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Bookstore Turning a Page

Appreciation* Midnight Special, a cultural crossroads, must move. Regulars tell what makes the establishment special.

July 12, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Margie Ghiz has always been quick to run the reality check; to work to keep things in perspective. So the pep talk she gave her staff just the other morning at Midnight Special Bookstore, only days after the store announced it would be forced to move from its Third Street Promenade location, was one she had already given herself--more than once over the last few days.

Moments before starting their business day, Ghiz informally corrals the early shift staff and lays it out for them: "OK, guys, I was looking through the paper this morning and lots of people died. We just have to keep what's happening to us in perspective. While all this craziness is going on everywhere else, we've got to remember what our purpose is in the first place. That will keep us focused."

From spontaneous mosh pit to political megaphone, Midnight Special has been an organic bulletin board of sorts. Known as much for its progressive politics as its far-reaching community service, Midnight Special has long been an advocate and an anchor--a humming community nexus when the notion of community has become increasingly difficult to define.

Like many an independent bookseller who has weathered shifts in both tastes and economics, Ghiz has war stories to tell: Moves. The chains. The mega-chains. The Internet. "But this one makes me sad," she says, sinking into her desk chair in her small book- and snapshot-lined office.

For the last 10 of its 30 years in existence, Midnight Special has ruptured, rallied and reinvented itself in this Santa Monica location, under the sturdy hand of Ghiz, her sister, Geri Silva, and their informed and opinionated staff members. But this has been the hardest blow. Just about two weeks ago, Ghiz was given notice by her landlord, Walter N. Marks Inc., that due to rising costs the store, which had been paying a reduced rent, must either pay the full cost or vacate. And, now, instead of political slogans, rhetorical questions, koans, flags or impressionistic tombstones lining the store's huge picture window, a simple open letter informs all who walk by of its imminent departure.

Since word leaked out early this week, the phone has been ringing nonstop. Ghiz's e-mail box is full of sympathy notes, advice, leads and questions. "It's shocking but not surprising," says James Fugate, co-owner of the independent EsoWon Books. "And in this economic environment, you have no idea how much it worries me. I have to work up [the nerve] to call her."

"The funny thing," cracks Ghiz, her spirit lightening somewhat, "many people are ... also saying, well, gee, at least you'll be getting out of the Promenade."

Dory Dutton, an independent publisher's representative and part of the Southern California bookselling Dutton dynasty, has heard that quip, but she is feeling guarded about making light just yet. "My worry is that she will not find a place adequate for what her vision is. I don't know how she can take a step backward," says Dutton.

A High-Profile Stage

That Midnight Special is facing an uncertain future points to something gone askew--if not in the culture, within our thinking, says Dutton. "We will spend a little bit more to shop and buy our groceries at Gelson's or buy the best coffee. With books, people have to start thinking the same way. She's one of the last independents left on the Promenade and the ... playing field isn't level."

Despite its incongruity, for better or worse, the Third Street Promenade has offered Ghiz a high-profile stage for a multidiscipline sort of street theater. Tourists, residents, merchants could always be inspired or incensed by what provocative material Ghiz and her staff might post in their windows, what world event they might decide to deconstruct, what panel she might convene. "I could put any idea out there. I never held back. And more important, it worked."

After Sept. 11, Ghiz recalls, a customer drove in from Silver Lake. Confused, rattled, he didn't know what he was looking for, "just wanted to talk," but knew he might find it there. "People just kept coming in ... looking for books on Islam. On the Middle East. We already had them. Oftentimes, you worry, 'Are we just preaching to the choir?' But there are times, we've realized, we've reached much further than that."

One is probably, indeed, more apt to find the already converted perusing the shelves--activist/actor Tim Robbins or politician Tom Hayden and urban historian Mike Davis are counted among the regulars. But sometimes, says Ghiz, she encounters the unexpected. "I can't tell you how surprised I was to see Richard Riordan in here. That's when the Robbie Conal poster [targeting Riordan]--'Tunnel Vision'--was up. And he even came back!"

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