The Hollywood bookseller sighed a little when asked about the literary scene in the South Bay.
"Well," he confided, "the South Bay just is not a big bookstore area. For some reason it has never been really good book territory."
But here and there, in this nook and that cranny, a handful of quirky, independent and special-interest bookstores have taken root in the local soil and are holding their own despite stiff competition from the better-known chains.
Looking for the definitive history of the F-117A Stealth fighter? Addicted to British mysteries? Does Bukowski beckon? Are updates on quantum electrodynamics the key to your lover's heart?
The South Bay can accommodate you on all counts, and, in some cases, can even offer up your favorite titles on tape.
Which only shows that, though there may be a million stories, not all of them are in the Naked City. Plenty of them are right here in the South Bay.
Williams' Book Store
In 1909, Edward T. Williams was in downtown Los Angeles, talking to book wholesalers about opening a bookstore like the one he had owned in Wales. What part of the city, he asked, did not have a bookstore? San Pedro, he was told.
With that, "E.T." as he became known, opened Williams' Book Store in San Pedro. Today, it remains one of the oldest bookstores in Los Angeles.
For the last 10 years, the store has been owned by Anne Gusha, who first went to work for Williams in 1941, and Gusha's son Jerry, who has been with the store since the 1960s. Now at 443 W. 6th St., Williams' Book Store has moved several times over the years but has never left San Pedro.
A general bookstore with about 12,000 titles in stock, Williams' Book Store has moved toward specialty sections over the years that reflect San Pedro's history and ethnic diversity, according to its owners.
"We've been concentrating a lot on foreign-language literature in the last five years," said Jerry Gusha. About 10% of the store's books are in foreign languages, and Williams' Book Store also carries several overseas newspapers from England, Italy and France, he said.
Among the new books offered at the store, said Anne Gusha, is one on the history of San Pedro Bay. "People around here are always looking for books on the area," she said.
Williams' Bookstore, 443 W. 6th St., San Pedro. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
No tour of the South Bay's independent bookstores would be complete without the Either-Or Bookstore, which takes up most of a city block on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach.
Breathe the fragrance of incense and new books. Listen to the taped sounds of a thunderstorm gathering in the background, or a roaring surf. And then lose yourself among the store's 30,000-plus titles, which are arranged into 110 categories in five rooms, numerous alcoves and countless niches and nooks.
"We don't carry romance novels unless they've transcended their category," said Peter Pott, one of the store managers. But the store does have one of the South Bay's larger selections of poetry, stacks of books on metaphysics and the occult, and just about everything ever written by that gravel-voiced chronicler of the City of Fallen Angels, Charles Bukowski.
In fact, Pott said, Bukowski is a regular customer at the Either-Or.
"He comes in and periodically draws little pictures in the front of his books," Pott said. Other celebrity regulars include Ron Kovic, author of "Born on the Fourth of July," and comedians Jay Leno and Martin Mull, who drop in from time to time during stints at a nearby comedy club.
But the Either-Or also nurtures local authors, and is currently promoting Keith Robinson's book, "Making It," a collection of wacky cartoons about the South Bay.
Either-Or Bookstore, 124 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day.
You know you've found a different kind of bookstore when the soft music floating from the speakers is Chopin or Beethoven and the best-selling tome is "Fundamentals of Astrodynamics."
When Gray Hanson gave up his job as a computer manager at TRW 25 years ago and opened Scholar's Bookstore in El Segundo, his goal was to create a special place for the South Bay's numerous engineers and technophiles.
Judging from the size of the store's lunchtime crowd, Hanson has succeeded.
"We carry a little bit of everything, but I'd say we do three-quarters of our business in technical books . . . especially in the high-technology areas such as mathematics, physics, engineering, computers," Hanson said.
He lets his customers, mostly engineers from the aerospace parks in El Segundo and Redondo Beach, shape the store's selections.
"We get a lot of different requests from our engineering customers, and we take their advice very strongly," Hanson said.
Need a Christmas gift for that hard-to-shop-for techie? Hanson suggests any of the books of the late Richard P. Feynman, a Caltech physicist who won the Nobel Prize.
Hanson also has a varied selection of general-circulation books, including a small children's section. But customers won't find too many of any one title at Scholar's.
"My philosophy of bookselling is to find the good titles and then carry maybe one or two of each of them," Hanson said.
Scholar's Bookstore, 327 Richmond St., El Segundo. Hours: Tuesday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Aviation Books in Lomita has something for everyone--everyone, that is, who loves airplanes. Who else could browse among such works as "Boeing 747, The First 20 Years" or "Challenging Horizons, Qantas 1939-54."
But among the 2,000 books and periodicals there are also action and color titles that might appeal to the more general reader: "Up And At 'Em," "The Men Who Bombed the Reich," "Bush Pilot With a Briefcase."
Aviation Books also carries limited-edition prints of planes signed by the pilots who flew them, metal signs bearing well-known airline logos and calendars picturing fighter aircraft or vintage airline posters.
Aviation Books, 1954 Pacific Coast Highway, Lomita. Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m to 7:30 p.m.
Paul Freiler's Historical Models
For those whose interests span several modes of transport, Paul Freiler's Historical Models in Torrance is a model shop and bookstore in one. Its 2,000 titles include books about aircraft, automobiles, steamships, sailing ships, uniforms, railroads and wars.
Some books are intended to supplement the models in stock. Customers constructing a model ship can buy a book about that ship. "But a lot of our customers care nothing about models. They're interested in the books," said Paul Freiler, owner of the 20-year-old shop.
Many of Freiler's regular customers are employed by South Bay aerospace companies. That could account for why the shop carries extensive aircraft material, including three new books about the F-117A Stealth fighter.
Another new arrival is "Ground War Vietnam," featuring photographs of troops, uniforms and equipment. The book is aimed at Vietnam veterans and at people building Vietnam-era models.
The popularity of these books and models follows the news, Freiler said. "When they shoot up a shuttle, then our sales go up in shuttles. Right now we're selling a lot of B-17s (World War II bombers) because of the movie 'Memphis Belle.' "
Paul Freiler's Historical Models, 18228 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance. Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Travel Gallery
The Travel Gallery in Manhattan Beach is a bookshop for people inclined to travel--in Los Angeles, in California, or around the world. It carries 1,000 titles in travel books, as well as maps, videos, money belts, electric-current converters and even travel hair dryers.
"I try to have a book and a map on anyplace that someone would visit," said owner Donna Gibbs, a former travel agent who started the shop four years ago.
Since the shop is located near Los Angeles International Airport, travelers on flight stopovers sometimes drop by for a few hours, Gibbs said. "They wander in. We meet people from all over the world. They're going to Thailand tomorrow, they know nothing about it, and they'll run in and buy a book about it."
Thailand, in fact, has become a popular destination. "It is getting so popular," Gibbs said, "that if you want to go, go now--that's what people are saying." So, on Dec. 1, the shop is hosting a book-signing by Len Rutledge, author of "The Maverick Guide to Thailand."
The shop carries a series of books called "Born to Shop," with tips on shopping in cities from Hong Kong to New York.
And, for those who want to stay closer to home, the shop has West Coast travel books, including a new book called "Golf Vacations in California."
The Travel Gallery, 1007 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach. Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Lady Bountiful Shoppe
With the pleasing aroma of incense and a fluffy gray cat named Queens as a mascot, Lady Bountiful Shoppe on Aviation Boulevard in Redondo Beach is a haven for people interested in the ancient arts and the tranquility of the New Age.
Owner Jacqueline Myers sells books on such topics as astrology, Tarot, herbs and health, goddess worship, metaphysics and parapsychology. Even more prominent are jars of herbs, spices and tea, as well as jewelry and stones, incense and scented oils, Tarot cards, candles and greeting cards.
Myers said the store caters to people who are "naturalistic and earth oriented, believe in recycling and animal rights. Sixty percent of our customers are vegetarian. They're interested in natural and homeopathic supplies and literature and magazines that represent that philosophy."
In addition to its New Age merchandise, the store offers classes in Chinese herbal medicine, the Gaelic language, astrology, Tarot and ceremonial magic.
Lady Bountiful Shoppe, 1513 N. Aviation Blvd., Redondo Beach. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. , Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Across town at the Spectrum Bookshoppe, American Indian music greets the alternative reader. The Redondo Beach store, says owner Dilce Dorin, is a place for positive energy and to be at peace.
Past the stand of Shirley MacLaine paperbacks, which is alongside free copies of the monthly Psychic Reader, is a table with a variety of crystals for sale. Concentrate. If you have "awareness," Dorin says, one of the crystals might "connect" with you.
A class on spiritual therapy is offered every Tuesday from 8 to 10 p.m. and is based on the book "A Course in Miracles." Dorin highly recommends the book, which also comes in a text and as a teacher's manual.
Spectrum carries more than 2,600 titles on the metaphysical. Incense, Tarot cards and Christmas cards are also available.
Spectrum Bookshoppe, 800 S . Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Jimmy B's Audiobooks
Jimmy Belson runs a bookstore with a twist: You don't read the books he sells. You listen to them.
According to Belson, his Jimmy B's Audiobooks at Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance opened a year ago as the nation's only store devoted exclusively to books on tape.
The store carries 4,000 titles representing nearly everything available on audio cassettes. They span poetry, drama, literary classics, children's literature, history, philosophy and popular fiction. There are instructional tapes in 41 languages, comedy and self-help selections.
Several poets and authors read their own works. And in a more aural than literary vein, Belson's offerings include a generous sampling of classic radio, from Abbott and Costello to Orson Welles.
Initially produced for the blind as an alternative to Braille, books on tape have become mainstream in our commuter culture, Belson said.
"They're for people who don't have time but appreciate literature," he said, noting that 70% of bestsellers are on audio. "They listen to them instead of top 40 hits as they drive."
Belson's holiday recommendations include "The Power of Myth," the Joseph Campbell-Bill Moyers conversations, and Celeste Holm reading Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" and "The Thanksgiving Visitor." He said the top seller for children is Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales."
Jimmy B's Audiobooks, Del Amo Fashion Center, near the string of mall restaurants off Hawthorne Boulevard. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.
It's not difficult to drive right past Book Buddy in Old Downtown Torrance. The store is only 14 feet wide.
But once inside, you know you're in a quintessential used bookstore.
Rows of tall, sometimes mismatched wooden shelves laden with books stretch far back into the store, which makes up for its narrow width by a 100-foot depth. Years of book browsers' feet have left their marks on the carpets and linoleum. Topic signs are hand painted and a radio plays jazz.
"I love the business," says owner Bud Gobler, who opened his store 14 years ago. "I like customers finding what they like, which they usually do. I'm never going to make a lot of money, but I just love it."
The store carries 30,000 titles in hardback and 20,000 in paperback. It specializes in military history and the performing and visual arts. In addition to selling books, Gobler also buys them and has a book search service.
The gems of his store include 20th-Century first editions, with works by such authors as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Maugham and Updike, fine art and photography books and limited signed editions of science fiction and horror. Rarities include a California cookbook, written by the chef of San Francisco's Palace Hotel before the earthquake, and a signed edition of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
But, to paraphrase a popular radio station, a book doesn't have to be rare to be classic. Gobler confides that his best sellers are Louis L'Amour paperbacks.
Book Buddy, 1328 Sartori Ave., Torrance. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Book Again must surely be the bargain-basement bookstore of the South Bay. From the moment you approach it, in a mini-mall near Anza Avenue in Torrance, you are accosted by signs detailing giveaways and other deals.
Hanging next to racks of used paperbacks set outside the store is a price list that reads like something out of the 1930s: "Bargain books: 15=$2, 7=$1.50, 4=$1, 1=35 cents.
But the deals don't end there. The owners set out free pots of fresh coffee and tea for customers. They have daily specials: On one recent day, any book whose author's last name began with the letter L, M or N was half off. And for every $7.50 you spend in the store, you get a free paperback thrown in for good measure. Best yet, they pay up to 30% of the cover price for any book offered for trade.
The 5-year-old store is owned by Sheryl Anderson, a registered nurse, and run by her son, Michael Nolte. Says Nolte: "A lot of used bookstores gear themselves toward specialties aimed for the collector. We felt there was a real need for a general used bookstore that would appeal to people who just want to trade paperbacks for other paperbacks. . . . We have people who literally live on the beach but who can come here and buy a book for the price you could bum off someone for a cup of coffee."
Although Book Again doesn't have book signings or readings, it does offer book lovers a fairly comfortable atmosphere punctuated by soft classical music in which to peruse books. Customers are encouraged to browse through books in a chair with a cup of coffee. Nolte, his mother and his brother, Joe, also put out a monthly newsletter that contains a folklore column and updates on book bargains.
Nolte estimates they have 7,000 titles in stock. The emphasis is on general fiction, mystery, westerns and romance novels, but a few prizes can be found.
Nolte's personal book choice of the month is "The Plains of Passage" by Jean M. Auel, but he says art books (most of them brand new) are the store's best buys. Among them are "Warhol" by Christopher Makos, listed at $22.95 but for sale at Book Again at $16.95 (mind you, this book has never been cracked open), and "Ansel Adams, An Autobiography," which is listed at $29.95, but is on sale here for $17.95.
Book Again, 5039 Torrance Blvd . , Torrance. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Torrance Bookstore, located in the heart of Old Torrance, has been there 30 years and is showing its age. New owner William F. Wilson is apologetic, however: A sign at the entrance advises, "Under new management, excuse the mess."
No classical music, comfortable chairs or carpeted floors in this no-nonsense store. Strips of plywood lean against empty bookshelves, and the green and yellow walls look as if someone lost heart halfway through a paint job. Wilson says he would like to remodel. But there is a problem: The store lies in a redevelopment zone and has an appointment with a wrecking ball in the next year or two.
Wilson says he has about 50,000 books in stock, but the general fiction section is the only group of books that is alphabetized.
Still, prices here are good, especially for the 25-year-old Look magazines that he is selling for 50 cents.
Wilson doesn't like to make recommendations, but after much prodding finally came up with a couple of ideas for that hard-to-buy-for aunt: "The Ocean World" by Jacques Cousteau ($25) or "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra" by Kitty Kelley ($10).
Torrance Bookstore, 1338 El Prado Ave., Torrance. Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Wise Owl
Those interested in giving kids Christmas presents that teach might learn a thing or two at The Wise Owl in Torrance. Officially, The Wise Owl is a teacher supply store. But its racks hold plenty of didactic stocking-stuffers.
Prominent, of course, are books--a small collection of primary, intermediate and upper-level titles ranging from "David Copperfield" to "Merle the High Flying Squirrel."
Then there are educational games, including a math puzzle, an alphabet race, animal lotto and an electronic device that uses computer keys and flashing lights to quiz the child on world geography.
Co-owner Pat Siegel, a former elementary schoolteacher, says the geography games are the most popular: "Everybody's pushing geography these days because it's the weakest area for the kids."
The Wise Owl, 3865 Pacific Coast Highway, Torrance. Hours: Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Enchanted Elf
The Enchanted Elf in Hermosa Beach is a toy store, but with a big emphasis on books.
Alongside the stuffed bunnies, for instance, owner Robin Daykin has strategically placed Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit," and over by the plastic dinosaurs the display features Tomie dePaola's "Little Grunt and Big Egg--A Prehistoric Fairy Tale."
"I try to find the books that blend nicely with toys," Daykin said. She also features local authors and illustrators, such as John VanDenEykels, whose "Simply Drawing" teaches kids to make their own cartoons, and Wenddlin Maners, whose watercolor illustrations are featured in "Why Does Santa Celebrate Christmas?"
Against one wall, however, Daykin has also stocked an ample selection of children's favorites, including the popular "Spot" books by Eric Hill, the classic "Little Engine That Could," and Martin Handford's guaranteed-to-make-you-squint "Where's Waldo?"
The Enchanted Elf, 703 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Gloria Gordon knew plenty about books but nothing about the business when she opened Secondhand Prose in Torrance 11 years ago. "I was just a serious reader," says Gordon, who sold her home in Torrance to open the store on Crenshaw Boulevard.
She opened the store, she says, with an eye toward its environment. She wanted a sort of English bookstore with couches and chairs and classical music. "One of the things I used to hate about bookstores is not being able to sit and enjoy books before having to make a decision about buying them," she says.
Today, Secondhand Prose has that setting with collectibles like silver plates and water pitchers alongside 25,000 titles of used and out-of-print books. There are large sections devoted to art and Western culture and more specialized sections for books on the Orient, Australia and other locales.
From time to time, Gordon opens the store for small gatherings--"soirees," she calls them --on specific topics ranging from 19th-Century poetry to the works of Ernest Hemingway. And during the holidays, Gordon offers coffee and Christmas cookies to customers.
For the holidays, she says, she has just received a large supply of Franklin Library leather-bound books. Her personal recommendations, though, run lately toward first-edition mysteries, especially those written by female authors like Sue Grafton, who writes about Santa Barbara, and Marcia Muller, whose novels take place in San Francisco.
Secondhand Prose, 16010 Crenshaw Blvd, Torrance. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day but Thursday, when it stays open until 7:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
What fresh mystery lurks behind the Silver Door?
Only Karen La Porte can say.
An avid mystery buff and former advertising executive, La Porte has been selling mysteries, from rare first editions to paperbacks, out of her Hermosa Beach home since 1984.
The address isn't listed in the telephone book--her business is by catalogue and appointment only--but the observant sleuth might find a clue to La Porte's whereabouts on, say, the rear bumper of her car, which bears a bumper sticker declaring "Sherlock Holmes Lives."
"I used to have a little store on Hermosa Avenue," she said, taking a long pull on her cigarette in the living room of her hillside home, "but frankly, it didn't pay. When the weather was rotten, nobody would come, and when the weather was great, nobody could park. Customers began calling me up to place an order when they wanted something, and it just went from there."
From Edward S. Aarons' "Assignment: Maltese Maiden" on a top left shelf in her family room to Hugh Zachary's "Murder in White" at the bottom of her downstairs den, La Porte's home is literally lined with detective, spy and espionage novels--more than 12,000 of them, she said.
Among her prizes: A first edition of Robert B. Parker's first book, "The Godwulf Manuscript," signed copies of Tony Hillerman, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy novels, and even a selection or two by Michael Gilbert, who as any true buff will note, was Raymond Chandler's lawyer.
Silver Door, P.O. Box 3208, Redondo Beach, CA 90277. (213) 379-6005. Hours: By appointment.
The owner of Author Author, which at three months of age is the newest of the South Bay's independent bookstores, says she hopes her new Redondo Beach store will become a community focal point.
"I feel that a bookstore can be more than just another consumer outlet," said owner Susan Cole. "A bookstore is a very special place. We have to make a living, true, but we also are a place where people can really improve the quality of their lives."
Cole, who stocks about 12,000 titles, said she has a strong children's section to attract young readers, including "An Egg Is an Egg," a hardbound volume that Cole said "talks about the natural changes all around a little boy's life . . . while affirming at the end that love never really changes."
Good sellers in her eclectic selection for grown-up customers have included "For the Love of God," a paperback collection of spiritual essays by leading psychologists and religious figures, and "Structures," a photographic celebration of man's most awesome engineering and architectural feats.
At 1 p.m. on the first and third Sunday of each month, Author Author hosts a children's story hour. The store also has hosted a guitar recital, poetry readings, a drawing class and a fiction writers' group.
"I like to be very community-oriented. I like my bookstore to be a place where all different types of people can come and feel welcome," Cole said. "I take it very seriously. The books are something that have saved my life."
Author Author, 1218 Beryl St., Redondo Beach. Hours: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m; Sunday 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Galaxy Comics and Baseball Cards
POW! Walk into Galaxy Comics and Baseball Cards in Redondo Beach and you are greeted by posters of your favorite comic book heroes and an array of sports cards. BAM! Galaxy carries more than 300 comic titles that span from Action to X-Man.
Traditional favorites like Batman, the Amazing Spiderman and Superman wait side by side with quirkier comics such as Fool Killer, Hard Boiled and Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Galaxy, says store owner David Doering, caters to hobbyists and collectors.
"I've collected since I was a kid," said Doering, adding that he has also owned stamp and coin shops.
Charlotte Chidester, a Galaxy employee whose knowledge of comics is, well, out of this world, suggests Christmas gift certificates as a safe bet for the hard-to-buy-for relative. But even those who decide to gamble on a particular comic should not be too far off-target. The appeal of comics, she says, spans all generations.
Her favorite is Sandman, a science fiction series whose characters are based on death and dream figures from mythology.
A $675 Amazing Spiderman issue 3 is the most expensive comic the store carries. That issue was published in 1963 and first featured the villainous Doctor Octopus. After more than 230 issues, the most recent Amazing Spiderman again carried Doctor Octopus on the cover. "Die! Die! Die!" he screams, as he grapples with the blue-and-red-clad superhero. Will Spiderman escape his longtime nemesis? Stay tuned.
In addition to baseball, the store's card collection includes World Wrestling Federation cards. Those who are not inclined to stuff their stockings with a Hulk Hogan replica can instead browse through the store's sports-related merchandise.
Galaxy Comics and Baseball Cards, 1503 Aviation Blvd., Redondo Beach. Hours: Monday through Wednesday 10:30 a.m . to 7 p.m.; Thursday noon to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.