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Read, re-read, then it's history

Other Times had one asset that no other used bookstore could match: its owner. His health, and the changing times, write its final chapter.

July 10, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Among all the possible reasons people have for shuttering bookstores these days, slipping into a diabetic coma does not come up terribly often. Andrew Dowdy, owner of Other Times Books, was about as invulnerable as anyone could be in this storm-tossed trade: Here was a guy who could make his rent, who didn't worry about Amazon, who offered something that Barnes & Noble never could.

Still, when he was awakened by his landlord after four days and nights passed out on his apartment floor, he realized, as his faculties gradually returned at a UCLA hospital, that it was time to hang it up. Business was fine; he could easily have kept going. But Dowdy, 70, decided that his ownership of Other Times, a beloved if somewhat obscure used bookstore on a not-yet gentrified stretch of Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, would become a thing of the past. In a sense, as its name implied, it always was.

"It's sort of a '60s ideal," said Dowdy -- who comes across like the kind of easygoing, talkative autodidact one meets in college towns -- standing in front of his locked store last month while a friend retrieved the key. "The eccentric, single-owned used bookstore

Indeed, while there has lately been some qualified good news for indies in general -- with Dutton's Brentwood Books reaching an agreement with its landlord that will allow the store to remain in its current location, and even a few new players opening, such as Metropolis Books in downtown L.A. -- used bookstores are vulnerable. The Oriental Book Shop in Pasadena, which offered a wide range of Asian titles, has recently closed due to a rental dispute, and Book Baron, a 20,000-square-foot mainstay in Anaheim, will close this summer because of high rent and competition from the Internet.

When his friend opened the door, Dowdy -- who'd seemed perfectly stable -- casually mentioned that he would have collapsed if he'd had to stand on Pico one more minute. He was, after all, only a few days out of the hospital. His landlady found him at the end of the fourth day. "On the fifth day," he says now, "you can have renal failure and brain damage. And on the sixth day, you won't care."

It's a strange tale, but what makes the passing of Other Times noteworthy is the store and its stock -- heavy on film books but with a lot of literary fiction and old New Yorker writers -- which is being sold to Powell's in Portland, Ore., over the next week or so. It was certainly not the space itself, that kind of classic used bookstore with fluorescent lights, a perpetually broken bathroom and several different types of flooring, all of them dirty. Still, Other Times was a kind of secret spot for L.A. literati.

"I don't know if I can recall another shop where I truly thought things were priced reasonably all the time," said magician, actor and book collector Ricky Jay, who found tomes on early 20th century mining stock swindles in Nevada and male impersonators in battle. "He had a very good knowledge of circuses, carnivals and striptease, all fields I have a real interest in."

Taylor Bowie, a veteran antiquarian bookseller in Seattle, was constantly amazed at what showed up at Other Times. "At a used bookstore," he said, "you often think, 'It's the same stuff I saw two weeks ago, or the same stuff as six months ago.' Not at Andy's.

"You would find books inscribed by Hollywood or Los Angeles figures to others; directors to actors, that kind of thing," said Bowie, who once found a book inscribed by Cecil B. DeMille. "And he priced them very modestly."

The main attraction

When people talk about what they liked about the shop, they keep coming back to Dowdy himself.

Dowdy, a native of Detroit who came to California as a boy, founded Other Times in December 1974 because, he said, of a literary career he'd imagined for himself that never took off. (He wrote the now out-of-print novel "Never Take a Short Price," set at a California racetrack, as well as "Movies Are Better Than Ever," a social history of '50s film.)

"I like to have uncommon but important books in their field, moderately priced."

The stretch of Pico where he set the store was a bit out of the way then and remains about the same now: It offers a vacuum cleaner store, a McDonald's and a teriyaki restaurant that Dowdy said "is never open." Though it's only a few blocks away, the middlebrow chain-store glitz of Westside Pavilion does not stretch down the street.

Despite the Westside real estate boom, the neighborhood, he said, is "the land that time forgot."

But the store became a lively spot many days of the week. "Saturdays were like a wonderful zoo," recalled Bowie. "People coming to sell books, to buy books; other people there to yammer."

Dowdy said what he'd miss most was "every day, new eccentric people to talk to. People who had an interest not shared by a significant other or friends felt like they could come here and have someone to talk to. If they couldn't find anybody else, they could talk to me."

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