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No one wants this L.A. classic to end

January 17, 2007|Scott Timberg and Martha Groves | Times Staff Writers

For the Dutton clan, well-respected fixtures of the Los Angeles bookselling world, the last year has been a series of unfortunate events.

Dutton's Books and Art on Laurel Canyon Boulevard closed last spring after almost half a century when Davis Dutton left for Washington state.

Then, at the end of 2006, Dutton's Beverly Hills shut its doors because of a disagreement over finances with the city, which had lured owner Doug Dutton, Davis Dutton's brother, to the site after a long courtship. The closing has been met with outrage by some locals, who have peppered the mayor and City Council with e-mails and letters.

If these changes in the literary landscape are evoking intense emotion in the city's bookish set -- from declarations of devotion to accusations of betrayal -- it's nothing like what could be unleashed if a long-developing plot twist comes to pass: The three-section, nearly 5,000-square-foot Dutton's Brentwood Books may soon succumb to its landlord's plans to redevelop the site, part of a compound on San Vicente Boulevard.

Arguably Los Angeles' signature independent bookshop, the store is a beacon for both prominent authors and passionate readers. A move would indelibly alter the store's identity, many feel. Dutton's, with its irregular layout, ripped carpet and books overflowing their shelves onto old flagstone floors, is considered by many to be not just a city institution but one of the nation's great idiosyncratic bookstores.

What's more, in a neighborhood where median housing prices approach $2 million, neighbors fear the loss of a quirky, laid-back community gathering spot.

But a reckoning between the burgeoning Westside real estate marketplace and this rambling, anachronistic store seems inevitable.

Independent bookstores increasingly owe their existence to landlords who value their presence and are willing to cut sweetheart deals. But as book lovers and other dreamers are finding, sentiment goes only so far.

Even a sweetheart deal wasn't enough to save the Beverly Hills Dutton's store, which met the fate of many other indies when Doug Dutton found he couldn't make even the below-market rent the city had offered and officials would not renegotiate the store's lease.

Tough competition

For other independent booksellers nationwide and in the Southland, it has been a trying time as well. Beyond the high price of real estate in the kinds of neighborhoods able to support bookstores, they have faced tough competition from giant chain bookstores and online bookselling.

Although some, including Vroman's in Pasadena, can still compete, the list of closed or threatened indies seems to grow by the month. Among the latest is Tia Chucha's Cafe & Cultural Center, founded by author Luis Rodriguez in Sylmar, which will be replaced by a laundromat by the end of February. Book Soup's South Coast Plaza store is slated to close at the end of March.

The owner of the Dutton's site is Charles T. Munger, a founder of the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson who partnered in 1978 with Warren E. Buffett to run Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a holding company; Munger's shares are worth $1.7 billion. He had been a partner with his brother-in-law, David Barry, in the San Vicente property but recently bought him out.

Munger, 83, has big plans for the property, which runs from the former Bonner School to Longs drugstore and includes del Mano Gallery and several small businesses and offices.

"It's the ultimate redevelopment site," Munger said, adding, "We've always been straight with Doug and told him the property would be developed in due course. The more time goes by, the closer we are to due course."

Munger, a major donor to the L.A. Philharmonic and other local arts institutions, said he planned an independent, service-oriented bookstore on the ground floor of what he envisions as a mixed-use development, including luxury condos. The space would be much smaller than the warren of rooms and generous courtyard that Dutton's has become over the years. But Munger said he is willing to offer Dutton "ridiculously low rent" -- as he is doing for a new branch of Vroman's in a mixed-use property he is building in Pasadena.

"We'll make a real effort to preserve Doug's store," Munger said. "We want him back. If he's unwilling, we'll get another independent bookstore. One way or another, in any redevelopment, there's going to be a bookstore right there in Doug's location."

Munger would not specify a time frame for the redevelopment, but he noted that the city's approval process is long and can be arduous, especially if there's a community uproar.

'A literary oasis'

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