For the Dutton clan, well-respected fixtures of the Los Angeles bookselling world, the last year has been a series of unfortunate events.
Dutton’s Books and Art on Laurel Canyon Boulevard closed last spring after almost half a century when Davis Dutton left for Washington state.
Then, at the end of 2006, Dutton’s Beverly Hills shut its doors because of a disagreement over finances with the city, which had lured owner Doug Dutton, Davis Dutton’s brother, to the site after a long courtship. The closing has been met with outrage by some locals, who have peppered the mayor and City Council with e-mails and letters.
If these changes in the literary landscape are evoking intense emotion in the city’s bookish set -- from declarations of devotion to accusations of betrayal -- it’s nothing like what could be unleashed if a long-developing plot twist comes to pass: The three-section, nearly 5,000-square-foot Dutton’s Brentwood Books may soon succumb to its landlord’s plans to redevelop the site, part of a compound on San Vicente Boulevard.
Arguably Los Angeles’ signature independent bookshop, the store is a beacon for both prominent authors and passionate readers. A move would indelibly alter the store’s identity, many feel. Dutton’s, with its irregular layout, ripped carpet and books overflowing their shelves onto old flagstone floors, is considered by many to be not just a city institution but one of the nation’s great idiosyncratic bookstores.
What’s more, in a neighborhood where median housing prices approach $2 million, neighbors fear the loss of a quirky, laid-back community gathering spot.
But a reckoning between the burgeoning Westside real estate marketplace and this rambling, anachronistic store seems inevitable.
Independent bookstores increasingly owe their existence to landlords who value their presence and are willing to cut sweetheart deals. But as book lovers and other dreamers are finding, sentiment goes only so far.
Even a sweetheart deal wasn’t enough to save the Beverly Hills Dutton’s store, which met the fate of many other indies when Doug Dutton found he couldn’t make even the below-market rent the city had offered and officials would not renegotiate the store’s lease.
For other independent booksellers nationwide and in the Southland, it has been a trying time as well. Beyond the high price of real estate in the kinds of neighborhoods able to support bookstores, they have faced tough competition from giant chain bookstores and online bookselling.
Although some, including Vroman’s in Pasadena, can still compete, the list of closed or threatened indies seems to grow by the month. Among the latest is Tia Chucha’s Cafe & Cultural Center, founded by author Luis Rodriguez in Sylmar, which will be replaced by a laundromat by the end of February. Book Soup’s South Coast Plaza store is slated to close at the end of March.
The owner of the Dutton’s site is Charles T. Munger, a founder of the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson who partnered in 1978 with Warren E. Buffett to run Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a holding company; Munger’s shares are worth $1.7 billion. He had been a partner with his brother-in-law, David Barry, in the San Vicente property but recently bought him out.
Munger, 83, has big plans for the property, which runs from the former Bonner School to Longs drugstore and includes del Mano Gallery and several small businesses and offices.
“It’s the ultimate redevelopment site,” Munger said, adding, “We’ve always been straight with Doug and told him the property would be developed in due course. The more time goes by, the closer we are to due course.”
Munger, a major donor to the L.A. Philharmonic and other local arts institutions, said he planned an independent, service-oriented bookstore on the ground floor of what he envisions as a mixed-use development, including luxury condos. The space would be much smaller than the warren of rooms and generous courtyard that Dutton’s has become over the years. But Munger said he is willing to offer Dutton “ridiculously low rent” -- as he is doing for a new branch of Vroman’s in a mixed-use property he is building in Pasadena.
“We’ll make a real effort to preserve Doug’s store,” Munger said. “We want him back. If he’s unwilling, we’ll get another independent bookstore. One way or another, in any redevelopment, there’s going to be a bookstore right there in Doug’s location.”
Munger would not specify a time frame for the redevelopment, but he noted that the city’s approval process is long and can be arduous, especially if there’s a community uproar.
‘A literary oasis’
None of this has been good news for Doug Dutton, 58, a gentle, silver-haired musicologist. He’s clearly rattled by the possibility that he could be redeveloped out of existence. Sipping coffee in the shop’s cafe on a recent afternoon, an hour before he led a book group on Dmitri Shostakovich’s autobiography, he insisted that the place, wherever its future home may be, needs to remain “a literary oasis, a community gathering place,” not “an appendage to a residential complex.”
“There was a very studied effort here to create a literary environment,” Dutton said. Soon after he took over the Brentwood store, which had been around since 1960, he decided to emulate what was happening at New York’s 92nd Street Y: “I thought, why couldn’t this happen here?” He began the store’s reading series, which continues to draw well-regarded authors.
Other factors contribute to the store’s success. “It has to do with stock and selection,” Dutton said. “It also had to do with hiring readers, people who liked books. My first question of any job interview is, ‘What are you reading?’ ”
Some staff members have been there for more than 20 years and have generated small groundswells of support for books they like.
Dutton is especially proud of “the sense of continuity” in a town not known for long-standing businesses -- and the fact that people who went into the store as babies now take their kids to Dutton’s.
To many residents of Beverly Hills, the loss of Dutton’s there wasn’t simply a real estate dispute but another sign that the city officials no longer cared about the community. That store, crisp and well-lighted, had a dedicated following, one that differed from the more laid-back clientele in Brentwood: Staffers recall a woman who would go by at the same time, after her regular facials, and others so busy they would leave their cars idling on the street while they ran in to grab books.
“Beverly Hills had a glorious staff,” said Sara Willen, an antiquarian manuscript dealer who visited the store weekly. “The guy who ordered the music had a PhD in musicology from Princeton,” she said. “It’s the opposite of walking into Borders and getting a bored teenager.”
Despite the down-home feel, the Brentwood store attracts a celebrity crowd. Among the regulars are Jamie Lee Curtis, Meg Ryan, Nora Ephron, John Lithgow and Maria Shriver, who was spotted having coffee there recently. Former Mayor Richard Riordan, an ardent book collector, is also a devotee.
Dustin Hoffman, another celebrity customer who has read books to children in the Brentwood courtyard, called the store “a funky place. I don’t know how you replace funky.”
Added Diane Keaton, who wrote to Beverly Hills officials to protest that store’s closing: “It’s something you really don’t want to see go. It’s an authentic part of Brentwood.”
Carolyn See, the L.A. author of “Golden Days” and “The Handyman,” calls Dutton’s “a pillar of the community.”
“It’s going to sound corny, but it is like a secular church,” See said, adding that she especially values the courtyard, where she and hundreds of other authors have scribbled their names in books over the years.
“Any time you go, you see three, four or five people chatting and hugging.... I think Mr. Munger would understand the importance of a place like that.”
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A bookman’s tale
Doug Dutton, 58, has bookselling in his blood.
He began working at his parents’ North Hollywood bookstore in seventh grade. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara (with dual degrees in English literature and music) and earning a master’s degree (in music theory and composition) at UC Berkeley, he worked in publishing and music. He eventually returned to Los Angeles to teach music but was lured back into the family business.
After several years at the North Hollywood location, he took over the Brentwood store when Dutton’s bought it in 1984.
He lives near the old North Hollywood store (now closed) with his wife, Penny, and their youngest child. Two older children are married.
His collection of books numbers in the thousands. Among his favorites are “Huckleberry Finn” and works by Dante, Shakespeare and Italo Calvino.
Source: Times reporting by Scott Timberg and Martha Groves