky tome and a slight book of West Indian verse. "At Crown, books are a commodity. Here, they're a passion."

Three used-book stores remain on 5th Avenue. As a seller of new books, Blue Door was seen as complementary, not competitive, with Bluestocking, Bountiful Books and Fifth Avenue Books.

"When one store leaves, it hurts us all," said Fifth Avenue owner Robert Schrader.

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