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'The End': Epitaph for a Landmark

As Hollywood revels in new vitality, venerable Book City prepares to close. A petition drive helped save it once, but times are tougher now.

October 04, 2005|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

The longest going-out-of-business sale on Hollywood Boulevard is ending. Book City Collectibles, the once-cavernous landmark beloved by neighborhood book junkies and film buffs for 32 years, is finally leaving.

Probably.

When the sign announcing Book City's closure went up in the front window four years ago, area bibliophiles panicked. Ten thousand people signed a petition declaring its importance to the neighborhood. Then, somehow, owner Alan Siegel, 76, never left.

"I'm a guy who's a slow mover," Siegel explained. A slim man in suspenders and a baseball cap, Siegel spoke in front of the store's towering bookshelves still comfortably loaded with 50,000 volumes.

Book City's protracted moving sale coincided with complicated negotiations with the building's landlord, CIM Group. The rent had been reduced to $1,000 a month for more than a year -- the same amount Siegel paid in 1973 -- to help the store stay open. But business was too slow even for that amount, Siegel said.

Last week CIM, which also owns the Hollywood & Highland retail complex, filed suit seeking $12,000 in back rent.

Now Siegel and his son Mitch, who manages the store at 6627 Hollywood Blvd., say they really mean it this time.

"I can't tell you how much I hate to go," Alan Siegel said.

Hollywood boosters say Book City had the misfortune to be in a good location at a bad time. The boulevard is on its way back to being one of the city's great destinations instead of one of the city's great disappointments.

"It's a truism in revitalization that retail will churn out as residential moves in," said Kerri Morrison of the Hollywood Entertainment District. Then, in the cycle of revitalization, she said, "the customers have to come to an area first, and then retail will follow."

Within five years, the community will see New York-style residential density, said Leron Gubler of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. At least 2,500 housing units are planned or under construction between Gower Street and La Brea Avenue, south of Franklin Avenue.

Old Hollywood Boulevard, the gracious promenade of movie stars, will never come back. But Gubler predicted the new Hollywood Boulevard will become Southern California's Main Street. In that near future, a bookstore might fit in perfectly, he said, but not now.

"We are creating the Hollywood that never was, a vibrant urban district with a lot of energy and entertainment," Gubler said. "The [irony] is that what you want in a downtown like Hollywood are unique local businesses, like Book City."

CIM co-founder Shaul Kuba said that because the Siegel family could not make the upgrades needed for Book City to survive during the boulevard's metamorphosis, it was time for them to leave.

"We love them; they are good people," Kuba said. "We've been giving them free space, trying to let them get on their feet and use that rent abatement to invest money in the business to be able to position the store with the younger crowd that comes to Hollywood."

Young people do swarm to Book City's front door; they just don't go in. The shop is sandwiched between two of the city's hottest nightspots, Geisha House and Mood. By dusk the paparazzi loiter in Book City's doorway, lying in wait for Lindsay Lohan or maybe Ashton Kutcher.

But Book City's allure is also its flaw. The old-fashioned shop's attractions are the friendly Siegels and their collection of volumes and memorabilia -- not comfortable seats and lattes or flashy displays that invite people to linger and buy.

When Book City opened in 1973, movie stars actually shopped Hollywood Boulevard. Frank Sinatra lunched nearby, and Carol Burnett would stop in to browse.

"God, this street was beautiful back then," said Robert Hamilton, 75, a longtime customer.

The store is smaller than it once was. The eastern annex, once devoted to classics, now is part of the nightclub next door. Harsh white fluorescent lighting illuminates the stacks, their white paint scuffed off by years of wear from books being shelved and removed. There is no place to nestle down, because the point here is the hunt.

At Book City you might find an autographed script of "Gone with the Wind" or a framed sample of Buddy Holly's homework. Roy Orbison cassettes sit near $5 Bibles.

Where ordinary bookshops stick with sections such as the arts, history or religion, Book City offers shelves for bullfighting, the circus and tattooing.

"This business used to be so much fun," Alan Siegel said. "We'd bring things back to the store from all over the country."

New entrepreneurs are taking a chance on the boulevard's future.

John Hooper and his brother Stephen opened Scooby's Hot Dogs two years ago. In a polite punk-rock atmosphere, they serve up 200 meals a day in their 300-square-foot restaurant. They chose the boulevard, John said, because of the projected residential growth. They concentrated on products they hoped would appeal to locals as well as tourists: hot dogs, French fries, lemonade and sodas.

"One of our big problems historically is there hasn't been a lot of normal retail on Hollywood Boulevard, so there's no reason for a local person to visit," Hooper said. "I mean, how many pairs of six-inch heels do you need?"

Drawn by the boulevard's powerful name recognition, Iguana Vintage Clothing of Sherman Oaks opened a 14,000-square-foot store a few blocks from Book City last year.

"We still do think in the near future Hollywood will come back to its glory," store manager Eric Cohn said.

With the end in sight, Mitch Siegel said he is eyeing a location downtown, which is having its own residential boom.

Wherever they go, Kuba would like the Siegels to leave as soon as they can. And in the shop's place?

"We would love to see a bookstore," Kuba said. "I'm very passionate about bookstores."

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