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Muir Dawson, 83; Second-Generation Partner in L.A.'s Oldest Bookshop

Obituaries

February 24, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Muir Dawson, one in a line of Dawsons who ran Los Angeles' oldest continuously operating bookstore, has died. He was 83.

Dawson, who oversaw the Dawson's Book Shop for more than 50 years, died Monday night in his Silver Lake home of heart failure, said his son, Michael, who owns and operates the shop now located on Larchmont Boulevard.

A partner in the bookstore since 1947, Muir Dawson specialized in rare books on the history of printing. He also led several projects in the Dawson family's publishing business. Between 1906 and 2003, Dawson's Book Shop published 383 projects.

"It is questionable if publishing by booksellers at present is a moneymaking activity, but it certainly is fun," Dawson wrote recently in an essay on his life in the book trade due for publication later this year to mark the store's centennial.

The shop is known for its rare books on California history, Western Americana and more recently, photography.

Dawson, who retired in 1995, worked many years in partnership with Glen, his older brother. Glen Dawson became a partner in 1936 and retired in 1992. It was the brothers who moved the shop to its current Larchmont Village address in 1968 after four downtown Los Angeles locations

A cultural crossroads for the city for almost a century, the shop was opened on South Broadway by their father, Ernest, in April 1905. Along with Jake Zeitlin and Harry Levinson, Ernest Dawson has been credited with putting Los Angeles on an equal footing with New York and Chicago in the antiquarian book market.

Tragic events directed the bookshop toward its specialty of California and Western books a year after it opened -- the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which destroyed most of the state's rare books. Seeing an opportunity, Ernest Dawson bought all the old California books he could locate and sold them to the barren libraries, bookstores and collectors at considerable profit. Ernest Dawson published the city's first catalog of rare books in 1907. Four years later, he made his first buying trip to London and Rome with $300. He shipped home dozens of books in crates.

"This business was built on buying cheap in London and selling cheap in Los Angeles," Muir Dawson told The Times decades later.

The bookshop also became known for its catalogs, indexed for years at the UCLA Powell Library and considered a valuable tool for bibliographers and librarians. The Dawson brothers were credited with helping UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell build the university's Special Collections after World War II.

Born in Los Angeles, Dawson was the fourth child of Ernest and Sadie Dawson.

A champion skier, Dawson took first place in the 1940 Mt. San Antonio and Sun Valley racing championships sponsored by the Ski Mountaineers of the Sierra Club. During World War II, he served with the Army mountain artillery battalion teaching soldiers to ski.

After a course in printing at Scripps College while completing his degree at Pomona College in 1949, Muir Dawson began building the shop's inventory of books devoted to fine printing and book art. Intrigued with the work of early 19th century British wood engraver Thomas Bewick, he gradually added woodblocks and other artifacts of printing history, as well as graphic art from Japan.

Unlike their father, who was more of a merchandiser than a book lover, the two brothers kept a cache of books in a backroom of the shop that they could not part with. "Because we love them!" Muir Dawson told The Times in 1984. Both brothers have maintained their own collections in their homes.

"Father said a bookseller shouldn't be a book collector because it competes with the customers," Muir Dawson said. "But we think he meant they shouldn't be big collectors. I think that if a seller isn't collecting, there's something dead in him. You've got to have the passion for books."

Muir Dawson was a former local and national president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Assn. of America and former president of the Book Club of California.

In addition to his son, Michael, Dawson is survived by his wife of 57 years, Agnes; his brother, Glen; sisters Fern Dawson Shochat and June Dawson McKeon; and a grandson.

A memorial service is planned for April in connection with Dawson's centennial.

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