Curling Up With A Good Bookstore

Bookstores are delightful society. If you go into a room filled with books, even without taking them down from their shelves, they seem to speak to you, to welcome you. --William Gladstone, 19th-Century British prime minister Books have been pretty good friends, haven't they? And it's amazing, after the way we've treated them. They've survived our dalliances with radio and movies and television and, now, home video. They'll probably survive the next fickle romance that causes our wandering eyes to stray from the page.

Think about it: Books have been the most steadfast and interesting of companions. Read the same book over and over and, rather than get stale on you, it will give you a different look, a nuance you hadn't seen before. Yet, the essential strength of the book doesn't change, and it will remain faithful at crunch time.

You wish you knew people like that, don't you? Maybe that's why you hear people talk about how much they love curling up with a good book.

That, perhaps, is all part of the "delightful society" Gladstone was talking about. And while the old Britisher might harrumph at the Video Age, he could find comfort that in 20th-Century Orange County there are still places to go to listen to and look at the books beckoning you from the shelves.

They are the county's independent bookstores--those repositories of sometimes new but usually used and rare books--that are wedged in, tucked in and hard to find but which, when discovered, can yield some unexpected pleasures.

Interviews with a dozen or so published authors and book devotees in the county turned up a healthy list of places to go for the good read, including a couple of chain stores. Among them, and in no particular order, are Book Harbor, Book Cellar and Lorson's in Fullerton; Book Baron in Anaheim; Book Carnival in Orange; Fahrenheit 451 and Upchurch-Brown Booksellers in Laguna Beach; Cahill's Book Store in Fountain Valley; Rizzoli's and Scribner Book Store, both in Costa Mesa, and Lido Book Shoppe in Newport Beach.

While that isn't meant to be an all-inclusive county list, what distinguishes those stores, the experts agree, is a combination of esthetics, book selection and the employees' knowledge of and appreciation for books.

The stores are a haven for the serious reader and collector as well as for those among us with quirky tastes. Misplaced your copy of "Art Treasures of Yugoslavia?" The Book Baron can sell you one. How about "The Truth About Fonzie" or "Trust in Tobacco," both of which are available at Book Harbor.

The bookstores on the list come in different shapes and sizes--from the gymnasium-sized Book Baron to the closet-sized Fahrenheit 451--and some specialize in things such as mystery and science fiction. But their owners share the common goal of wanting to make some money and add whatever they can to the sum of acquired knowledge in the county.

David Cormany, owner of the Book Cellar, says: "Bookselling is a business, but it's a business with a difference. We're committed to all the commercial aspects but also to the ideal of books as an instrument of culture in American life."

While some authors and serious readers were charitable toward the large bookstore chains, some weren't. One published county author, who begged for anonymity, says: "In so many of the big chain stores, they're run by bimbos and bimbettes. They don't know the stock. Maybe they're kids who were working at Denny's the day before, flipping burgers. They don't know the book business. They wouldn't know a book from an onion ring."

Like other arts enterprises in the county, the availability of good bookstores appears to be increasing to meet demand.

"Ten or 15 years ago in Orange County, you had to go to junk stores to find anything," says John Mitchell, a Pasadena book dealer. "Now, they're springing up. Which is good. One thing about bookstores--they don't fear competition. It's not like the shoe store that has to knock the competition to survive."

Karen Ziegler manages Fahrenheit 451, a store mentioned frequently and favorably by bookstore devotees. It prides itself, among other things, on its women's books, metaphysical section and contemporary fiction.

"I think every independent bookstore has to have its own personality or they wouldn't survive," Ziegler says. "Why would it matter? You could go to (a chain bookstore). They have books but no personality."

Like Mitchell, Ziegler thinks the state of county bookstores has advanced markedly since the early '70s: "I've lived here for 17 years, and it's certainly way better than it used to be. When I first got here, I simply didn't know if people even bought any books. There was one store. . . . Other than that, there was nothing. I was appalled. I used to go to people's houses, they didn't have any books. Or maybe they kept them in the garage. But it's gotten a lot better."

Book Baron sits in a nondescript shopping complex in Anaheim, next to a blue-jeans store. The carpeting reminds you of your first apartment, and your finger will scare up some dust on the shelves.

On a recent morning, Don Gutierrez of Anaheim was browsing the maritime section of the store. Gutierrez, 57, describes himself as a budding artist. "I'm always looking for illustrations," Gutierrez says as he forages through the books.

"You look around, then you get stuck on a guy like Felix Riesenberg. I discovered him about one and a half, two years ago. Come to find out he wrote a book when he was on a sailing ship. His descriptions were so good, I thought they'd help me on illustrations."

Gutierrez continues looking around. "Here's 'Knight's Modern Seamanship.' It's a classic. I've seen books (here) written on parchment by sea captains in 1690 or 1701 or whatever. When I see that . . . , I can get pretty excited."

Moments later, Gutierrez picks up "Know Your Own Ship," written by Thomas Walton and published in 1921. Inside the book's cover is a letter, postmarked 1929, written by a man to the book's first owner, whose name is written on the first page. The letter actually is a paper, entitled, "Effect on Initial Stability Due to Presence of Free Water in a Ship."

Who knows what importance the now-yellowing paper had to either the sender or the receiver, but it wasn't lost on Gutierrez that the letter had been written before he was born.

That is the "treasure hunt" aspect that is a part of the charm of independent bookstores. Bob Weinstein, who owns Book Baron, remembers another story. "I had a guy in here four or five years ago, he must have been about 75. He walked up to the front counter, and he was shaking. He had a book, and he said it was the same book he had when he was 10 years old. It had his name in it. He'd lost track of it in the Midwest about 60 years before."

Dean Koontz, an Orange resident whose books have sold millions of copies, loves to visit bookstores. It's partly for business but also for the pleasure of tracking down certain books.

Koontz, who received a $275,000 advance for his 1986 book "Strangers," says the thrill of the hunt remains. "I recently picked up a first-edition 'Starship Troopers' by Robert Heinlein, one of three first-edition Heinleins I don't have. It was as much a thrill as getting some of the early first editions, when you could buy them for $5.95 or $6.95."

Mitchell, the Pasadena book dealer, knows the feeling of finding a first-edition classic. "I was on a buying trip once with a fellow dealer, and we were in the wilds of Maine. We are talking backwoods. I went into one book barn and was looking around, and I asked if they had any mysteries. They said they had one shelf, and there on the shelf sat the bird, 'The Maltese Falcon.' That was one of the greatest rushes I ever got."

Robert Ray, an Irvine author whose seventh novel is scheduled for publication this month, teaches college-level writing courses. "One of the exercises I have the students do is go and do a diagram of all the sections in a bookstore," he says. "Then they put an arrow where their book will go if it's published."

E. M. Nathanson, a South Laguna author whose "Dirty Dozen" novel was turned into the blockbuster movie, says his love of reading goes back to boyhood when "I was reading 'Tom Swift' and 'Bomba the Jungle Boy' under the desk when I was supposed to be doing math on top of the desk."

Nathanson says he's become a fan of the Upchurch-Brown bookstore in Laguna Beach, which opened in October. "I said to the owner, 'This is what a bookstore should be like.' I was delighted by the look of the place. It had an upstairs and downstairs and corners and nooks and crannies and places to sit."

Co-owner Mary Upchurch says she and partner Robert Brown didn't do any marketing studies before opening the store. "We don't feel like we're on the crest of a wave," she says, laughing, "but (there are some things) that indicated there may be a change of values going on. People are rather nostalgic, and they want to get back to things they've thought of as representing certain securities in their lifetime. So we might be at a place in time where people are appreciating an independent bookstore. One thing that indicates that more than anything is the people who have said they'll do everything they can to help us stay here."

The owners take pride in the shop's literature section. Upchurch and Brown know that in Laguna Beach, their clientele probably will be better read and more educated than the general population. "Our customers don't (just) know Dickens," Brown says. "They know obscure Dickens."

Bill McCrumb of Anaheim is the kind of person bookstore owners have in mind when they open up shop. A self-described "book nut," McCrumb, 55, loves to browse bookstores.

"The smell of books--I love everything about them," he says, as he browses the philosophy section at Book Baron. "It may sound hammy, but I'm awed by the wisdom in books. The sum of human knowledge is in books."

But as much as he loves books, so does he worry about them. "I think the days of books are numbered," he says. "I think they're going to be on microchips. . . . It's sad, but I think of them as museum pieces."

McCrumb's latest interest is philosophy, so on this day he buys "Adventures of the Mind." He says that although he reads a book a week, he can't interest his children in books.

Do they prefer TV? "Oh, God, yeah," he replies. "It hurts to say it, but it's true."

T. Jefferson Parker, a Laguna Beach author whose "Laguna Heat" recently was adapted for a cable TV movie, isn't worried about the future of the written word. "You hear that, and it's one of those ideas that isn't quantifiable," he says. "The bookstores I go to often are crowded and booming. I always thought the alarmist attitude that books were disappearing and that computers were taking over our lives was really a subtle marketing strategy on the part of the computer people."

Parker says he was pleasantly surprised at the first book-signing sessions for "Laguna Heat" by the number of people who had read the book and wanted to talk about it. "There is this whole silent population who literally devour books by the day. And that's besides other people who read a book a week or month."

Al Ralston, a former journalism instructor and now owner of Fullerton's Book Harbor, isn't worried about the intrusion of TV on the reading public. "The best thing that ever happened to books is TV. It's so rotten that people are reading more than ever before. Why is it that VCRs and CDs are booming as never before? People are turned off on TV. It's so godawful."

Besides, Ralston says: "It's an incorrect correlation that people who watch TV don't read. They do half and half. There are very few people I know of who simply turn on the boob tube and sit, slumped, and watch everything. When I go home and I'm watching a basketball game, I always have a book nearby."

Asked if some of the books in his store aren't so obscure they may never sell, Ralston replies: "If you come in here and say that, you haven't got a clue what you're talking about. But what makes me the happiest is when someone says you have a real esoteric stock of books. I'd rather be that way than have the same old stuff everybody else does."

Mitchell, who scouts stores like Ralston's to find books for other buyers, says he's amazed at Ralston's ability to find "primo-condition stuff." Ralston attributes it to legwork. Much like a diamond importer would travel the world, for example, looking for diamond buys, Ralston travels the country looking for books.

"I'm a businessman," he says. "I'm not going to stock anything just to have it. I want something I can sell and that will be of interest to someone. All of us are always going to have some slow movers, but it's not the end of the world, as long as the whole store's not that way."

So Ralston, like other independent bookstore owners, depends on the romance of the written word to continue to lure customers. So far, it's a romance that has withstood every challenge.

"When radio became big, people said people won't read anymore," Mitchell says. "When TV came in the '50s, people said books are out the window. Now with video, they say people won't read. But whenever you read a book, you create a video in your head. I play a game with my customers. I say, 'Describe Nero Wolfe for me.' Five out of five describe him differently, because people create a picture in their head."

That's what Koontz and the others who make their living off people's love affairs with books must count on--that passion with the word.

"The thrill doesn't go away," Koontz says. "If you love books, it never weakens--that feeling. It's exhilarating. . . . If you fall in love with books, you have entertainment for life."

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