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Merchants Band Together in Struggle to Compete With Chains : Independents’ Battle Is One for the Bookstores

Times Staff Writer

The Westwood Book Store closed its doors more than two years ago, the victim of high rents and competition from discount chains. A year later Papa Bach’s in West Los Angeles went out of business, as did Butler’s Book Center in Marina del Rey, which died when a discount Crown Books opened in the same shopping center.

When Westwood and Papa Bach’s--two of the most respected bookstores in Los Angeles--closed their doors, other independent bookstores in Los Angeles became alarmed.

Now the independents are fighting back, on their own and with group promotions that they think will boost their visibility and sales.

The most noticeable demonstration of their resolve is series of advertisements in the Los Angeles Reader weekly newspaper. Since late last year about 20 bookstores, most on the Westside, have joined forces to run the ad.

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“It only costs $20 a week and it’s a lot cheaper than if you took out your own ad,” said Margie Ghiz, owner of the Midnight Special Bookstore on Santa Monica Mall. “This was a good way for us to go about it. . . . The idea is that if you don’t patronize your local bookstore, there won’t be one any more.”

In fact, the headline on the first collective ad in the Reader read: “Buy a book from an independent bookseller before it is too late.” The ad was conceived by a Reader advertising representative. It went on to describe the bookstore closures and concluded, “When you buy from an independent bookseller, you buy from someone who loves books.”

The current ad offers advice from Mark Twain: “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read at all.”

Small operators said the weekly ad is a beginning for businesses that cannot afford the print, radio and television ads of their large competitors.

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Dozier Hammond, president of the Southern California Booksellers Assn., said the organization has become more active in promoting its 65 member stores.

The members have published a map with locations of their stores and details on the specialties of each shop.

Workshop on Marketing

And the emphasis at their meetings has been on promotions. At the association’s convention this September on the Queen Mary, a workshop will concentrate on marketing for small bookstores.

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“We are also trying to get discounts from publishers for the smaller non-chain stores,” said Adri Butler, owner of the Pacific Bookstore in Santa Monica and a member of the association. “If we are going to stay in business we are going to have to get better discounts.

“I think the publishers want us to stay in business. It would be a pretty dreary world out there if it were just the chains. We can’t mark down the way the chains can because we don’t get the discounts that they do.”

A new Crown outlet opened 1 1/2 blocks from Butler’s store last week and another Crown is just 12 blocks away.

Independents can seldom discount prices as much as giants such as Crown Books. The Landover, Md.-based company has 165 stores nationwide and cuts as much as 35% off the list price for books on the New York Times best-seller list.

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Members of the Northern California Booksellers Assn. did more than ask for discounts equal to thoses given the chains; in 1982 the association sued Avon and Bantam, two of the largest publishers of paperback books, charging that the preferential wholesale rates for the chains are illegal.

Final arguments in the case were heard in May in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and a decision is expected in September.

Hammond, president of the local booksellers association, said the number of store closures will decline. “But you can’t survive anymore if you are just a fairly good business person and book person,” Hammond said. “There is no slack anymore. You can’t just be an ‘I love books’ person.”

To stay open, independents have been forced to turn away from best sellers.

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“The main thing that characterizes the independent stores now is specialty,’ said Lew Rosenbaum, book buyer for Midnight Special Bookstore. “Anyone that is succeeding now, you will see that it is because of specialty. People will come to you from everywhere to find certain books.”

Among other things, Midnight Special keeps a large stock of African and Latin American literature. Other stores specialize in art and architecture or philosophy and psychology or keep large magazine sections to draw customers.

Employees at the small stores take pride in their knowledge of books and ability to find any book a customer wants.

“Customer service is primary,” said Koki Iwamoto, owner of Chatterton’s Bookshop in Los Feliz. “We will special-order books that the chains will not try to get. We will try to get anything that is in print.”

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Searching out and delivering an obscure title can cost the stores more than it returns, the owners said. But they do it to build clientele. They also tend to keep more classics in stock.

Lou Virgiel sold Dutton’s Books in Brentwood in October after 20 years in business, partly because of competition from three Crown stores that opened within two miles of the San Vicente Boulevard store.

Robert Haft, president of Crown, has denied that the company has used its stores to surround independents and drive them out of business.

“In Washington, D.C., well-run book retailers have done extremely well,” Haft said. “That’s also true in Los Angeles. Poorly run stores may not be around. That’s what happens when the market expands.”

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Haft said that his company provides a service by discounting books and that he does not have any sympathy for full-price bookstores.

Independents argue that if book sales were left to the chains, the public would never get to see many books.

“The chains won’t keep certain books on their shelves,” said store owner Ghiz. “The whole scope of books being offered is going to narrow because publishers won’t be able to put these books out if they don’t sell.

“It’s dangerous. It’s really dangerous. There is a much larger question because you are not just selling paper, you are selling ideas. And that is what is under attack here.”

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