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Writers Reading Night and Day to Save Poets’ Haven

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Local wordsmiths and storytellers say The Poetry Shop rescued them from oblivion when it opened in December.

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Now it’s these poets who are trying to rescue the popular meeting spot.

If John Gorham, the shop’s owner and resident poet, fails to raise $10,000 to cover back rent and overdue bills by Friday, the lights may go out on the poetry readings and workshops that have lasted late into the night here.

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“There will be a lot of creative people who won’t have any place to go, except maybe Denny’s,” said storyteller and poet Dale Wayne Jackson, who has performed weekly at the Thousand Oaks Boulevard shop since it opened. “We won’t really have a forum to express our ideas.”

Jackson, 49, and several other poets launched a 36-hour marathon of poetry and storytelling Wednesday to drum up dollars for the store.

Finding The Poetry Shop hidden away in the Northstar Plaza mall along with a copy center, escrow company and nail salon seems about as likely as discovering a bowling alley on Rodeo Drive.

Despite its name, browsers won’t find any Dylan Thomas or Emily Dickinson on the shelves here. The store’s boxy, carpeted interior looks more like a gift shop than a funky hangout for writers.

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But for area poets, novelists and storytellers, the 1,200-square-foot shop is a hallowed space where they can sip coffee, scratch out a few lines and listen to their peers recite their newest pieces. And for a fee, Gorham makes sound recordings of readings or publishes poets’ works.

"[The shop] is a support system for artists,” said Gorham, a 32-year-old father of two who lives just two miles from the shop. “It’s a place for poets, by poets. Before this place opened, poets had to travel to go read.”

About eight blocks from the new Civic Arts Plaza, the store, poets say, has helped the city emerge as a regional arts center.

“This area has been something of a cultural wasteland,” said David Alan Foster, a 42-year-old poet from Thousand Oaks clad in an e.e. cummings T-shirt. “We feel that The Poetry Shop has been part of the transformation.”

Customers come from as far as Santa Barbara and Malibu, and range in age from 15 to their late 80s, Gorham said.

Ruddy Beldner, president of the Arts Council of Conejo Valley and a Thousand Oaks arts commissioner, said painters, musicians and other artists have already built up active organizations in the area. But before The Poetry Shop, Beldner said, poets had nowhere to go to talk verse and iambic pentameter.

“This shop has been the first thing that has come along to get the poets in a large area to come together,” Beldner said.

Foster, who dreamed up the idea for the eleventh-hour fund-raiser, rattled off a list of items poets and residents donated for an auction that will run through tonight.

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Jackson offered one free session as a writing coach. Matthew Burke, a 36-year-old Thousand Oaks accountant and poet, chipped in two free tax sessions. And Gorham, a naturalist as well as a writer, threw in a few free poetry hikes. But poetry lovers could also bid on a mountain bike, theater tickets and haircuts, to tick off just a few items. “OK, everybody, an update,” Gorham announced a few minutes after the 36-hour marathon kicked off at noon Wednesday. “We only have $9,990 to go.”

Nurturing, supportive, open, relaxed-- those are the words that poets used to describe the shop they are trying to keep open.

“The common perception is that writing is a lonely occupation,” said Ron Reichick, a 50-year-old poet from Simi Valley who founded Verve magazine, an international literary publication. “But poets need to commune. Poets like to inspire each other. This place lets you do that.”

Budding poet Kate Frankl, a 17-year-old Chatsworth resident, said she has combed the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles searching for bookstores and cafes where she would feel at ease reading her poetry, which she describes as stream-of-consciousness. But the Chatsworth High School senior said she felt the most comfortable at the Wednesday night readings held in Gorham’s store.

“The group here is very receptive to all kinds of writing,” said Frankl, who was munching a slice of a pepperoni pizza--some of the food a local restaurant pitched in as part of the fund-raiser. “I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement and support here.”

Gorham, who also has worked as a painter and locksmith, opened the store on a shoestring in December. Although he said he was correct in figuring that income from recording, publishing fees and sales would cover the monthly rent of $1,200, he failed to factor in permit costs and other fees.

“By the time we’d finally gotten the doors open, we’d been wiped clean,” Gorham said.

Gorham said raising $10,000 by Friday would enable him to clear his debt and stay in business, as he makes enough to run the store on a day-to-day basis.

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A spokeswoman from the El Segundo-based firm that manages the property agreed that a $7,000 payment Friday for the back rent Gorham owes “would resolve the situation.”

Gorham said a string of personal tragedies compelled him to pick up a pen.

While a senior at Westlake High School in 1980, Gorham said, his best friend was killed and another went into a coma after the two crashed on their way to a party.

“We were all three going to go together,” Gorham said. “At the last minute, I decided not to go.”

Three months later, Gorham’s girlfriend died in a house fire. And the following year, Gorham himself was in a traffic accident.

Bedridden with back injuries for a full year, Gorham began writing poetry.

“I just started writing--all of these emotions from my childhood,” Gorham said. “It just exploded out of me. In the first week, I think I must have written 200 poems.”

Today, Gorham writes about personal feelings, his family and his relationship with God. He calls his poetry “glorified Hallmark.”

But Frankl and others give it an altogether different tag.

“His poetry is almost mystical,” Frankl said. “It’s true-to-life, experience-based.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Saving a FriendBy Ron Reichick

When I heard the doors would close

Unless you came up with a chunk of cash

I nearly wrote you off.

That’s the natural order of things--Dreams are just that

They come and go in the night

Vanish in early light.

But The Poetry Shop is more than your dream

It’s a promise to you from everyone you’ve touched

A spirit that lives in the books,

Coffee, the poetry read, the music sung.

It’s a voice that will be heard

Doors that will never close.


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