SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Reading Room : As huge chains put the squeeze on smaller bookstores, independents strive to find their niche.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The bookshelves at the Wild Iris Bookstore in Claremont stand half-empty. The lilac walls are covered with paintings, masks and T-shirts for sale, one of which reads “Eve was framed.” Two small cats scamper across the soft carpet, landing atop each other in the corner.

And cornered is how Genevieve Beenen, owner of Wild Iris, is feeling these days. Last year, she said, the recession and the nearby opening of a Barnes & Noble bookstore nearly put her small bookstore for women out of business.

Beenen struggled through the year, but last month was again on the verge of shutting down. Her bookshelves, once stocked from floor to ceiling, are down to about 4,000 titles. She is supposed to put in her book order soon but doesn’t know if she’ll have the money.

At the other end of the valley, in Pasadena, is Vroman’s bookstore, one of the most venerable independent bookstores in Southern California. Vroman’s, on Colorado Boulevard, celebrated its 100th year in business at the end of October and plans to double in size next year.

During the past few years, bookstore chains have given birth to book megastores such as Barnes & Noble and expanded beyond suburban shopping malls to the city streets that were once the domain of independent booksellers.

With the superstores’ vast selections and discount pricing, some of the small independent booksellers complain of overwhelming competition and unfair business tactics by publishers. But National Independent Bookstore Week, which ends tomorrow, finds other small bookstores in the area holding their own and even thriving.

One of the most successful is Vroman’s. Founded by photographer A.C. Vroman in 1894, the bookstore now offers more than 110,000 titles and has become something of a cultural institution. With the demise of Fowler’s Books in Downtown Los Angeles six months ago, Vroman’s is now the oldest bookstore in Southern California, said Karen Watkins, Vroman’s vice president.

“Specialty stores and very well-established independents will survive,” said Lise Friedman, president of the Southern California Booksellers Assn. and manager of Dutton’s Brentwood, a large independent store.

Many independents have closed in recent years, Friedman said, but not solely because of book chains. The recession and the move of society toward television and away from reading are other reasons, she said.

“But it’s definitely scary, because they (the chains) have a lot of money,” said Friedman. “My customers tell me they go to Crown for their bestsellers, but come to my store for special orders, which I lose money on.”

The newest of the eight Super Crown Books outlets in the San Gabriel Valley opened on Foothill Boulevard in Pasadena in February, just a few blocks from the site of Mr. Books, which had closed three months earlier. Its expansive front windows are blanketed with posters advertising 40% off all New York Times bestsellers.

Inside the massive space, the rows of more than 200,000 perfectly organized books are daunting. Displays of heavy hardback bestsellers dominate various intersections in the store. Beautiful coffee-table books abound, and with Playboy magazines adjacent to the classic literature section, the store seems to provide something for everyone.

The first Crown Books, specializing in discount pricing of big sellers, opened in Maryland in 1977 and was an instant success, said Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president. There are now 241 stores nationwide, 80 of which are Super Crowns, a larger version of the original.

“They are here to stay,” Gonzalez said. “Bigger and better is what everybody wants.”

The San Gabriel Valley has nine Waldenbooks, eight Crown Books--including two Super Crowns--seven B. Daltons and two Barnes & Nobles.

“We’re not trying to put independent bookstores out of business,” said Jeanie Prukop, district manager for B. Dalton. “We just want to see people reading, and we’re trying to stay ahead of the game, just like everybody else.”

Last year, the valley saw the closure of two independent bookstores. Hunter’s Books and Mr. Books, both in Pasadena, apparently closed for different reasons, but today there are separate Super Crowns just doors away from each site.

Mr. Books, which once advertised its store as “destined to be as famous as the Rose Parade,” closed a year ago. According to several local bookstore owners, the store was simply in the wrong location at the wrong time. The former owners were unavailable for comment.

Hunter’s, once a thriving chain with stores all over the West, closed its last California store in January after three years on Lake Avenue in Pasadena. The store was one of the largest in the chain and offered more than 370,000 new books and paperbacks. A year before its closure, a Super Crown opened down the block.

Adrian Kalvinskas, owner of Distant Lands, a travel bookstore in Pasadena, said he was not surprised by Hunter’s closing.

“Hunter’s had an image problem,” he said. “They had a good selection, but they needed to upgrade their image of a cold, basic, white room with books to compete with the Super Crown.”

But the former owner of Hunter’s Books, Lewis F. Lengfeld, said location, not competition, was the main reason for the store’s demise.

“Lake Avenue is not a classy area,” Lengfeld said.

Mike Smith, owner of the Alhambra Bookstore, said a Waldenbooks opened across the street from him several years ago and the only reason his 16,000-square-foot store is still in business is that it’s easy for him to make the rent--he owns the building.

Smith, who has been in the same location for 30 years, said his sales have dropped 25% during the past year, a decline he attributes to the chains and to discount department stores such as Target and K Mart.

To stay alive, Smith has been giving discounts on bestsellers, selling books in bulk to teachers and doing special orders.

“Publishers give a huge discount to the chains because they buy in large volume,” he said. “They sell books at prices I could never afford to.”

Smith is not alone in his complaints against certain publishers. Last May, the American Booksellers Assn., which represents 4,552 retail bookstores nationwide, filed an antitrust lawsuit against five U.S. publishers, charging them with unfair and illegal practices.

The suit accuses the publishers, including Houghton Mifflin Company Inc., of violating federal antitrust laws by offering the chains lower prices for bulk buys. The suit also claims that the publishers routinely make payments to bookstore chains so the chains will advertise their books and place the books in favorable places within the stores.

The publishers have responded by declaring that the booksellers’ group cannot legally bring a single case on behalf of an unspecified number of bookstores, said David Kaye, general counsel for St. Martin’s Press, one of the defendants.

“The bookstores have to file a complaint themselves,” Kaye said. “The suit, as is, is too vague and more of a political move than anything.”

The case is awaiting a hearing in New York.

In 1985, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Assn. successfully sued Avon and Bantam, two of the largest publishers of mass-market paperback books, for giving better discounts to Crown Books than to the several hundred small stores the association represented.

Although no damages were awarded, the case led Avon Books and Bantam to offer independents the same discount as chains, said Hut Landon, president of the Northern California association.

Paul Weaver, general counsel for Houghton Mifflin, said discounts on quantity purchases are not unique to bookselling.

“Competition is competition,” Weaver said. “I have sympathy for a small store when a chain opens up across the street, but they just have to find a way to distinguish themselves.”

Many specialty and secondhand stores scattered throughout the area are successfully distinguishing themselves by selling only used and rare books and catering to more specialized tastes.

At Cliff’s Books in Pasadena, a disorderly array of a quarter of a million books, records and comics jam the narrow shelves. Upstairs, in the rare-book room, is an eclectic collection of antique books, some more than 100 years old.

“I don’t see the chains as any competition,” said Mark Sailor, book buyer for Cliff’s. “The price of new books is always escalating, and as a used-book store, we can offer more discounts across the board.”

Cliff’s, just down the street from Vroman’s, stays open until midnight, thriving on street business. The two stores have a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

“They send us a lot of customers, and we get a lot of their spillover,” Sailor said.

Sailor said the only thing new-book stores have is new books at higher prices than his. In a twist on the megastore’s slogan, he tells his customers, “If you bought it at Crown, you paid too much.”

Other secondhand and specialty bookstores echo Sailor’s claim that chains can’t compete with their unique selections and environments.

“People come for more than the books, they come to talk about mysteries,” said Barry Martin, owner of BOOK’em Mysteries, a sleek South Pasadena store specializing in mysteries and dark fiction.

Martin said his business is holding its own despite the presence of a Crown Books three blocks away.

Distant Lands’ owner Kalvinskas said the Barnes & Noble two blocks away doesn’t offer the same service and selection he does and, as a result, will send customers his way.

“They have a decent selection, but not extensive,” Kalvinskas said. “I have over 9,000 travel books, compared to their 1,500.”

In addition to selling books, stationery and office supplies, Vroman’s sponsors a long list of monthly workshops and events that reads like a community college class schedule.

In the month of October alone, there were poetry readings, writers’ workshops, photography exhibits, story time for children, live music and a philosophy reading group.

And, of course, there are the guest authors. Last year, Vroman’s made local news when radio shock jock Howard Stern attracted more than 10,000 fans clamoring for him to sign his book “Private Parts.”

“We have always done outside events, which is one reason for our success,” said Vroman’s Watkins.

Still, for many independent bookstores, the future remains cloudy.

“The next 10 years will be crucial for small bookstores,” said Carol Seajay, publisher of the Feminist Bookstore Network, a booksellers’ newsletter. She worries that what America reads is at stake. “If the chains take over, then who’s buying books for America? A handful of chains, who are not known for buying progressive books,” she said.

Feminist bookstore owner Beenen, who offers books by and for women, has sent out a letter to more than 500 people in Claremont appealing for their help and support in keeping the Wild Iris open.

Beenen, 59, who said she has invested her life savings in the store, hopes to keep it afloat through the Christmas season. If business increases, she plans to set up a women’s resource center and a coffee area and to expand her teen and young-adult book section.

At the end of her letter of appeal, she expressed her fear that megastores signify an end to stores like hers.

“My store creates a unique environment that supports, encourages and makes tangible the writing and artistic creativity of women,” she wrote. ". . . This is something they won’t find at Barnes & Noble.”