Book Soup's ending isn't yet written

"When a wise man dies," Rabbi David Wolpe asked at the memorial service for Book Soup owner Glenn Goldman, "how can he be replaced?"

For customers, employees, sales reps, writers and just about everyone who ever wandered into the Sunset Boulevard bookshop, this question has taken on an added significance in the wake of Goldman's death on Jan. 3 from pancreatic cancer. He was 58.

What will happen to Book Soup? Like most great bookstores, it is the product of one book lover's taste and vision. Most of the store's 60,000 volumes were handpicked by Goldman for a clientele he knew intimately after 33 years in the same neighborhood.

In recent decades, independent bookstores have become endangered, closing as chain stores move into their neighborhoods and market share is gobbled up by online booksellers such as Amazon .com. Some, like Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, closed when the cost of real estate (usually rented, rarely owned) swamped small (though reliable) profit margins.

Yet believe it or not, independent bookstores, carefully run by those rare individuals who are both "book people" and "businesspeople," are often profitable -- meaning that you can make a living, pay a few employees and work reasonable hours.

Contrast this with the dire reports of Borders teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, or Barnes & Noble's reported $172-million loss at the end of the third quarter last year. To hear the chain executives talk, you'd think people had stopped reading altogether.

People have not stopped reading. The problem, most bookstore owners and publishers will tell you, is a distribution system that caters heavily to chains and wholesalers like Wal-Mart.

When the economy founders, big stores, with their hierarchical policies enacted miles from where the books are sold, have a harder time responding in a flexible way.

According to manager Tyson Cornell, Book Soup did "very well" last year. So did Los Feliz independent Skylight Books, which recently expanded from 2,000 to 3,100 square feet.

This December, says manager and co-owner Kerry Slattery, Skylight's sales were 17% higher than last year. Overall sales for the year were 7.5 % higher. Skylight opened in 1996 and, since 2000, has made a consistent 4% to 6% profit.

Slattery attributes Skylight's success to its small size, flexibility, the dedication of the staff and the relationships with the clientele. She prides herself on "finding the right people and making a creative environment for customers." A bookstore, she says, is "interactive." Like Cornell and others in the independent book business, Slattery believes it's all about the relationships.

Like the "eat local" movement, which is spreading beyond gourmet restaurants and organic co-ops to pose a serious challenge to large grocery chains and fast-food restaurants, bookstores that know their customers fare better when times are hard.

Which brings us back to Goldman. His tragically early death has had a centrifugal effect on the tight-knit Southern California community of people in the business of selling books.

"He loved armchair adventures," says Sandy Pollack, a Random House sales representative. "Being able to fill Book Soup with the stuff of dreams for those thousands of customers gave him more joy than you can imagine."

Catering to clients

While the chains allow their stores very little autonomy, independents can be specific to their clientele. "An independent might buy 24-25 copies of a title they know will sell, while the chains buy 50 of a book they've been told to sell," says Gabriel Barillas, a HarperCollins representative who has been selling books in Southern California for 22 years.

This is why, he suggests, chains are threatened by the faltering economy. As for the market in general, Barillas says it's ridiculous to blame declining profits on the idea that people aren't buying books. "Books are steady performers. Even when stores diversify by selling T-shirts, it's the T-shirt sales that suffer when times are bad, not the books."

Goldman died without a succession plan in place for Book Soup. But it was of paramount importance that his two sons be left with some financial security after his death.

Adrian Newell is the manager of Warwick's Books in La Jolla. She was also Goldman's partner for the last three years.

"We thought we'd have more time," she says over the phone, voice still flat and sad a few weeks after Goldman's death. "I wouldn't have wanted to be in any other industry at a time like this. I've felt so supported and embraced by everyone in the book community. I've never really had a family, but it's felt like a family."

Asked about the future of the store, Newell says, "We are looking for a buyer, but Glenn's vision was so unique. You can't re-create that. We may find someone who shares that vision, but the heart is gone."

Newell has had several offers, but she is realistic about selling to a person who knows the business. She has said that she is not interested in taking over the store.

One possible scenario is that Book Soup would be purchased by some of its employees. "I love the idea of a cooperative operation," says Cornell, who has worked at the store for nine years, since he was at UCLA. "One of the things that keeps Book Soup alive is the morale of the team."

Cornell is confident that the "family is committed to the legacy of Book Soup." In the meantime, the store continues to move ahead. At the end of the month, it will undergo its first inventory in 15 years.

As for other plans, Cornell says, "We are going full steam ahead with a slew of amazing ideas in spite of the economy. Broadcasting on the Web, e-commerce, a huge new website. We've watched other bookstores drop out, expand too rapidly, but we stay true to keeping things efficient."

Can Cornell envision Book Soup moving? "Absolutely," he says. Although the store is a fixture on the Sunset Strip and has just signed a new five-year lease, he thinks its success is more about a state of mind. "It's known as a Hollywood bookstore because it's right there on the commute between Hollywood and the Westside. But it's more than a ZIP Code."

The human side

For all that, there's no question that Book Soup has staked out its territory, both in West Hollywood and in the Southern California bookselling world. It's the issue of relationships again, what Doug Dutton calls "hand-selling," the art of recommending books to customers and friends.

"There's a sense of humanity in this business," he says. "Two days before Christmas, I went into a Borders at 11 p.m. Before I knew it, they'd signed me up for a Borders Rewards Card and done the whole corporate thing on me."

Dutton admits to missing the book business; even in brief conversations, he will ask what you are reading and recommend a title. But while he loves the idea of an employee-owned store, he warns that book people are not always good at the business side of things.

And yet, the future of Book Soup will depend on its employees, on the personality they give it, on the bond between the store and its community.

As for what's at stake, Tom Benton, a representative of the Penguin Group, puts it in perspective by looking at what Dutton's loss has meant.

"When Dutton's closed," he says, "it was painful on a business level because I knew how many good, important books were not going to be sold and what an immense hole would be left in the culture of the city."

More than that, though, Benton "felt the loss on a personal level. I still miss the time I spent with Doug and all of his booksellers in the back room talking about everything."

In the end, says Benton, "this is what binds us together. We all believe, naively or not, that books can change lives."

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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