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Midnight Special Bidding the Promenade Farewell

Institution: Patrons lament the bookstore's planned move from the Third Street district.

July 11, 2002|GARIOT LOUIMA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a little more than two decades, Midnight Special Bookstore has achieved the status of a cultural institution in Santa Monica. So its many patrons were saddened and surprised as word spread this week that the store is leaving the Third Street Promenade.

At Midnight Special, bestsellers include titles such as Noam Chomsky's "9-11," Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto" and copies of the U.S. Constitution.

Poets gather in the store's community room every Friday for open-mike nights. And local activists hold screenings of independent films and controversial documentaries.

The store's owner, Margie Ghiz, said she's been getting calls and e-mails from customers since she made the announcement last week. On Wednesday morning, customers were stopping into the store to express their disappointment.

"I'm so sad that it's leaving," said Julie Hetherington, 65, of Laguna Niguel.

Ghiz, 62, smiled and nodded her head. "Thanks for the support," she said.

"I really hope you all stay in Santa Monica," said Hetherington's shopping companion, Mary Kay Howie, 62, also of Laguna Niguel.

"I don't know if I can control that," Ghiz said. "I only have so many options."

Santa Monica, a town long known for its liberal politics, will lose a piece of its character when the store moves later this year, Mayor Michael Feinstein said.

After a decade of paying reduced rent, the store owner is being asked to leave the 5,000-square-foot shop in the heart of Santa Monica's busy downtown pedestrian mall so the landlord can bring in a tenant who can afford to pay more.

"This is a devastating loss of a unique cultural institution," Feinstein said Tuesday. "This is one of the best political and countercultural bookstores anywhere. Simply having this store here brings people [to Santa Monica] who like to read and enjoy the free exchange of ideas."

Sandee Mirell, a regular patron from Manhattan Beach, heard the news when she stopped at the bookstore during her lunch break Tuesday.

"It's important that we have this bookstore here," said Mirell, 59, sitting on a footstool while flipping through a copy of Bell Hooks' "All About Love."

The Promenade "has nothing for people my age," she said as teenage girls, often with boyfriends in tow, walked down the Promenade. "Everything else here looks about the same. This is the only place where you can find diversity."

Mirell said she wouldn't visit the Promenade if she didn't work as a professional development consultant for one of its tenants. Many times during her lunch break, she said, she stops at Midnight Special, browses the shelves for new titles and settles down on the hardwood floors in the narrow aisles.

Another patron, recording engineer Jamie Lusk, said, "The national chains are all over the place. [Midnight Special] adds a political perspective."

Ghiz announced Friday in an e-mail to her customers and a network of independent bookstore owners throughout Southern California that after 10 years at its present location, Midnight Special would have to move.

Since the store opened, landlord Walter Marks Jr. has subsidized the rent, even paying for renovations to the facade and installing ceiling-high bookshelves.

But earlier this year, Marks and his family, who also own seven other properties throughout the county, decided they no longer could afford to subsidize the shop.

The family, which makes up Walter N. Marks Inc., needed to cover the debt it accumulated after renovating the 100,000-square-foot Helms Bakery building in Culver City, Marks said.

Last week, Marks met with Ghiz and told her of the company's decision: They would raise her rent to match the current market value of about $10 per square foot. Ghiz said she previously had been paying about 20% to 25% of market value.

The store has not been given a deadline to move, but Ghiz hopes to be out by the end of the year.

The bookstore won't be the only independent outlet to leave the Promenade. Over the years, several family-owned coffeehouses that once lined the shopping center have been forced to close or move.

A few businesses not connected to national chains carry on, such as Hennessey & Ingalls, an independent bookstore that specializes in art and architecture.

"You're always questioning whether it is worth it to pay a premium to be in the Promenade," said the store's manager, Douglas Woods.

Mayor Feinstein noted that the Aero Theater, an independent one-screen movie house minutes from the Promenade, competes with several multiplexes in the immediate area.

"I think despite the challenges we're facing, our community does a very good job of fighting to maintain its uniqueness and its diversity," Feinstein said. "I don't think we've lost everything. But each piece that leaves hurts."

As for Midnight Special, Feinstein said city officials are working with the Bayside District Corp.--a city-funded nonprofit that manages the Promenade--to find a new location for the store.

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