Dutton's - and then there was one

Two years ago I stood in the gorgeous new store along with dozens of other authors and book people, raised a toast and wished Doug Dutton & Co well. In some inchoate way, I hoped the place would become a hub, a community gathering place, a venue for debate and ideas, for literary fanfare, proof to the world that a bookstore could set up in the Belly of the Beast and thrive.

I always feel like an Eastern European peasant when I venture into Beverly Hills, slightly out of synch with the $17 martinis and $2,000 handbags displayed on artfully lighted plinths, but that’s just me. I reassured myself that people there are smart and they read. In the past two years, I’m sure that many of them have appreciated the literary connoisseurship and personal recommendations that Dutton’s staff brought to their book trade. It’s just that in the end, I guess that not enough of them did.

Today is an especially bleak day in the independent book business because another store I know, Mystery Ink in New York, has also announced it will close its doors by the end of the year. It’s scary.

As a writer, I’m acutely aware of the important role independent bookstores serve in spreading the word about new authors and hand-selling quirky tomes that find it hard to compete with Danielle Steele and Dan Brown. We writers often talk among ourselves, checking in on how such and such bookstore around the country is doing, and how that one is faring. It can be like inquiring about a beloved aunt who may be in somewhat precarious health, buffeted by forces often outside their control. Even the ones that seem robust must struggle.

For me, the Dutton’s name is synonymous with all that is wise and profound and magical about books. I grew up in North Hollywood and remember going to Dutton’s Books on Laurel Canyon Boulevard near Magnolia and rummaging in the stacks for hours, coming out with piles of used books to tide me over until the next binge. The place smelled like books. It had nooks and crannies and piled-up stacks and staffers who peered from glasses on chains and frowned and never told you to have a nice day or asked how you were. They were dedicated solely to the books themselves, and knew where to find whatever you were looking for or recommend something new and intriguing. (I also remember a smaller Dutton’s on Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank for awhile, dealing mainly in used paperbacks.) I have no idea if that was also owned by the family; back then I didn’t realize there were several brothers.

Then I grew up and became an author and met Doug Dutton and I think I speak for many LA authors when I say that he is the city’s equivalent of a national treasure, a kind, engaged, enthusiastic extremely literate man who has done as much for literature in this city as anyone in his own quiet, unassuming way. I don’t mean for this to sound like a requiem, but rather a long-overdue appreciation -- Dutton’s Brentwood is still open and may it continue to thrive as long as the city itself. I know I’ll be doing a signing there in April 2007 with some of my fellow contributors to the upcoming “Los Angeles Noir” anthology.

Dutton’s is also where I had my first ever signing on July 17, 2001 when my debut “The Jasmine Trade” was published. Doug read the book and we had a lovely discussion about it. I’ve seen him do the same with other authors, picking out a passage he liked and enthusing about the writing. He truly appreciates writers, and they like him and are grateful for all he does.

Dutton’s Brentwood was even immortalized in a novel this year, though the authors gave the place a thinly disguised name. “Literacy and Longing in L.A.” by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, which won the Southern California Booksellers Association’s award for “best novel” of 2006, features a quirky independent bookstore in Brentwood where the lovesick and bookish heroine goes to stock up on novels and ends up falling in love with a clerk who’s a comp-lit major. The pair don’t live happily ever after. Unfortunately, in life as in fiction, neither does every bookstore.

RIP Dutton’s Beverly Hills.

News & Chatter: Dutton's Beverly Hills to close

More by Denise Hamilton:
Previous blog post: If New York did it...
Next blog post: On The Rack
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed