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Dave Dutton, the landmark L.A. bookstore owner, dies at 79

Dave Dutton was a young man wandering Europe on a $5-a-day budget when his parents sent him a wire. They’d found a location for the bookstore they’d always dreamed of opening. Would he run the place?, they wondered.

Dutton agreed, but cautioned that he would do it for only a year. He was young, and the world beckoned.

But he would never stray far from Dutton’s Books, a Los Angeles landmark with its overflowing shelves, hard-to-find titles and customers wondrously thumbing through their options. A “cultural museum,” Dutton once called the bookstore.

Dutton died Friday at his home in Valley Village, roughly a decade after he and his wife packed up the last 50,000 books and closed up the North Hollywood shop for the final time. Dutton was 79 and suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

Dutton’s Books on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, along with sister locations in Burbank and downtown Los Angeles, was at the very center of literary LA when it opened in 1961.

While chains like Crown Books and Waldenbooks pared down their stock to the bestsellers, discounted prices and moved inventory as if it were produce, Dutton’s was swimming in choices. Shoppers could seamlessly wander from old English fiction to a collection marked “Transportation: Cars and Trains” and then off to another titled “Celtic Mythology.”

“I usually come in knowing what I want. But I usually walk out with something else,” a Van Nuys customer told The Times in a 1991 interview. The store’s manager once describe the expansive bookstore as “the glory of clutter.”

Born Davis Dutton on Feb. 14, 1937, Dutton had agreed to put aside his travels in Europe to help run the bookstore along with his parents and his wife, Judy. 

But Dutton did part ways with the store — at least for a while. He became a  writer and editor at Westways magazine and moved to Denver to edit another magazine, and briefly attended law school. But he’d been seduced by the printed word, and wanted to return to books.

In the mid 1970s, his parents retired and he and Judy took over ownership of Dutton’s. They expanded its footprint and its offerings, and eventually filled the space with 350,000 new and used titles. The store was known for its labyrinthine layout and towering stacks of books.

For decades, Dutton weathered the changes the roiled the book industry. In 1992, the chain Bookstar opened a brightly lighted, 10,000-foot discount bookstore less than 2 miles away.

“We just play it from month to month and year to year and hope that we can stay one step ahead of the chains,” Dutton told The Times. “But if I were starting fresh in an untried location, I'd be very reluctant to open a general bookstore in L.A.”

But L.A. it was. Over the years, he opened shops in other locations but it was the Laurel Canyon store that lasted. His was a literary family — his younger brother Doug Dutton took over ownership of Dutton’s Brentwood in the 1980s, running it until it closed in 2008, and another brother, Dennis Dutton, was a professor and co-founder of the website Arts & Letters Daily.

Dave Dutton’s North Hollywood store was a busy crossroads for book lovers, even after it suffered damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. 

Regular customers had a relationship with the owner and called frequently. “Mr. Dutton knew almost everything about anything that ever happened, especially if it happened in the Valley,” Marci Vogel wrote in The Times. “If the question was a real stumper, he'd take the phone himself. Even if he couldn't answer the question, he enjoyed commiserating with others who wondered about the same things he did.”

“My dad loved not only literature, but he loved people, and our bookstore was a place for everybody in Los Angeles to gather, and to browse, or just to hang out,” son Dirk Dutton told The Times. “My dad was never in it for the money. He just loved talking books and having fun at the store.”

Dutton was a writer himself, including a 2005 magazine-length tale of stumbling across a slightly sinister but undeniably beautiful painting at a garage sale, and the detective work it took to determine the identity of the artist. The artist, he ultimately learned, had burned nearly all of her work and never painted again after receiving a negative review. The painting he'd purchased at the garage sale had somehow survived the artist's fiery rage.

When Dutton and his wife packed up the North Hollywood shop, loading the remaining books into a 30-foot truck, Dutton reflected on the virtues of being an old-school bookseller in a market dominated by the Internet.

“The book business used to be a place where idealists and dreamers of a better world who perhaps didn’t like business, didn’t admire the business tactics generally necessary to survive, could find a happy compromise.”

Dutton is survived by his wife, son Dirk and a daughter, Juliet Dutton. 

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

@paperhaus

Obituary editor Steve Marble contributed to this report

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UPDATES:

2:59 p.m.: The article was updated with additional details

This article was originally published at 9:25 a.m.

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