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Last Chapter for an Iconic Bookstore

Santa Monica's Midnight Special announces it will soon close for good.

May 09, 2004|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Midnight Special Bookstore was busy Saturday; the clatter of cash registers and store clerks almost drowned out the commotion of people buying books. But it was too late to really matter.

Fifteen months after a rent hike caused the independent bookstore to leave its longtime location on the Santa Monica Promenade, and six months after reopening a block away, owner Margie Ghiz announced Friday "with so much sadness and even much anger" that the store was closing soon, this time for good.

Midnight Special, which began in 1970 as a cooperative in a small space in Venice, grew into an institution that used its storefront to rail against capitalism, war and the political status quo. After its landlord on the Promenade raised the rent, which had long been below market value, to almost $50,000 a month, the bookstore closed for nine months while scouting for a new location and then endured a series of delays in reopening.

In an e-mail to customers, Ghiz wrote that she and her loyal cadre of employees had tried to make the new location, on 2nd Street, work.

"Unfortunately, the delay was too great and our debts grew with the delays," she wrote. " ... Though our sales were steadily growing, it was not fast enough to keep us going until we could sustain ourselves."

The closing of the store, said Lise Friedman, president of the Southern California Booksellers Assn., will be "a real loss to Los Angeles. They were a wonderful bookstore and had such strengths and such insight."

Most shoppers Saturday had received Ghiz's e-mail and had come to honor the store -- and shop for books at 30% off. They expressed little surprise about the news but great regret.

As her husband dropped a stack of books onto the counter, Sherin Wing said she was devastated by the impending loss of a place she called "a center for exploring ideas."

Laura O'Rorke gestured to her choices, which included a work by Octavio Paz in Spanish and a biography of Fidel Castro.

"I can't find books like this at any other place," the Van Nuys resident said. "I can always go online, but I like to see what the books are about."

Monica Morton blamed the store's closing on a national ethos in which small businesses are overtaken by large corporations and chains.

"Our whole country is being run like that," said the Venice resident. "People aren't staying faithful to things that matter. This store gave me hope because you could see other like-minded people, thinkers, here."

Morton was using a gift certificate to buy, among other things, a couple of cookbooks (store personnel said gift certificates would be honored through June 2). Her husband, Rex Butters, and son, Miles Butters, had chosen a book about trucks.

"Why is this place closing?" Miles asked his parents.

It was not an easy question to answer. "It's hard to do business in Santa Monica," his father said.

Store manager Ruben Perez later said the main reason was money: "We're in debt," he said. "Otherwise, there would be no reason for closing."

The going-out-of-business sale, he said, felt "like deja vu all over again." All store events after June 2 have been canceled.

The last time the store closed, Perez, who has been with Midnight Special for 11 years, went on unemployment to wait it out. This time, he said, "I'll look for a job."

But not in the book business. He said he'd never find another place like Midnight Special.

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