The bookstore's appearance smack in the middle of downtown has come so suddenly, said the owner, that some patrons gasp when they first come in. "They think it's a movie set," she said, "like the ones down the street. They ask, 'Is it real, can I come in?' "
Dozens of them came in Friday for a grand opening and party with seven local authors, a number of whom were, like co-owner Julie Swayze, members of the Sisters in Crime writers group.
Despite the considerable enthusiasm filling the room, and a handsome German poster for Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" above the cash register, the space still looks a little bare. But Metropolis Books, at 440 S. Main St. -- arriving at a time that sees far more closings than openings in the book business -- is being called the first nonspecialty, nonchain bookstore in downtown L.A. since the legendary Fowler Brothers shut its doors in 1994.
The 900-square-foot store sits in the Old Bank District, with its hipster lofts and Beaux Arts buildings that impersonate a different city each time a film crew rolls through (which is often). A block away is the retro-styled Pete's Cafe & Bar and the year-old, indie-minded Old Bank DVD store. Metropolis shares a block with a newish Vietnamese cafe, several art galleries and the Regent Theater, slated to become a rock hall next year.
"Ultimately, what it comes down to is reclaiming these blighted areas," said Andre Coleman, a science-fiction writer. "You have to put culture back -- you can't just put in a Subway or a Starbucks. I know we're close to an area called skid row, but a bookstore gives people hope."
Grand Avenue has been the focus of much of downtown's development, and books can be bought at the gift shops of Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Used and specialty bookstores come and go.
But despite downtown's residential boom -- and the old bookstore row that filled 6th Street half a century ago -- Metropolis is the first place for more than decade where a flaneur can stroll in and count on picking up a collection of classic Chekhov stories, the latest new-American cookbook and a new anthology of literary comics all in the same trip.
"This is the kind of retail we need more of," said Brigham Yen, a young downtown resident and budding real estate mogul who was browsing while listening to an iPod. "I don't know if it's PC to say, but they're reclaiming the street for the residents who live here."
Downtown activist Brady Westwater was more direct about the touchy topic of gentrification. "If everything goes right, we'll have nine art galleries on 5th Street," he said. "Less than two years ago, you had to literally step over the drug dealers."
Jennifer Bigelow, executive director of the newly renamed Southern California Independent Booksellers Assn., acknowledged the challenges indies face from chain bookstores and online sales. But, she said, "a new independent bookstore downtown is a natural." Indies do well in places "where there's a strong sense of community. For example, in Pasadena, Vroman's" has thrived for more than a century.
Bigelow sees a few common denominators among the stores that survive in this climate. "The ones that are still around are much more savvy about what their customers want. They don't try to be all things to all people." She calls Book 'em Mysteries bookstore in South Pasadena a model of indie success.
Swayze, who has a business degree and worked as a manager for Pier 1 and as a buyer for Robinsons-May, said working in business taught her to start broad and to specialize her stock as she gets to know her patrons better.
She's already picking up the scent.
"I would like to build our architecture and graphic design section," she said. "Those books are flying off the shelves."
Swayze also detects an interest in old L.A., and because she's a self-published mystery writer and science-fiction fan, books by Agatha Christie and Philip K. Dick should be easy to find.
But instead of endless market research, her goal was to open the place quickly, especially after she saw the success of Old Bank DVD, run by a friend.
"When she gets an idea in her head," said Steve Bowie, Swayze's husband, a black-history buff and the store's co-owner, "she's a force of nature."
Although Metropolis is considerably smaller, it adds to the constellation of local indie bookstores, the brightest stars of which are generally thought to be Book Soup on the Sunset Strip, Skylight in Los Feliz, Vroman's and Dutton's -- which has grown to a mini-empire, with locations in Brentwood, Beverly Hills and downtown's REDCAT.
There was cheer inside Metropolis, but it's still a trying time for indies: Book Soup owner Glenn Goldman calls it "a very tough environment," and Doug Dutton says it gets harder every year because of "competition for time and the dominance of online bookselling."
John Evans, who opened Diesel bookstore in Malibu in 2004, said indies can also be undercut by shops -- "design shops and clothing shops and lampshade shops" -- that sell a few books because of the new ease of computerized ordering.
Skylight co-owner Kerry Slattery says the difference is often made by location, especially foot traffic, and being attentive to the needs of the community. Business experience doesn't hurt, she said.
"When we opened 10 years ago, bookstores were closing left and right. People said, 'You're crazy to open a bookstore.' We have an amazing location, but we kept everything very lean" in both stock and staff. Skylight also started author events within weeks after opening. The stores that survived, she said, had to be tighter and more savvy to both business and their customers.
"I think there's probably an optimal time in there somewhere," said Book Soup's Goldman, "when you have sufficient support to sustain you, but you're not coming in late and saddled with a steep lease. Bookstores tend to open more toward the tail end of the business ecology of a neighborhood -- it's difficult to be a pioneer. It's probably easier for a restaurant."
Despite his wariness about the market, Dutton called the opening of a new bookstore "like seeing the buds on a tree -- it's the most hopeful sign of spring."