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Bookstore's closing leaves a hole in 'postmodern Mayberry'

Metropolis Books was an outpost of civilization in the untamed wilderness of pre-hipster Main Street in downtown Los Angeles. Co-owner Julie Swayze philosophically views it all as the circle of life.

September 18, 2011|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Julie Swayze, right, co-owner of Metropolis Books, recommends books for Gail Stanhope. "Its very difficult in this economy to decide that youre up to do this for five more years, Swayze says. But it has been a very sweet, just an amazing experience here.
Julie Swayze, right, co-owner of Metropolis Books, recommends books for… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Flip back in time to downtown Los Angeles nearly five years ago — before tiny dogs were everywhere and fancy strollers anywhere, before you could walk 10 minutes south of City Hall and find cafe after cafe serving lattes.

Picture living in a loft on a quite lonely stretch of Main Street on the edge of skid row, short on the necessities that most residential areas take for granted.

Then imagine one day finding a new store full of crisp hardcovers.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, we're civilized,' " said Jacqualine Mills-Lord, a writer who shed tears of joy at the sight of Metropolis Books.

Flip forward through years of readings and cozy book club meetings, of neighbors stopping by to browse and sinking into the soft couch to schmooze.

And you might begin to see why, even in these e-book and Amazon days, news that a small bookstore is closing has hit a lot of people very hard.

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Like watercolor on wet paper, word of the little shop spread outward. Friends were brought there, friends were made there, creating a cat's cradle of connections.

With "The Count of Monte Cristo," Mills-Lord joined the Metropolis book club, and met other women with whom she could grab a meal in the neighborhood.

After years of writing at dawn, Hannah Dennison had her first mystery published. She was an unknown, but got such a warm welcome at Metropolis that she made it her mission to tell others.

When he heard about the store, Jim Gurbach walked farther along Main Street than he had ever dared before.

The financial printer, whose office is at 3rd Street and Grand Avenue, had been going to a big Barnes & Noble near his Manhattan Beach home. At Metropolis, he mentioned his daughters' ages and co-owner Julie Swayze started pulling books off the shelves.

"She hits a home run and I'm hooked.... And then I kept coming back," he said — colleagues in tow.

"If you remember, it used to be that guys like me from Normaltown didn't venture past Pete's," Gurbach said of Pete's Cafe & Bar, a little north of Metropolis in the San Fernando Building at 4th Street and Main.

"Six blocks that way," he said, pointing out the bookstore's windows, "there's a lot of people who are stuck in an office, banging away. And to come here is a little vacation…. And it's an adventure."

::

Swayze was 4 when she began begging for a library card. To get one, she'd need to sign her name.

She practiced and practiced until she could. And when, years later, she and her husband, Steve Bowie, opened Metropolis, her mother sent her that early proof of her passion.

Swayze had been a retail buyer and had run 10,000-square-foot Pier 1 Imports stores. But that wasn't the scale of her own dream.

On Main Street, in 925 square feet, she made room for a paisley couch and chair, an easily cleared area for readings, fanciful small gifts and cards, and shelves shaped by personal tastes — heavy on mysteries, fantasy, literary fiction and classics, with lots of Los Angeles history, and African American writers and a handful of un-fussy cookbooks.

Although the store didn't stock everything, she assured visitors they could order anything. And if they didn't know what to read, she was happy to help.

A page-turner for a plane ride? How about "The Traveler," by John Twelve Hawks? A lush tale to crawl into? "Great House" by Nicole Krauss, if you don't mind sad.

Bowie, a software engineer, loved getting away from "windowless cubicleland" to run the shop on Sundays.

But Swayze has been Metropolis' soul. It was an arrangement that worked — until Swayze's mother, in Texas, began to have health problems. That's the main reason for the store closing — so Swayze can travel back and forth. But it's not the only reason.

"It's very difficult in this economy to decide that you're up to do this for five more years," Swayze said. "But it has been a very sweet, just an amazing experience here."

::

Life in the Historic Core has a tidal quality. Shops and residents frequently wash up on the shore. Just as frequently, they wash out again, too soon to leave a mark.

In the course of Metropolis' life, a wave of would-be downtowners came and went. Sleek lofts aimed at upscale buyers were auctioned off or rented cheaply. Now the area has so many USC students that it can feel like an extension of the campus.

What the future will hold, is anyone's guess. That's just the way it is here. What it was when Metropolis opened was different.

There were fewer lofts, fewer shops. People banded together, hoping to build a lasting community.

Swayze and Bowie came downtown at the urging of a friend who had opened a DVD store in the San Fernando Building.

They set up shop one block south — which helped bring in Raw Materials, an art supply store and gallery.

When Monica May and Kristen Trattner of Banquette Cafe in the San Fernando Building prepared to open the Nickel Diner one block south of the bookstore, their investors included Swayze, Bowie, and Jim and Celia Winstead of Raw Materials.

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