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Bad Ending for Bookstore : Owner Says Theft Has Doomed Fahrenheit 451, a Laguna Beach Counterculture Oasis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From its humble beginnings as a cozily cluttered counterculture bookstore in the 1960s to its more yuppified reincarnation in the 1990s, Fahrenheit 451 Books has been as much a part of Laguna Beach as art galleries and volleyball.

But after 26 years as Orange County’s best-known literary oasis--a place where beat poet Allen Ginsberg and former Yippie leader Jerry Rubin once held court--the landmark bookstore named after Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel about censorship is about to close because of financial problems.

The end could come today or it could come Sunday. Owner Dotti Ibsen is not sure.

“It depends on if there are any books left and if we can make enough money selling coffee and desert,” said Ibsen, who has been running a liquidation sale since last week.

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Ibsen says the bookstore’s problems result from an embezzlement, which the Laguna Beach Police Department confirms it is investigating. News of Fahrenheit’s financial woes has spread faster than last October’s wildfires.

“There is a grass-roots group that has sort of bubbled up that’s very heartening,” Ibsen said.

The group of about 100 that calls itself the Friends of Fahrenheit is planning a benefit April 9 and 10 and hopes to attract investors to keep Fahrenheit afloat.

“It’s probably the only place on the (Orange County) coast that a person can go and actually get a taste of the ‘60s and the Haight-Ashbury days and the coffeehouse and the metaphysics and the artists and the whole bit,” said Ron Watson, a syndicated radio talk show host who lives in Dana Point and has been a Fahrenheit fan for 10 years.

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Ibsen, who says customers express disbelief that a store that seems so successful could be closing, reported to police that the embezzlement caused Fahrenheit to lose about $100,000 over a 17-month period. Police declined to give any other details.

After falling behind $23,000 in rent, she and her husband, Ken, recently lost their lease.

The Ibsens had planned to move Fahrenheit 451 from its address on South Coast Highway into a much larger store on Forest Avenue by this month. The new store would have been what Ibsen terms a combination bookstore, restaurant and arts forum.

Now, “we’re trying really hard to put together some kind of an investment package so that we could actually sell half (the interest in) the store and be able to continue on at our new location,” Ibsen said.

Despite facing closure with no investors in sight, Ibsen, 55, remains hopeful that Fahrenheit 451 will rise from the ashes.

Bill Tannebring, whose jazz trio plays at Fahrenheit every Monday night, will play at the benefit.

“One of the things that has made this such an interesting place is it really seems to reflect Laguna’s ambience,” he said.

Fahrenheit is a place where customers can listen to a jazz group one night and a Brazilian folk singer the next night, he said. It’s a place where a patron can be found playing chess in one corner and a psychic or numerologist chatting with customers in another.

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And, he said, it’s the kind of bookstore where a customer can order a cappuccino, pick up a book “and treat the place like a library.”

The Ibsens--she’s a former mechanical engineer and he’s a professor emeritus of biochemistry at UC Irvine--bought Fahrenheit 451 Books in 1988 when it was located near the Hotel Laguna.

The shop had an eclectic inventory not found in the chain stores. When British mystery writer P. D. James dropped in during the mid-'80s, she called it “my idea of a perfect bookstore.”

The Ibsens moved to more spacious quarters in a mini-mall across the street in 1991. Bradbury attended the opening, calling the store “a reader’s paradise.”

Watson, like other other long-time customers, can’t picture Laguna Beach without Fahrenheit 451. “The whole community is just trying to get behind this,” he said. “There’s a great amount of love for the bookstore. It’s just a sad thing that’s happening.”


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