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Scott Wannberg dies at 58; poet and Dutton's book buyer

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Scott Wannberg, a gentle behemoth of the Los Angeles poetry scene and a mainstay of the old Dutton's bookstore in Brentwood, where for nearly 25 years he molded the reading habits of a wide assortment of customers and petted every dog that crossed the threshold, has died. He was 58.

Wannberg was found dead Friday at his home in Florence, Ore., where he moved after Dutton's closed in 2008, said his uncle, Kenneth Wannberg. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and died of natural causes.

A mountainous man — he topped 6 feet and weighed about 350 pounds — Wannberg was "one of most loved people in the Los Angeles poetry community. He was extremely warmhearted, generous to everyone he met, especially beginning poets," said Richard Modiano, director of the Beyond Baroque literary center in Venice, where Wannberg read his work.

He was a prolific and spontaneous poet who performed for many years with the Carma Bums, a traveling troupe of poets. With inspiration always at hand — in a birthday, a headline or a bookstore's demise (I still passionately advocate the physical feel of a/book) — he improvised lines of verse on scraps of paper and gave them to friends, such as poet-critic Carlye Archibeque, who in a blog post Sunday called Wannberg the "Johnny Appleseed of poetry."

The poems he didn't give away were published in half a dozen books, including the forthcoming "tomorrow is another song," which will be published Sept. 30 by actor Viggo Mortensen's Perceval Press.

At Dutton's, Wannberg was a clerk and buyer — one whom most customers could never forget, and not just because of his bearish physique.

"He would champion certain books that meant a lot to him," such as Louise Erdrich's "Love Medicine" and Charles Baxter's "First Light," bookstore owner Doug Dutton recalled in an interview this week. "He would browbeat customers into trying these books. Generally they'd be quite grateful for the browbeating."

Wannberg's recommendations were sought by an eclectic range of readers, from elderly Westside matrons to celebrities, including Ed Harris, Randy Newman and the late Peter Falk.

"He wasn't the usual salesman you'd find in any store," said Newman, whose song about the race to fame and fortune, "It's Money That Matters," has a line influenced by characters like Wannberg, who cared little about material success. "He loved books, he loved Los Angeles and the people of it.... Of all the people at the store, I miss him most of all."

T.C. Boyle, the novelist and USC professor, said Wannberg had a "sixth sense" for what he should be reading and always plied him with books when he visited Dutton's. Calling him "one of the true literary zealots," Boyle fondly recalled how Wannberg introduced him whenever he came to the store to launch a new work.

"He would write poems particularly in my honor as the introduction," Boyle said. "He wouldn't read them, he would just rap them. He was an uncontainable fountain of energy."

Wannberg was born in Santa Monica on Feb. 2, 1953, and attended Venice High School, where he was known as a cinephile "who rattled off full cast lists of movies from memory," said former classmate Rip Rense.

Even then, Wannberg was constantly spouting poetry in what Rense described in a 1995 Times profile as "a stream-of-consciousness kind of Chick Hearn-meets-Charles Bukowski narrative."

Wannberg, who had a bachelor's and a master's degree in creative writing from San Francisco State, brought that passion to the Carma Bums, who performed in bookstores, galleries and coffeehouses around the Southwest and Canada for two decades until 2009. The group often traveled in a 1959 Cadillac owned by poet S.A. Griffin, who noted that Wannberg, who did not drive, "always rode shotgun … spiritually and physically."

At Dutton's, he not only tended literary appetites. He kept a stockpile of dog biscuits for four-legged patrons, to whom he seemed acutely attuned. "He could be talking to a customer, but when a dog came in he'd have to go scratch it behind the ear," Dutton recalled. "I don't think he would have survived at Barnes & Noble."

Wannberg was never married. His survivors include two brothers, Paul and Robert.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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