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Two more beloved L.A. indie bookstores reach an existential crossroads

A girl reads Cece Bell's "El Deafo" inside Larchmont Village's Chevalier's Books.
A girl reads Cece Bell’s “El Deafo” inside Chevalier’s Books, a Larchmont Village bookstore that recently sent readers an urgent email.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Another beloved Los Angeles bookstore is in trouble.

Chevalier’s Books, an 80-year-old independent bookstore located in Larchmont Village, sent some 3,000 readers an email Monday calling on them for increased support.

When COVID-19 led to a general shutdown in March, “like most retailers, our sales fell about 40%,” wrote owners Bert Deixler and Darryl Holter. “A [Paycheck Protection Program] loan, a dedicated staff and loyal customers kept us just afloat.” Then came another hardship. "[O]ur new landlords announced we would not be able to extend our lease and required us to be out of this space by the end of the year.

“So, Chevalier’s Books is now at a crossroads. We’ve located a vacant space on Larchmont that could be a new home for us, but the rent there will be more than double what we currently pay. There will also be significant moving and design costs. It will be a huge financial undertaking for us, made even more daunting by the uncertainty that Covid-19 poses for our business and everybody’s lives,” they wrote in the letter.

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“We are now asking you to help keep Chevalier’s Books a part of the Larchmont community.”

With curbside pickup and even some in-store visits available, there’s no reason to buy books at an online mega-store. Here’s a list of locals instead.

The Hancock Park shop joins a growing list of independent bookstores asking for financial help from their customers. Some — like Hollywood’s Larry Edmunds Bookshop and Diesel, A Bookstore — launched GoFundMes to help keep their businesses alive as the novel coronavirus continued to impact sales.

Others, like Vroman’s Bookstore and now Chevalier’s, are urging readers to keep buying from them, especially as the holiday season approaches. These two bookstores are the latest to make urgent community appeals in order to stave off grave losses.

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The end of Chevalier’s lease has added another stressor to the Larchmont bookstore: Along with other businesses in the building on Larchmont Boulevard, they have to vacate by Dec. 31.

The reason? The commercial real estate developers who own the property the bookstore has leased for decades decided to “turn the space into a more upscale setting and try to attract national chains,” according to Deixler, who is also a lawyer. Half of the spaces have already been vacated, he said.

That’s not the whole picture, according to Lawrence N. Taylor, president and founder of Christina Development, which owns the building.

“The previous owner of the property set all tenant leases to expire at the end of 2020,” Taylor told The Times in an email. “This decision was intentional so the building could undergo necessary repairs, which are long overdue.” The company wanted to keep businesses running during the restoration, he said, but that “the noise and disturbances” would be too disruptive to tenants.

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“We welcome and encourage all existing tenants to return to the building and will initiate those conversations once we have a firm date for completion,” he said, adding that he still expects the storefronts to be occupied by “smaller, neighborhood-friendly tenants.”

The announcement triggered Chevalier’s desperate search for a new home on the same historic street with its small-town feel: In recent years, Larchmont Boulevard has been a battleground between small businesses and developers.

Deixler and Holter purchased Chevalier’s six years ago and transformed it into a neighborhood cultural hub. They remodeled the store, expanded their inventory, launched in-store readings and author events, and stabilized finances.

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“We took it from a store that was really struggling and turned it around,” Holter told The Times in April. “We turned it into part of the intellectual infrastructure of the city in order to compete with Amazon and survive.”

Now the owners have their sights set on a larger, pricier location across the street. “We want to make sure that we have people who will support us to help us pay the rent by buying books,” said Deixler.

The open letter seems to have worked.

“We’re overrun with sales, we’re selling gift certificates like crazy, and we have all these people offering to help us,” he said. “The response has been overwhelming.”

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Asked if he’s optimistic, Deixler responded: “If [Monday] was any indication, I’ve never been more confident about anything in my life! ... We really want this to work. We really want to keep this store open. I always tell people that [buying Chevalier’s] is easily the worst economic investment I’ve ever made in my life — and I’ve made some bad investments — but we’ve gotten so much pleasure out of serving a community.”

Last week, Vroman’s made a similar public plea.

On Sept. 28, the bookstore tweeted a thread to its 21,000 followers with a grim message: “Friends, the past few months have been the most difficult in our company’s 126-year history and Vroman’s needs your help to stay open.”

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Foot traffic and sales have steadily improved for months, but remain almost 40% below previous years because of the pandemic. If it is going to survive, according to its website, “sales must increase significantly from now through the holidays.”

Joel Sheldon, Vroman’s chairman and a co-owner, said the past several years had been among the bookstore’s most profitable, “and all of a sudden, you fall off a cliff.”

It was a cliff they had been confident they could quickly rescale — perhaps overconfident. Their monthly projections weren’t synchronizing with actual sales. “We were losing more cash than we had anticipated,” Sheldon said. Cash reserves and a PPP loan have kept the store afloat into the coming holiday season. “But after that,” he said, “nobody knows.”

So Sheldon, who grew up in Altadena and has been active in the Pasadena community for decades, decided to launch a “Support Vroman’s” campaign.

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"[I]t is critical now that our sales volumes return to much higher levels,” he wrote to about 50 friends and influencers in an email two weeks ago. “Up until now I have resisted asking for community support — it’s a very humbling experience. But it is now time.”

In the email, he implored bookworms and locals to buy from Vroman’s and encourage others to do the same. He urged them to shop in October and November before the holiday rush, and to buy in-store on weekday mornings, which are quieter than weekends and afternoons.

The message spread like wildfire.

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Sheldon said it reached at least 100,000 people through a contact’s mailing list. “The store has been completely crowded almost all the time ever since,” he said. “The parking lot and as many people as we can let in.” Online purchases have also skyrocketed.

On social media, people also began the #MyVromansStory, sharing personal anecdotes about what the bookstore means to them.

“As an art student I went to the children’s dept to read books that would inspire me to become a children’s book author and illustrator,” wrote Dan Santat, the New York Times bestselling author of “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend,” in a tweet. “This store is the center of our universe.”

Sheldon said sales at its Colorado Boulevard location increased 169% the week of Sept. 25 to Oct. 1 compared with the week before.

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But it’s not out of the woods yet. Survival will hinge on the holiday season, a month that accounts for at least 20% of annual sales and contributes almost all the annual profit, he said.

“The next few months will determine the future of Vroman’s,” Sheldon’s letter says. “I truly appreciate your friendship and support during this critical time.”

Vroman’s Bookstore is just one of many independent bookstores in danger of closing as a result of the pandemic. It’s not too late to save them.


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