For Dutton's books, it's the end

Times Staff Writers

Mired in debt and uncertain about the future of his current location, Doug Dutton said Monday that he will close his iconic Brentwood bookstore, where thousands of authors have celebrated their works in the central courtyard and readers such as Dustin Hoffman and Meg Ryan have sought counsel on stocking their bookshelves.

Dutton's, which plans to close April 30, is one of many independent bookstores that have disappeared in the last couple of decades. Rising rents, the growth of big-box chains and the triumph of Amazon.com as a major force have challenged the indies.

But Dutton's has a national reputation, a following among authors who appeared at its many readings and, for its two decades of history, a special place in literary Los Angeles.

Many considered it the most literary and high-minded of L.A.'s bookstores, as well as one that felt increasingly, if charmingly, anachronistic.

Dutton, 59, announced the closing on the store's website and e-mailed the statement to influential newsletters; he then printed out the news for unsuspecting customers at the San Vicente Boulevard store.

Throughout the day, Ed Conklin, a partner in the business, was fielding a stream of condolence e-mails sent by publishers and authors from across the country. In an interview, author John Rechy, who recently appeared at Dutton's for his memoir, "About My Life and the Kept Woman," spoke of the store's importance.

"Every non-million-selling writer has had his coming out there," he said. "They had every single book that you would want."

Author Carolyn See described the store's decline and looming closing as "just sickening."

She said she prized the spot as a neighborhood meeting place, not just for literati but also for local dog walkers. "If you weren't the drinking kind," See said, "you could go there the way you'd go to a bar."

More than one customer wept after hearing the news. A distraught Jennifer Watling, who described herself as a "passionate writer," dabbed at her eyes in the store's sun-splashed courtyard as she absorbed the news.

"This is a tragedy. It solidifies my moving back East," said Watling, 44, who grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and moved to Los Angeles in 1997.

Dutton said the decision was "devastating after 23 years of goodwill and generally fond memories." He said he hoped "to keep the business as regular as possible through the end of March," to satisfy orders for book groups and author signings. The store would then begin liquidating or returning its inventory.

The business is saddled with about $550,000 in debt, primarily from the ill-fated opening of a second store in Beverly Hills, and has been coping not only with tumult in the book industry but also with the planned redevelopment of the structure -- known as the Barry Building -- where the bookstore has been a fixture since 1984. In January 2007, the landlord revealed plans to redevelop the entire site, which includes the three-section, 5,000-square-foot Dutton's and several other enterprises in a number of buildings.

The property is owned by billionaire investor Charles T. Munger and his wife, Nancy. A founder of the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, he partnered in 1978 with Warren E. Buffett to run Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a holding company.

Munger was in Washington on Monday and could not be reached. He said in a statement that he would allow Dutton's to use the space rent-free during the liquidation and that he would cover the $550,000 debt in exchange for the store's closing. Dutton described the offer as "very gracious and generous." As part of the deal, Munger said, Dutton would retain the Dutton's trade name.

The Beverly Hills store closed in late 2006 after Dutton and the city, which had lured the store after a long courtship, disagreed over rent and other financial issues. Customers had been fearing that the Brentwood store would meet a similar end. Because of the turmoil of the last year, Dutton said he had been reluctant for several months to place orders for new books.

Dutton said his decision to close the store mostly had to do with the heavy debt and the vagaries of the book world, with enormous chain stores like Barnes & Noble and online operations such as Amazon sapping the sales of smaller stores.

Conklin said it was difficult to make a profit in an environment "where even a lot of places that sell backpacks sell books."

But other factors might have helped precipitate the closing.

Munger first proposed a mixed-use condo project for the site and, initially, he planned to offer Dutton's a smaller space for what he called "ridiculously low rent."

The neighborhood rebelled against the proposal, which Munger then withdrew.

Then, in October, the Los Angeles City Council voted to grant landmark status to the Barry Building, a Midcentury Modern structure named for the man who commissioned it.

That step created a review process but does not necessarily prevent the owner from developing the property or even demolishing the building.

If an owner requests a permit for demolition or substantial alteration, he is required to go through an environmental review process.

In recent weeks, Munger or his representatives have floated at least two proposals, only one of which would preserve the Barry Building.

Munger said his new plan calls for a small local-serving shopping center with an independent bookstore, with an emphasis on children's books, that would be staffed, he hopes, by former Dutton's employees. The store has 40 workers.

Dutton said Munger made it clear that "he thought of me as an old-fashioned businessman who was out of touch with reality."

Customers said they appreciated Dutton's warm, gentlemanly personality. Dutton did not rule out the possibility that he might open a store elsewhere.

But he added that plans to relocate would require a "real offer in a real situation, combined with a sober assessment of the realities of the book world."

Jennifer Bigelow, executive director of the Southern California Independent Bookstore Assn., a trade group, said she spoke with many bookstore people in the area who considered the loss of Dutton's akin to that of a family member. She added that she expected Doug Dutton to get another chance "to operate in the bookselling world."

She also pointed out that all is not gloom and doom in the indie book world. Skylight Books in Los Feliz is expanding. Eso Won Books in Leimert Park has bounced back from a near bankruptcy, and Book Soup on the Sunset Strip has survived the loss of its Orange County branch. Vroman's in Pasadena is thriving, but the proprietors own the building, as do the owners of Powell's Books in Portland, Ore.

But that didn't prevent sadness from descending on L.A.'s literary community.

"I think it's very depressing to think that bookstores might become dinosaurs," said Karen Mack, coauthor of "Literacy and Longing in L.A.," a novel whose plot revolves around Dutton's and its status as a community gathering place and literary launching pad.

martha.groves@latimes.com

scott.timberg@latimes.com

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