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Bookstore still motoring

Autobooks-Aerobooks has thrived on its loyal following of car and plane enthusiasts. Its new owners plan to keep a good thing going.

July 11, 2007|Andrea Chang | Times Staff Writer

Small, independent bookstores have withered before the onslaught of the likes of Barnes & Noble Inc., Borders Group Inc. and online retailer Amazon.com.

But not Autobooks-Aerobooks.

Since 1951, the Burbank retailer of automotive and aerospace books and merchandise has relied on an unusual collection of products and a unique mix of customers to keep rolling in the shadow of giant competitors.

Autobooks-Aerobooks features a wide selection of books, models and memorabilia geared to enthusiasts of cars and planes; motoring aficionados believe it to be the oldest and largest store of its kind. The store has drawn a loyal clientele that includes celebrities Nicolas Cage, Tim Allen and Jay Leno, a regular who has his own reserved spot in the front of the store.

"I used to ride my bike over here in the late '60s," said Jay Penton, 47, a real estate investor who grew up in Burbank. "It's amazing, it doesn't change a whole lot."

Although Penton now lives in Vancouver, Canada, he has family in the Burbank area and makes a stop by the bookstore "every time I'm in L.A."

"It's comfortable. It's like going home," he said.

Chet Knox loved the store so much that he bought it six years ago. But recently, Knox made his wife a deal: When he turned 80, he would sell his bookstore and retire.

Knox's milestone birthday came and went in early March, and still the former vintage car racer showed up for work every day. Knox wanted to ensure his beloved store, with its model airplane display, old-fashioned candy machine and checkered racing flags, was turned over to the right person -- someone who would maintain its old-fashioned charm and not turn it into the next carbon-copy chain bookstore.

Knox finally found his successors in husband-and-wife team Chuck Forward and Tina Van Curen, whose background -- Forward works as an aerospace hydraulics engineer and Van Curen is a former racer whose father built hot rods -- seemed well-suited for the store's dual nature.

In June, Knox sold Autobooks-Aerobooks for $350,000, he said.

"I wasn't crazy about leaving it, but I promised my wife," Knox said. Although he figures he could have sold the business for a higher price, "at 80, I decided the time was worth more than the money."

So did the new owners.

"It serves a niche market that the big chain stores will not be able to cover in such depth," Forward said. "If you're looking for something that's eclectic, eccentric or that you think doesn't exist anywhere else concerning the automotive world, chances are we have something on it."

Forward and Van Curen officially assumed ownership of Autobooks-Aerobooks this month. It is the first ownership venture for the Altadena couple, but they said their job was easy: They'd like to carry on Knox's work, making only a few slight changes to a store they have been coming to for more than two decades.

"People are always a little apprehensive when a business they like changes hands. There's always the possibility that it's going to be completely different," said Van Curen, who formerly managed e-commerce websites. "But people come in and find out that things are going to be like they always were."

Van Curen said they hoped to expand the store's selection to include books on model trains as well as a children's section. She'd also like to utilize her background in e-commerce by making products available online at the store's website.

But they know the success of the online store will always be secondary to the in-store experience. Although the store carries about 7,000 used and new titles, many customers say it's the other patrons, not the inventory, that keep them coming back year after year to the place they simply call "The Bookstore."

"The customers are what really make the store," Van Curen said. "All we have to do is be here, really."

Since its opening in 1951 by mechanical engineer and racer Harry Morrow, Autobooks-Aerobooks has changed hands several times but has always been in the Magnolia Park area in one form or another.

The store has thrived on its loyal following of car and plane enthusiasts. Many regulars have gone to the store for decades and see it as a place to gather -- usually around the checkout counter or in between the rows of books -- and discuss the newest title or latest car model. They said the bookstore had stayed the same through the years, and that's the way they like it.

Automotive aficionado Leno frequents the store once a week, even inviting other patrons to his Burbank garage to check out his fleet of more than 100 cars. The host of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" doesn't like online book shopping because he's one of those people who "actually like to pick something up, hold it in their hands before buying it," he said.

"When you come from a small town like I did, the bookstore is always a great gathering place," Leno said. "So I try to do what I can to encourage it."

The late-night comic has been a customer at Autobooks-Aerobooks for more than 25 years and said he bought two to three books a week.

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