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Where books were the bond

Before life made itself known to her, Dutton's bookstore was home, and family.

April 03, 2006|Marci Vogel | MARCI VOGEL writes a weekly column in the Culver City News.

DUTTON'S BOOKS in North Hollywood is closing.

It was M. who first told me about Dutton's Books, across the aisle in our high school trig class. He could afford to talk; I couldn't. Besides the fact that I didn't understand a word the teacher said, I had a big crush on M. and my voice couldn't be trusted.

In those days, I lived east, way east, over by Roscoe Boulevard and the In-N-Out Burger. I was beyond the pale, outside the district, going to a good public school under cover of a family friend's address. I was out of Dutton's league, especially with its favorable location at Laurel Canyon and Magnolia. "There's no chance," M. whispered as my pencil scrawled hopeless notes. "Dutton's only hires family."

Several years later, I was just returned from a junior year in Ireland and in need of a summer job. My savvy collegiate peers had snagged internships in their fields, but I was an English major without a foreseeable future.

I donned the uniform of the moment -- overalls and a T-shirt -- and set out to the UCLA career center. Passing Dutton's, I decided to stop and ask if they were hiring.

It was, perhaps, my first significant acceptance when they hired me on the spot. I was not family; I was simply a college kid who loved reading. I had entered the sanctuary, and they had not said no.

That first day I set to work organizing the used hardcovers. It wasn't until almost 4 o'clock that I got up the nerve to ask if I could break for lunch. I worked at Dutton's over the next several summers and Christmas breaks, all through that lonely time of my early 20s when life was waiting to make itself known.

It was the perfect hiding place, with used books, rare books, new books stacked high, a labyrinthine path through three rooms, worn linoleum soft under my feet. We had shelved books by category, of course, but that didn't make them any easier to find. We worked as a team of "intuitives," able to divine single volumes out of the stacks.

Everyone assumes bookstore clerks get a lot of reading done, but I never even got through one poem. Dutton's phone rang nonstop, and we prided ourselves on answering it. If we weren't with a customer or at the register, we'd pick up immediately.

The questions were wide-ranging. Usually the voice at the other end would ask if we had some or another book. But just as often the caller would request a certain date or name of a place -- more often than not about the San Fernando Valley. It was like working in a research library.

Because I was only 20, I frequently had to look up the information, ask a colleague or consult Dave Dutton. Mr. Dutton knew almost everything about anything that ever happened, especially if it happened in the Valley. If the question was a real stumper, he'd take the phone himself. Even if he couldn't answer the question, he enjoyed commiserating with others who wondered about the same things he did.

Sometimes I think people were just lonely and wanted to talk.

Naturally, each of us workers acquired favorite customers and sections. Amy, for example, looked after true crime and the man with the beautiful neck who always browsed art history. I tended dead authors, and one day took it upon myself to weed out New Age from what I regarded as "real" philosophy. I suppose it was my first real act of intellectual confidence -- or arrogance.

Sometimes our customers took care of us. I still cherish a book left for me one day at the front desk; a note tucked inside "Three by Truman Capote" read: "Marci, I remembered that you wanted this book when I bought it. I found another copy so please accept this one. Mark M."

We kept a pot of coffee brewing all day, and KUSC on the radio. I remember one slow Sunday afternoon, hearing for the first time Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." I had to stop working, thinking I would die of sadness.

It's been 20 years since I entered the world outside, but occasionally, I'll meet another Dutton's veteran. It may not be by blood, but there is a bond; we are somehow kin.

And sometimes now I will wake up, the residue of a lovely dream still coursing through my mind: I am surrounded by books and the shop, cozy and kind, with strangers made family by the books surrounding them.

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