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Colliding with the stars

In L.A., you may run into a celebrity anywhere -- at a lecture, in a bookstore, in jail.

August 19, 2012

We chatted briefly — about what, I have no idea. I do remember that Slater was nicer than I would have been in his place. "He was nice" isn't very juicy, I know. But the cops kicked us both before I got to ask him what Winona Ryder is really like.

Here's the lasting lesson from the whole megillah: The next time you find yourself in accidental close quarters with a public figure, a) talk to them or you'll kick yourself, and b) actually listen to what they say. Never start savoring the anecdote, I vowed that night, until it actually happens.

Celebrities have avoided me ever since.

David Kipen, founder of the bookstore Libros Schmibros, is editing a history of Southern California told through diaries and letters.

The reading A-list

By Lynell George

Many shopping mall face-lifts ago, I had a job in a bookstore in Century City. Because of its location — just up the street from 20th Century Fox and a quick jog away from several big talent agencies (ICM, CAA) — our store was something of a waiting room and a rest stop for the famous, pausing between other life transactions.

I was never very adept at recognizing "famous" faces, but we were frequented by the sort that forced a second look. Ray Bradbury would wheel up in a rush on his bicycle, lean it against the wall by the door and dash inside. I helped Sidney Poitier pick out gifts, almost tripped over Gene Wilder in the health section. Lots of comedians passed through too; "Laugh-In's" Dick Martin; Jim Nabors; Marty Allen greeted me with a "Hiya, dream girl" over and over when the musical of the same name was up at the Shubert Theatre just across Avenue of the Stars.

Most of the time the stars came and went without a second glance. Customers and staff maintained the nonchalance of Angelenos used to detouring around movie shoots and willing to respect the notion that there should be some transaction-less spaces, even in city so focused on sealing the deal. I'd slide purchases across the counter, tell the famous face to "come again." Sometimes, a patron might quietly remark, "That was Joan Collins, wasn't it?"

Some of the stars might have preferred more fanfare. I remember my co-worker Dan asking a blond at the counter, "Two forms of ID, please," when she pulled out a checkbook. She dealt him a "you've gotta be kidding" look. It was Bo Derek and, as I recall, she left the books on the counter.

Mostly both sides stayed behind an invisible wall. But sometimes that wall dissolved.

At Christmas, we'd be hit by terrible crowds; the store was so narrow it was hard to "ring and wrap" without the line getting out of control. One of my clearest memories was a very compassionate — and always patient — Patty Duke-Astin, who, eyeing the barrage, offered to come back behind the counter and help wrap. And she meant it.

Another time a clerk I'll call Lily was working the counter with me in the long lull after the lunch rush. Lily was a vividly avid Rod Stewart fan. She frequently wore some Stewart-related talisman — T-shirt, a tiger print something (this was the year of "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?"). That day Stewart strolled in, discernible even by me, with his disheveled rooster/mullet. When he hit the door, he locked eyes with Lily. There was an overlong pause that almost felt like stop motion. Lily began to cry. Silently. In one gesture that looked like a dance move, he turned and hit the door. Lily went home early.

To my surprise, I learned even I wasn't exempt. I was startled one evening to see the great jazz singer Carmen McRae browsing with a child I took to be her grandson. They brought a stack of titles to the counter, and before I even realized I was breaking my nonchalance rule, I spoke. I told her, quietly, how much her music meant to me. She, not known for tolerating frivolousness, paused, and I had a flashback of Rod Stewart running out the door. But she smiled and said thank you — surprised, I think, at the avidness of a 20-year-old. And to my surprise, she offered me an autograph.

In that moment, I understood that sometimes star transactions aren't always taking but can be, in the right moment, an act of heartfelt giving, a moment to pay (and accept) the sincere acknowledgment of a gift — a long-ago performance, a keepsake piece of art, a three-minute vinyl track — particularly in the land of surface interactions.

Lynell George is an L.A.-based freelance writer and an assistant professor of English/journalism at Loyola Marymount University.

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