As customers listened to the strains of Bob Dylan and browsed the black shelves of Book Soup in West Hollywood, bookstore fans wondered about the future of this hip independent bookstore.
“I don’t like the news that all of these great independent bookstores are going bye-bye,” said David Armstrong, a New Yorker who was shopping Sunday at Book Soup during a business trip to Los Angeles.
The concern followed news that Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena has signed an agreement to purchase Book Soup, which its founder, Glenn Goldman, put on the market shortly before he died of pancreatic cancer in January.
Customers’ worries were exacerbated by the continuing struggle independents have in a world of giant bookstore chains and online sellers.
Tyson Cornell, Book Soup’s general manager, declined to comment on the impending sale. But like most of his customers, he worried that a new owner would change the atmosphere and guiding principles of the store.
The store is special, Cornell said Sunday, because of its unique selection of books and its knowledgeable staff, composed mostly of aspiring authors and screenwriters.
“I’m very concerned that things will change,” he added.
Allison Hills, president of Vroman’s, said the company intended to keep Goldman’s legacy alive by preserving the name and direction that made the store famous.
“The hope is that the transition is invisible to customers,” Hills said. “Book Soup will continue. Vroman’s will just provide the behind-the-scenes, operational infrastructure to keep it going.”
In 1975, Goldman was enrolled in UCLA’s graduate school of management when he put together $50,000 in start-up funds for a small bookstore on Sunset Boulevard. The first few years were tough, with Goldman forced to live in the back of the store to keep the business alive. In the late 1980s, he moved the store to its current location on Sunset near Holloway Drive.
In 2002, Goldman launched a second bookshop with a coffee bar at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. But the venture closed five years later, a victim of high rents and stiff competition from online booksellers and chain bookstores. Book Soup has since become a landmark in West Hollywood, offering more than 60,000 titles in a labyrinth of tall, black shelves.
Indeed, that competition from online retailers such as Amazon.com and big chains such as Barnes & Noble Inc. has continued to hit small retail booksellers hard. And the deep recession that began in December 2007 has added to the burden on independent stores.
Book publishers have reported slight gains in revenue this summer, but those numbers don’t tell the story of independent booksellers. Retail sales at bookstores nationwide were down 0.5% to $1.11 billion in July from nearly $1.12 billion a year earlier, according to preliminary figures released last month by the Census Bureau.
In August, Chicago accounting firm Grant Thornton predicted that 400 bookstores would close by the end of this year, a 500% increase over the number that closed last year.
Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood, another independent Southern California shop that was considered one of the region’s literary centers for more than 20 years, closed last year because of debt and an uncertain future at that location. And the 74-year-old Acres of Books, a cultural beacon in Long Beach with more than 1 million volumes, also closed last year to make way for a redevelopment project.
Despite the recession and strong competition from big chains, Book Soup’s Cornell said the shop has continued to thrive, and he credited the store’s staff and wide selection of hard-to-find titles.
Even though another independent operation would be taking over, Book Soup customers worried Sunday that their favorite bookstore could lose that special appeal.
“It’s kind of sad to see stuff like this happen and places like this disappear or change,” said Pat Caulfield, who purchased a vintage fashion book, a title he said he couldn’t find at a chain bookstore. “I hope it doesn’t happen.”
Leonard Morpurgo, an author who appeared at Book Soup to read from his book about his life as a Hollywood publicist, said Book Soup welcomed him after two big chain bookstores declined to invite him to read.
“This is a bookstore that loves books,” he said. “It’s not about the bottom line here.”
Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg contributed to this report.