Its admirers hail Circus of Books as being among the few places on the Westside where one can go to buy a novel, a foreign newspaper or even a Bible during the wee hours.
Others have long insisted that the 24-hour West Hollywood book store, which also offers a back shop of adult reading material, is a "magnet" for male prostitutes, drug pushers and other street hustlers.
On a recent night, a 19-year-old male prostitute named Todd, across the street from the bookstore, offered testimony to confirm the worst fears of the store's neighbors. "This is still the best spot to work," said Todd, an electrician's helper who sometimes turns tricks on Santa Monica Boulevard to supplement his income.
Indeed, as merchants and residents near the store complain that hustling is on the rise, and city officials grow more concerned about the potential damage to West Hollywood's image, the Circus of Books has become the focus of a full-scale public debate.
In a controversial decision, the city's Business License Commission has sided with neighbors and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in ordering that the store at 8230 Santa Monica Blvd. close between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.
But the owners have hired a lawyer, plan to appeal the decision to the West Hollywood City Council and say they have amassed the support of numerous customers who depend on the store as a late-night source of literature.
Although acknowledging that the sidewalk outside the store is a hangout for prostitutes, the owners, Barry and Karen Mason, insist that they are being unfairly punished for a problem that is none of their making.
"The hustlers are around the building like roaches and we've tried to get rid of them," Karen Mason said. "It isn't fair to make us the scapegoat for a problem that's rampant up and down the boulevard."
Authorities have for years grappled with what to do about the male prostitutes who hang out on Santa Monica Boulevard. Merchants complain that they scare off customers. Residents gripe about being propositioned and panhandled.
Sheriff's deputies say they have arrested 200 men for soliciting on the boulevard in the last 18 months, including five last Thursday as the result of a sweep by plainclothes officers.
"We could make an almost unlimited number of arrests except for manpower constraints," Sheriff's Lt. Gary Stevens said. "It's like trying to stop a flood with a bucket."
Besides ordering that the store close at 2 a.m., the panel two weeks ago directed that a security guard be assigned to the premises and ordered the Masons to remove two pay phones outside the store.
Preparing to Appeal
The Masons removed the phones and hired a night-time security guard but, as is their right under West Hollywood law, have continued to operate the store at all hours while preparing to appeal the matter to the City Council.
The Sheriff's Department recommended the changes at the book store after neighbors complained that the store, which devotes a third of its space to adult books and other sexually explicit materials, attracts hustlers who they say have turned their quiet, residential streets into a combat zone.
'I'm Sick of It'
"Almost every day I pick up wine bottles, needles and you name it from the front of my business," said hairdresser Abe Bernal, whose shop is next door to the book store.
However, the Masons say they have collected more than 250 signatures from patrons opposed to the city's attempts to curtail the store's hours.
At the hearing, several patrons pleaded with the commission not to take away one of the Westside's few all-night sources for reading material.
That the store has come to mean different things to different people reflects the fact that it is really two stores under one roof. Past the book shelves stocked with classics and best-sellers, and rows of magazines ranging from Newsweek to obscure issues of The Atomic Scientist, is another kind of store.
A sign on a swinging door advises that people under 18 are not allowed in this area, with its sexually explicit books, magazines, videos and paraphernalia.
"We've been unfairly accused of selling only adult books, and I think that's why some people oppose us, but we've got a wonderful collection of back-list paperback books. . . . Not Jackie Collins, but Dickens," Karen Mason said.
Officials of the Sheriff's Department hope that curtailing the book store's hours will be enough to discourage the prostitutes.
Todd, who said he works the street two or three nights a week for "extra spending money," is one of the regulars.
Since being urged to move along from the Circus of Books side of the street by the store's security guard, he simply relocated to the other side of the boulevard.
"You don't have to stand next to it," he said. "Anywhere around here is good enough."