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L.A. THEN AND NOW

San Pedro bookstore's centennial speaks volumes

January 11, 2009|Catherine Ho

It's where Navy men, poets and English actors once rubbed elbows; where an 8-year-old girl spent her Depression-era allowance on paperbacks; and where a Welshman started his life in America near the turn of the 20th century, on a street of bars and brothels.

Williams' Book Store turns 100 this month, and with the landmark birthday owners and patrons are celebrating a century of memories as varied as the books on the green wooden shelves that line the downtown San Pedro institution.

E.T. Williams, who ran a used bookstore in his native Wales, founded the business in 1909 on Beacon Street near the Long Beach Harbor. Two world wars and 17 presidents later, Williams' is the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the Los Angeles area.

The business bounced around several locations in San Pedro as E.T. Williams scouted for cheap rent space, and has been at its current 1,400-square-foot location on 6th Street since 1988. Today, it's managing to outlast the chain retailers and the surge of online book-buying that's put a slew of independent booksellers out of business, including Dutton's Brentwood Books last year and the Orange County branch of Book Soup in 2007.

"It's been hard," said Anne Gusha, 89, who owns the store with her son Jerry Gusha, 56.

Anne and Jerry bought the business in 1980 from Williams' daughter, Ethel Williams-Smith, for about $25,000.

Their annual revenue averages between $180,000 and $200,000. Their peak business was 10 years ago, when they brought in $240,000, Jerry Gusha said.

"Some days we have good days, and some days we wonder if we're going to make it," Anne Gusha said. "I love books and I'd like books to stay forever, but unfortunately that's not the way it's going."

At a time when even large chains like Borders are reporting losses, Williams' is surviving by hanging onto a loyal customer base, stocking books on San Pedro history, and inviting Los Angeles-area authors like Lisa See and Ray Bradbury for appear- ances and signings.

And reflecting the demographics of San Pedro, the store also has an extensive collection of comics and Croatian and Italian newspapers, alongside mainstays like CliffsNotes, test prep books and bestsellers.

"One customer would go to Barnes & Noble, call us from their cellphone and ask us to order that book for them," Gusha said. "We try really hard to find books for people and look for out-of-print books for them."

Then there are the quirky personal touches, like offering dog treats to customers who bring their canines in tow. There's the 60-year-old cash register that the staff has had to hand-crank since it broke 1 1/2 years ago. And the time when Jerry's son, Jeremiah Gusha -- then a chef-in-training -- whipped up butterbeer to serve patrons lined up to buy "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

Anne Gusha first walked into Williams' Bookstore when she was 8, heading straight for "The Curlytops" series with her weekly 50-cents allowance. E.T. Williams would often scold her for "not reading the right books," she said. "He told me I should read more classics."

Her childhood fondness for romance and adventure novels nurtured a lifelong love affair with books; she later studied literature at Los Angeles Harbor College, and these days reads at least five books a week.

She has worked in some capacity at the bookstore for seven decades.

Beneath a desk cluttered with maps, handwritten receipts and a photo of her great-granddaughter, Anne Gusha keeps cardboard boxes of newspaper clippings, black and white snapshots of the store through the years, and a 1914 advertisement hawking cloth-bound books for 35 cents.

She's tucked away a seemingly endless supply of tales from her years at the helm: English movie star Charles Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester, used to frequent the store and help customers. Charles Bukowski, the eccentric Los Angeles-based poet whose works have long been sold at Williams', would come in, sign his books without telling anyone, and duck out.

And a week before Christmas Eve 1976, the oil tanker Sansinena exploded in Los Angeles Harbor, spewing oil into the air. Jerry Gusha recalls running outside, feeling drops that he thought were rain, and looking down to see his white shirt splattered with oil.

Jerry Gusha, who started working at the store in 1965 at age 13, greets many customers by name, asks them about their families, and bids some farewell with a handshake.

On Thursday morning, Herman Padilla, whose parents owned a men's clothing shop next door to Williams' when it was still on Pacific Avenue, dropped by to bring Anne potted roses and daisies.

"I heard someone was having an anniversary," he said.

Padilla, 50, has known the Gushas all his life, and joked that Jerry "probably changed my diapers at one point." Padilla spent much of his childhood poring over Marvel and DC comics at their store.

"There are so many bookstores we've lost, and it's wonderful this one is still here and hasn't been mauled over by chains," Padilla said. "It's the heart of San Pedro, and it's still beating."

Williams' Book Store will hold its 100th anniversary celebration Jan. 23 to 25 at 443 W. 6th St. in San Pedro.

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catherine.ho@latimes.com

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