Los Angeles, and the country at large, have been losing bookstores lately to forces that have become familiar in the trade: rising rents, competition from national retail chains and the discounts offered by online booksellers.
Yet the latest casualty has come not from financial failure but from a combination of success and a stroke of luck -- for the owners of Heritage Book Shop, at least. The Melrose Avenue fixture has been considered one of the finest and most lucrative antiquarian bookstores in the country. And although business continues to boom, the bookstore has been made an offer it cannot refuse.
“It was sudden for me,” said Ben Weinstein, one of the two Brooklyn-born brothers who moved the shop to West Hollywood two decades ago after they had run a thrift store in Compton and bookstores on Hollywood Boulevard and La Cienega Boulevard. This spring, the building was sold to a local businessman, and the ink is still drying on a separate sale of the $10 million or so in inventory to an as-yet-undisclosed auction house.
To the extent that this world-famous shop was a presence in L.A., it was more directly connected to the luxury trade, and to Hollywood money, than to the city’s literary life. An unofficial poll of scholars, writers and local book lovers shows almost no experiences with the place, and some of those who have been there associate the place with brusque treatment.
But when the TV show “Frasier” wrapped in 2004, the show’s producers bought nearly 20 going-away presents for cast and crew, Weinstein said -- all books priced from $5,000 to $10,000.
Although Heritage does not discuss its clientele, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Michael Ovitz are known to be rare book collectors or gifters. Winona Ryder once gave Martin Scorsese a 19th-century manuscript purchased at Heritage. Sarah Michelle Gellar is a regular at the shop and calls it “my church.” Mitch Glazer and other top-tier screenwriters are also known to collect rare books, sometimes based on the novels or time periods they’ve adapted.
Glenn Horowitz, godfather of the New York rare-book world and a frequent L.A. visitor, describes the place as “delivering a craft service to the film business.”
“Quantity-wise, I’d say it’s more that type of person,” Weinstein said of Hollywood suits seeking gifts and set directors looking for props. But in raw dollars, the big sales -- a book worth [up to] $100,000, for instance -- are more likely to come from high-end collectors anywhere in the world.
Weinstein’s brother and co-owner Lou, 63, has been living in Arizona most of the year, which has made it hard for Ben Weinstein, 69, to run the place solo. So, “when the offer came, I said, ‘You know, it’s a good time for me to get out too.’ ”
The 1928, vaguely English vault-ceilinged building that was once a mortuary seems out of place on Melrose Avenue, a street associated with teenagers and T-shirt shops. Even after the mortuary closed, the business operated with what the shop’s website calls “old world dignity.”
But the west side of the avenue, dominated by the looming Pacific Design Center, has over the decades grown up around it: Heritage fits in, spiritually at least, with the Urth Caffe across the street and upscale antique and high-design shops nearby.
At Heritage you could find a 1922 first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (one of 750 printed in Paris because of obscenity concerns in the English-speaking world); an original copy of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio;" and depending on when you arrived, any of Shakespeare’s Folios. If you had $45,000 and read Russian, you could grab an 1860s first edition of Tolstoy’s “Voina i Mir” (“War and Peace”).
A safe stored things such as a 1656 printing of one of Galileo’s texts in Italian, and a vellum Renaissance manuscript with hand-colored pages, as vibrant as the ones shown at the Getty.
“In the last probably 10 years, we’ve emphasized the high spots in all different areas,” Ben Weinstein said. “Things that have changed man’s thinking in either literature or history, in the sciences or in medicine. Influential books in first editions.”
Weinstein was excited to find a 1543 copy of Copernicus’ “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,” the beginning of modern astronomy. But his favorite book he’s ever held is a 1462 Bible, highly illuminated and with gold inlay, which was printed by an assistant of Johann Gutenberg a few years after the dawn of European printing.
“It’s the beauty of the printing of it, the workmanship,” he said. “It’s something that has never been improved on.”
The Weinstein brothers’ story is almost literally a tale of rags to riches, and they are arguably the most important figures in Southern California’s rare-book scene since Jake Zeiltin made L.A. the second city of antiquarian books in the 1920s.
“It’s like something out of Dickens,” said Phillip Bevis, the Seattle-based owner of Arundel Books on Beverly Boulevard, who calls them “the best businessmen in our field, anywhere in the world.”
Back in Brooklyn in the early 1960s, the brothers inherited a little money, old eyeglasses and a Reader’s Digest collection their father had accumulated while running a shop in Gary, Ind. They moved West and opened their first shop in Compton. Between the lamps and toasters and old TVs they found at swap meets, the cookbooks and auto manuals brought the highest profit, so the brothers, neither of whom had completed college, concentrated on printed matter. Book scouts -- including one who unloaded some tomes because he needed money for Las Vegas -- and book dealers helped educate them by example.
About a year later they moved the store to Hollywood Boulevard, which was rich with bookshops then. When they tripled their money on a batch of John Steinbeck letters they received in the late ‘60s, they knew they were on to something.
These days, Ben Weinstein, who describes himself as shy but is almost cherubic in manner, seems to have become the scholarly one: He expresses little interest in the running of a business -- “talking on the phone to people who ask 10 million questions about books” -- but loves the research into a book’s origins and status and the thrill of the chase in finding a rare work.
Weinstein said he saw no clear way to unload the store in a way that would keep it running. “The people who have the money don’t have the knowledge. And the people who have the knowledge don’t have the money, and if they did they would probably do something else with it.”
Ben Weinstein will rent an office in the Pacific Design Center and serve as a “book broker,” or middleman for some of his old clients, looking for books to serve specific needs and interests rather than accumulating an inventory. Lou Weinstein, who was in Jamaica for a wedding last week, will retire and live in Arizona. The 12,000 reference texts that helped the brothers to assess rare books will go to UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.