Eulogy for an Independent Bookstore
LA is a city known more for its light than its landmarks. The Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was shot, is gone, as is the Brown Derby, the legendary restaurant where celebrities dined on Cobb salad, invented by co-owner Bob Cobb. But when the Los Angeles Times (itself in failing health) reported last week that Dutton's Brentwood would be closing in April, people were aghast. The independent bookstore had been fighting a losing battle: Charles Munger, the billionaire who owns the complex where the store is housed, had threatened to tear it down, then reconsidered, only to have the place declared a landmark by the daughter of the man who designed it. Dutton's customers followed the developments as if glued to a telenovela, even as the shelves grew barer and the employees, more exhausted. But no one could imagine the store would actually close.
Immediately after the announcement, I raced to Dutton's, as teens did to the Viper Room on Hollywood Boulevard when River Phoenix collapsed and died outside. There was Doug Dutton, the owner, looking saintly and dejected, hugging his grieving customers. The feeling was one of outrage mixed with disbelief. Where else could any book be ordered and put, indefinitely, on hold? Where else would the women in the children's department--a disorganized affair, full of remembered classics and devoid of anything grating or shiny--recall every book your child had read in a series, or know which series she would like to read next?
Like a lot of LA writers, I had a book-signing at Dutton's, a Sunday afternoon event flush with kids and cookies and good will. My 6-year-old daughter accompanied me, and as I signed copies of my book, she signed books too. Only they weren't my books she was signing. They were whatever books--Yeats or Bukowski or Sandra Boynton--happened to be lying nearby. To this day, there might be a copy of Dickens or Roth with my daughter's signature scrawled hopefully, mistakenly, on the title page. That was Dutton's too.
Dutton's was a place you could go to meet a friend, have a cup of tea (you could even read a magazine from the news rack and put it back, although that wasn't encouraged), hold a job interview, work on a screenplay. It wasn't impersonal, like a Starbucks. It wasn't infernal, like Barnes & Noble. You could buy greeting cards there, and candles, and funny little knickknacks and book bags, but it wasn't a store that was mostly about the knickknacks, where books are disposable, an afterthought. It was all about the books.
And the customers. My daughters showed up at midnight for Harry Potter events, in costume. They bought gift certificates at Dutton's as teachers' gifts. All our presents to friends with newborns came from Dutton's: a basket of best-loved books encompassing everything from Zoom to Charlotte's Web. It was at Dutton's that we discovered a CD of E.B. White reading the latter, in a voice that was funny and crusty and plangent in all the right places. My older daughter--the one who signed other people's books--just turned 12, and Doug Dutton recently told her that she was in his store so often, he was looking forward to giving her a job. Now she'll have to buy books at one of the chain stores or--heaven forfend!--online. She'll have to live more directly, irrefutably, in a world where booksellers speak into headsets like air comptrollers, saying words like "affirmative" or "copy," or search a database for the kind of book that you might trip over--literally--at Dutton's, and take home, and love.
Doug Dutton had suffered multiple indignities in recent years: another branch of the store, founded by his parents in 1961 and run by his brother, also died. But the greatest single blow was the 2006 closing of the store in Beverly Hills; a sleek but welcoming affair that the city had begged him to open, had even subsidized, but that some real estate snafu prevented from thriving. As Doug noted, "They wanted to put in yet another steak house. Just what we need." Now, that bookstore will be a restaurant, and the one in Brentwood will reopen as a strip mall, although Munger promises to house a small independent bookstore there. He even says he'll hire people from Dutton's. What he doesn't understand is that there's a spirit about a bookstore, a set of shared experiences, a sense of humor, that can't be conjured up or recreated at will. LA isn't a city hospitable to memorable places. The ones made to look memorable, like the ghastly Kodak Theater where the Oscars are held, look more ridiculous than regal. But Dutton's Brentwood was a place of ramshackle glory. On the door to the section where the travel books were housed, Thomas Jefferson was quoted: "I cannot live without books." That's how many of us feel about Dutton's, too.