A different kind of ending

Mary A. Castillo

Inside Different Drummer Books the shelves are no longer crammed

with books. After co-owner Rob Merrell announced that the 15-year-old

bookstore will be closing its doors at the end of this month, loyal

customers have walked in to say goodbye and then left with discounted

merchandise.

"What I really loved about this store was meeting the most

wonderful people in the world," said Merrell, 47. "Many of my

customers became friends and that will be one of the best things I'll

walk away with."

The book store began losing ground shortly following Sept. 11,

Merrell said, and the situation grew worse as the economy slumped

under the weight of corporate scandals and massive lay offs. The

bookstore will close on July 31.

"We just couldn't recover from the loss to even take advantage of

the summer season," Merrell said.

Even though Different Drummer was the only gay and lesbian

bookstore between West Hollywood and San Diego, ironically Merrell

felt its location hindered its success.

"The gay dynamic in Laguna is changing," he said. "Average-income

people can't afford to live here and the gay community is settling on

the periphery of Laguna."

Relying on out-of-town business, Merrell described the city as an

island with one main artery (Coast Highway) linking it to the rest of

Orange County. But the obstacles -- heavy traffic, sparse parking and

a wounded economy -- were too much to allow for a steady influx of

customers.

"Ask any of the business owners downtown and they'll tell you that

we see a lot of people in town but they're not buying anything," he

said.

Although Merrell wanted the bookstore to continue serving the

community, his efforts to sell the business to experienced

independent booksellers fell short.

"They showed a fear of coming into the Laguna market," he said.

"They already lived on a narrow margin of income and couldn't afford

the risk."

Ten years ago, independent bookstores began falling prey to a

market that favored big chain stores, such as Barnes and Noble and

Borders, that were located in shopping districts. Powered with

advertising dollars and clout with publishers, the mega giants took a

blow when the American Booksellers Assn. settled a seven-year lawsuit

over illegal business practices that gave kick backs from the book

chains to publishers. But by that the time the damage had been done,

said Tom Ahern, owner of Latitude 33 books.

"Laguna once had seven bookstores," he explained in the back

office crammed with over-stock and supplies. With each store,

including Fahrenheit 451, Mariners and Upchurch Brown, two themes to

their downfalls emerged: poor business practices and a city that does

not support businesses.

"Businesses in Laguna are not treated well," he said. "Here you're

treated like you're trespassing, but in Newport Beach the attitude is

how can we can help you."

Ahern faults the city for not having a business-friendly

development plan as well as inefficient conditional-use permit

processes, unfavorable building codes and inadequate parking.

"Why does it take six weeks to get a conditional-use permit and

sign approval?" he asked. "In other cities it might take two or three

days."

He proves his point by citing a startling statistic.

"Total retail sales in all of Laguna are less than the total sales

of Fletcher Jones," he said. Last year the Mercedes Benz dealer

posted $424 million in gross sales.

Ahern maintains that parking is the foundation to build a vibrant

resident and tourist serving business community. The lack of spaces

not only keeps residents -- who account for 85% of his business --

homebound from July to September but also make it difficult for

retailers and their employees to get to work.

"The city won't move on the Village Entrance and they ignored the

Village Entrance study that called for 900 spaces by only allowing

300 spaces," he said.

Mayor Wayne Baglin said that the number of spaces contained in the

Village Entrance conceptual plan approved by the council on Wednesday

evening is closer to 400.

"There are fewer parking spaces because of the geological and

flooding constraints at the site," he said, adding that a structure

that could accommodate more than 400 spaces would have been an

excessively tall building.

Until the city provides adequate parking or proceeds with the

Village Entrance project, Ahern maintained that downtown and all

other Laguna businesses will hear their customers say, "See ya in

September."

Although Ahern has no plans to close Latitude 33 -- this was the

first year the store posted a profit -- he is discouraged that the

city listens to preservationists and not progressives.

"There are certain elements who encourage a policy to keep Laguna

freeze-dried and return it to the days of 1909," he said. "They're

killing business and I will really miss those guys at Different

Drummer."

Although Merrell regrets the closure of Different Drummer, he will

walk into a new venture with the owners of the Open Book in

Sacramento with a love of books and a love of serving the gay and

lesbian community.

"This business connected me to people, ideas and politics," he

said looking out at the traffic streaming down South Coast Highway.

"I think that has a lot of value."

* MARY A. CASTILLO is a news assistant for the Coastline Pilot.

She covers education, public safety and City Hall.

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