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New Owners Continue Story for 2 Longtime Bookstores

April 27, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They're turning a new page on an old rivalry between competing used-book stores in West Los Angeles.

Eighty-one-year-old Gene de Chene is quitting his 34-year-old book business May 1. Five days later and five blocks away, Ken Hyre, 78, is leaving the bookshop he opened 43 years ago.

But both men are selling their stores and shelves crammed with thousands of titles to people who first wandered in for different reasons and became proprietors purely by accident.

It's a lucky turn of events, say book lovers. Not only is it keeping a friendly competition going, but it is also keeping the used-book business alive in a part of town that once was Los Angeles' most thriving literary center.

Hyre is selling his shop to an artist who first came in to sell his own book collection in preparation for a move out of the country. De Chene is selling his to an actress who first stepped into his store at the invitation of a friend.

Both booksellers have carefully prepared their shops' new owners for the idiosyncrasies both of book lovers and of the out-of-print volumes that customers covet.

"I'm a great believer in fate," said Brian Paeper, who is taking over Hyre's West Los Angeles Book Center at 1650 S. Sawtelle Blvd. "I've never been in business before. But I realize the value of this store. I realize its importance to its customers."

Samantha Scully, who is acquiring Gene de Chene Booksellers at 11556 Santa Monica Blvd., said she has continuity in mind too. "I'm keeping the store's name. I'm not going to change things. I want to continue what he has done."

That's good news for Westside book lovers who have worried that the shops might disappear when their owners retired.

"I knew he was getting older. I'm very glad," said Jim Rippner, a 50-year-old wine salesman who first began shopping for comic books in Hyre's shop when he was 8. "There are so few independent bookstores left. That store is sort of a landmark as far as I'm concerned."

Hyre had been in data processing when he opened his shop in 1959 with a small collection of used books he had scrounged up at rummage sales.

"I'm more of a reader than a collector," he said. "So I'm very happy the business is going to continue. Most times shops like this just fold when the owner retires. I would have sold the books and shelving and rented the building out if Brian hadn't come along."

Paeper, 38, of West Hollywood was an artist planning to relocate to Berlin when he stopped in Hyre's shop three years ago to sell books. He and Hyre were chatting about the effect of the Internet on the book business when Paeper suggested that a Web site might help sell books on Southern California subjects to out-of-towners.

Hyre asked if Paeper could help him set up such a site, and Paeper agreed to delay his departure for Germany. Soon, though, Hyre was teaching him about the used-book business. Later, when Hyre talked of retiring, he offered to sell his 40,000 volumes to Paeper and help him with the transition. The artist decided to take the plunge.

Scully, 34, of West Los Angeles says her initial association with De Chene also came by chance. She was an unhappy television and commercial actress eight years ago when a friend who was working at the time in De Chene's shop offered to help her find a new job.

Longtime bookstore clerk Adrienne Eisen was planning to quit the bookstore so she could write a novel. She volunteered to secretly teach Scully the book trade. "She basically trained me behind Gene's back, so that when she told Gene she was leaving, there was somebody ready to take her place," Scully said.

"I felt comfortable working here immediately. I've never wanted to leave," Scully said of the storefront crammed with 35,000 titles.

Scully feared the shop would close if De Chene retired without a buyer. And if it was sold to an outsider, "I was afraid they'd change it--I didn't want to see this store changed," she said.

In recent years, De Chene talked of Scully eventually taking over the store. But Scully waved him off until earlier this year, when it came time for De Chene to renew his lease. "He told me to sign it because he wasn't going to," she said with a laugh.

De Chene started his bookstore after being laid off as a bank escrow officer. Ironically, he was browsing in Hyre's shop in early 1968 when he decided that he, too, wanted to sell used books. He started out with 400 books acquired "from a guy who had planned to start his own used-book store but never did," De Chene said.

Terms of the sales of the two shops are being kept private. But both buyers credit the retiring owners with making their acquisitions possible. "Gene made it easy for me to buy," Scully said. "Ken made it possible for me to be able to do it," Paeper said.

Over the years, the two shops have been friendly competitors, often referring customers searching for specific books to the rival store. In the early days, Hyre even helped De Chene with questions about book prices.

These days the shops are the closest general-interest independent bookstores to Westwood, which was considered the center of bookselling in Los Angeles until rocketing rents began driving independent bookstores out of business in the mid-1970s. Westwood Village alone had 10 bookstores at its peak, according to Steve Sann, a Westwood real estate consultant.

This weekend, at least, Westwood will once again be the center of attention for many book lovers. The annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books will be held today and Sunday at the UCLA campus.

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