Nearing the End of a Long Shelf Life

A NEW LEAF: Dutton intends to continue in the bookselling business when he and his wife, Judy, move to the picturesque little town of Friday Harbor, Wash., on the eastern shore of San Juan Island.
A NEW LEAF: Dutton intends to continue in the bookselling business when he and his wife, Judy, move to the picturesque little town of Friday Harbor, Wash., on the eastern shore of San Juan Island.
(Gina Ferazzi / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

Shoppers won’t find Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” on the picked-over shelves at Dutton’s Books and Art on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

That’s because bargain-hunters have swept up all the copies as the beloved North Hollywood emporium says its own long goodbye. After 45 years in business, the jumbled, rumpled-sweater shop is slated to close mid-month.

For months now, customers have scoured the store’s mismatched bookcases for unexpected treasures priced at 50% off — soon to be 75% off. Regular patrons, many of them the children and grandchildren of past devotees, inevitably pause to reminisce with and hug Davis “Dave” Dutton, the silver-haired, blue-eyed proprietor whose friendly and erudite literary guidance they soon will be forced to do without.

“It has been like a months-long going-away party,” Dutton said. “It has been a very pleasant experience, despite the remorse of conscience.”

Independent booksellers are shutting their doors with alarming frequency these days, exhausted from battling and other discount heavy giants such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. So it’s not really news that another owner has decided to turn over a new leaf. The Dutton’s plot, however, has a twist that makes for a happier-than-usual ending — at least for the owner.

Dutton, 69, intends to continue in the business when he and his wife, Judy, move to the picturesque little town of Friday Harbor, Wash., on the eastern shore of San Juan Island. They plan to launch a small retail store that will operate at least during the summer months, when hordes of tourists descend. After all, Dutton has hardly unloaded all his books. He looks forward to opening hundreds of “boxes and bundles and bags” of volumes he has accumulated over the last 40 years, many of which he plans to sell over the Internet. (If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.)

In addition to the entire personal library of the late historians Will and Ariel Durant, the titles he will ship to his new home include “The Great Comet and Its Terrible Vengeance” and “God’s Wrath Vindicated” — not your typical “Da Vinci Code"-style bestsellers.

Dutton’s, across from a Wienerschnitzel and next to a Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, had its genesis in late 1960, Dutton said. He was overseas, “trying to abide by the principles of ‘Europe on $5 a Day,’ the student travel bible in those antediluvian times,” when his father, Bill, wired him to say he had found a site for the bookstore that he and Dutton’s mother, Thelma, had long dreamed of opening. One of his parents’ favorite hangouts at that time was Pickwick Bookshop, a Hollywood Boulevard fixture that eventually became part of B. Dalton Bookseller.

In January 1961, Dutton’s made its debut, furnished with trailer loads of used drugstore shelving that young Dave had hauled behind his 1949 Ford. The proprietors built more shelves (some of which will make the trip north) and had to improvise from there, Dutton said, given that “we had no idea what the hell we were doing.”

Dutton told his parents that he would manage the store for a year. That stretched a bit, obviously, interrupted in the 1960s and ‘70s when he worked as an editor and writer for Westways and Colorado magazines. He also briefly attempted law school before realizing he did not want to be a lawyer.

He and Judy, who married in 1961, returned to Dutton’s for good in the late 1970s. Selling prints along with thousands of little-known volumes about mythology, religion, history and film, the shop grew to fill three adjoining storefronts near Magnolia Boulevard. Judy took charge of the extensive greeting-card collection.

Together, the Duttons have weathered the changes roiling their business.

“It’s been challenging, even though we have enough space, size and momentum,” Dave Dutton said. He said he empathized with the typical mom-and-pop store attempting to sell bestsellers, cookbooks and Bibles.

“To run a new bookstore successfully of modest or small size is virtually impossible these days, because of big discounts on the Internet and the fact that not only superstores carry books but also Costco, Ralphs and Target. It’s impossible to earn a decent living anymore as a bookseller.”

Dutton learned that firsthand after he opened and then closed unsuccessful stores in Burbank and at Arco Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. Luckily, he had bought the land under his stores in North Hollywood and Burbank, and the run-up in real estate values has given him a welcome financial cushion. (Dutton’s brother, Doug, will continue to run his thriving Dutton’s bookshops in Brentwood and Beverly Hills.)

For customers used to the orderly, artfully lighted and carpeted chain stores, Dutton’s, with its worn linoleum floors and haphazard chandeliers, offered a sharp contrast. Until the close-out sale thinned the inventory, the store was known for its towering stacks of books and musty ambience. Shelves were so tightly packed that “we had to be creative to get any more books on them,” said Stacey Graham, a Dutton’s employee with a doctorate in history from UCLA.

Inside Dutton’s own cluttered office, rare volumes spill off crowded shelves. He cracks open such favorites as “Panama in 1855" and “Outrages in the Southern States: March 1871.” Over the years he has bought such unusual tomes at estate sales and out of car trunks.

“The wonderful thing about this business is you never know what’s going to come down the pike,” he said.

Dutton, who has Parkinson’s disease, still manages to speed around the shop, steadying himself by leaning on tables or desks as he chats with customers. One recent day, he greeted Jeff Ward, an English teacher at North Hollywood High School who has made a tradition of taking his Advanced Placement students to the store and buying them each a book. Ward said he enjoyed showing them a “funky and original” bookstore.

Teresa Chiodo, 52, of Studio City was carrying on a family tradition as she browsed through Dutton’s with her son. She said she grew up near the shop and recalled venturing in as a youngster with her father, Dave Willock, a longtime character actor. “They were so nice to him,” she said. “Dad bought Civil War books with beautiful old gold-leaf pages. I still have them on my bookshelf.”

Rae Willock, her 93-year-old mother, still lives just blocks away and recently paid a visit to buy a few books. When the store was fully stocked, she recalled in a telephone interview, “you had to sort of go sideways in and around, but that’s what we all liked about the place.” One time, she went in seeking the poem “Horatius at the Bridge” by Thomas Babington Macaulay. Before she knew it, she, Dutton and another elderly customer were all reciting portions of it.

And with a mighty following

To join the muster came

The Tusculan Mamilius,

Prince of the Latian name.

Browsers who show up at Dutton’s now might still stumble upon books about Coca-Cola ad campaigns and California’s plein-air painters, as well as such whimsies as “Winnie-the-Pooh” in Yiddish and “The Tao of Elvis.”

But not for long. Dutton’s final chapter is drawing to a close.

As Raymond Chandler once wrote, “Farewell, My Lovely.”