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Fairy Tale Ending Unlikely for Beloved Kids' Bookstore

After 20 years, the Tarzana shop will close its doors unless a buyer is found soon.

August 14, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Attorney Karen Donahoe broke the news to her daughter gently.

By the end of the month, Pages, the Tarzana shop that has kept 9-year-old Kate Donahoe and thousands of other children supplied with books, plans to close its doors.

The news shocked and saddened the Encino third-grader: "How are we going to find books?" Kate wondered aloud. "If you ask them to help you at Barnes & Noble, they don't know who you are or what you like."

Kate started going to Pages long before she could read the books her parents bought for her, just as her two older brothers had. When Kate was in first grade, Donahoe and some friends started a monthly book club for three of their daughters and three of their sons.

"Lots of times I would go in there and ask for recommendations, especially for something both boys and girls would enjoy," Donahoe recalled. "It's a real loss."

Owner Darlene Daniel opened Pages on Ventura Boulevard, near Reseda Boulevard, on Nov. 1, 1983.

A former teacher and reading consultant, Daniel gambled that the community would patronize a store that stocked a wide selection of children's books and was staffed by former teachers and others who loved children's literature and could find the right book for a given child.

Daniel was right. As evidenced by the mailing list for the store's newsletter, more than 12,000 families were regular customers, and its story hours, workshops and author appearances were often standing-room only.

"Now we're seeing young people ... coming in and showing their girlfriends/boyfriends where they had story time," Daniel said, in a voice as hushed and child-friendly as Mr. Rogers'.

As a bookseller, Daniel has been a participant observer in the lives of her customers. Countless parents bought books to prepare their first-borns for the trauma of sharing the universe with a new brother or sister. The staff found books that let struggling readers taste the triumph of finishing a book all by themselves -- easy-to-read books but not so easy that their friends would notice. And avid young readers begged for more books like the one they had just finished.

"I remember how terrible it felt when families came in looking for books on death and, even worse, for books on divorce," Daniel said.

On Friday, the store will begin what she is calling its "end-of-a-chapter sale" of stock and fixtures. It will continue through Aug. 24 or until everything is sold.

The closing of Pages means one fewer independent bookstore, as endangered as any species in America. According to the American Booksellers Assn., the independents' trade organization, independent bookstores in the United States have decreased dramatically in the last decade. Southern California currently has about 100.

Daniel said she wants to spend more time with her year-old granddaughter, Sarah. She plans to continue teaching children's literature at UCLA Extension and to do a host of things that have been neglected while working 60-hour weeks.

For almost a year, she looked for a buyer for the business.

"We've had a good run," she said. "We've had rich experiences with both our customers and the creative community. My only regret is we weren't able to find a person who has a passion for both children's books and being an entrepreneur, with the money to indulge that passion."

Daniel has watched the children's book industry boom during her two decades at Pages, from a $335-million business in 1985 to more than $2 billion today.

But that period also saw the growing clout of chains and discount stores. Superstores are able to cut far better deals with publishers than independents. As longtime Pages bookseller Marjorie Kassorla points out, the big book chains can sell their Harry Potters for less than Pages has to pay for them wholesale.

But in contrast to book supermarkets, Kassorla said, "people know us, and we know them, and there's precious little of that in the world today."

Perhaps because Daniel believes in happy endings, she still holds out hope that a book-loving risk-taker will buy the business.

She points to what happened in March to Once Upon a Time bookstore in Montrose. As Publishers Weekly reported, owner Jane Humphrey wanted to retire after running the store for 36 years and approached more than 40 prospective buyers, to no avail.

Then, 9-year-old Jessica and 7-year-old Amelia Palacios wrote to the local newspaper asking where they were going to get the fifth Harry Potter adventure if their favorite bookstore disappeared. A few days later, Humphrey had a buyer -- the girls' mother, Maureen Palacios.

On Wednesday, Pages featured a bright display for current literary superstar Captain Underpants. But Daniel said her bestseller, year in and year out, has been Margaret Wise Brown's ageless "Goodnight, Moon."

Goodnight, bookstore.

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