Friday, May 18, 2007

Book Heritage and Preservation in Los Angeles

In a state and country that is so young, we are often troubled to see places and buildings that are relatively young razed and demolished for something new and ordinary. We're surprised by a longing for the look of something built in 1950, maybe even 1970.

On a walk through the heart of Dublin, Ireland, I saw a memorial to the city's celebration of its millennium as a city. It's easier to define something as historic if it's been around since Ptolemy was writing history.

Thus, many in Los Angeles are perplexed when it comes to preserving places and things in our midst. We sound foolish demanding to preserve drive-in movie theaters, mom and pop restaurants, Griffith Park, or countless other mid-twentieth century places, but I absolutely sympathize.

Cut to present-day, Brentwood, a neighborhood of west Los Angeles, California.

Dutton's Bookstore (map), on San Vicente, between Bundy and Montana, is found in a rather ordinary building (despite comments below)—a flat stucco facade on a basic rectangular structure. There is a pleasant courtyard that sits in the middle of three sections of the store. Still, it is a rare gem in the decimated landscape of literary emporiums.

Dutton's is rare because it is a bookstore interested in books and authors. The staff is interested in books, the management is interested in getting you books that are not just best sellers (but are maybe classics, or of local interest, or just good reading). They host author readings and literary book groups.

They aren't interested in providing couches for you to lounge upon (did I mention that they're actually interested in selling real books?!) because they want to use their precious space for books. Though, they do have a cafe.

I know all of this to be true because my brother worked at Dutton's, and we're still patrons when we're in LA. My brother is a writer who was completing his Master's degree (with a Bachelor's in English) when he worked there (i.e. he was an intelligent resource), and yet there were co-workers who would regularly astonish him with their book knowledge. (I once went into a Border's looking for Joan Didion, and the clerk couldn't spell her last name.) Dutton's isn't a gem merely because it's independent. I worked as a clerk at an independent bookstore, and while the staff was better than average, the store was not interested in selling books. They had far more interest in getting customers to buy food in the cafe and buying trinkets and greeting cards. What resembled a bookstore was a collection intended to match the bestseller list rather than inspire or establish sufficiency. They didn't even stock The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now, whenever I want to judge a bookstore, I make sure to see if Tom and Huck are on the shelf.

Why does Dutton's matter? Why bring it up in a post about preservation? Well, it turns out that the bookstore leases its space from Charles T. Munger, present owner of the building. According to an article on January 17 in the LA Times, Mr. Munger is...
...a founder of the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson who partnered in 1978 with Warren E. Buffett to run Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a holding company; Munger's shares are worth $1.7 billion. He had been a partner with his brother-in-law, David Barry, in the San Vicente property but recently bought him out.

Munger, 83, has big plans for the property, which runs from the former Bonner School to Longs drugstore and includes del Mano Gallery and several small businesses and offices.

"It's the ultimate redevelopment site," Munger said, adding, "We've always been straight with Doug [Dutton, owner of the bookstore] and told him the property would be developed in due course. The more time goes by, the closer we are to due course."
This news came shortly after Dutton's Books and Art on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Dutton's Beverly Hills closed. Los Angeles bibliophiles came out and voiced their concern and pledged to preserve the last Dutton's. Because of the posh locale, many of these patrons are Hollywood and LA elite. Thus, their protest attracts attention. Furthermore, there is recent news that the building may be classified as a historic site. Historic review for Dutton's site - Los Angeles Times:
Four commissioners voted to follow a staff recommendation that the building warranted further investigation as a well-preserved example of mid-20th century California modern architecture. A fifth commissioner, Carlos Singer, recused himself because of his friendship with David Barry, the man who commissioned the building in 1950 and recently sold it.

Dutton's 'represents a wonderful, cherished community center,' said [architectural photographer Julius] Shulman, 96. 'There should not be a debate.'

The home to Dutton's since 1984, the building is organized around a central courtyard that has long been a neighborhood gathering spot and the setting for hundreds of book signings by the likes of Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Tom Wolfe and the late Kurt Vonnegut.

The applicant in the case is Diane M. Caughey, a daughter of Milton H. Caughey, the modernist architect who designed the building on San Vicente Boulevard.
I do cherish Dutton's, and I do want to preserve California architecture. I'm not sure if this building is the best case for preservation (i.e. the building itself), but I do hope that the literary establishment based there is preserved. Whether the building as it stands is necessary for that to endure, is part of the question. Nevertheless, we do tear down far too much history in California, and it is up to us (as patrons and citizens) to hold the line.

I am surprised that this gentleman, Mr. Munger, is at all interested in real estate development at this stage in his life. He's wealthy and has established his legacy. Why the battle to put up condos? If I had his fortune, I'd leave Dutton's as is. Only I'd build a massive river ride that docked at Dutton's cherished courtyard. It would be a literary journey upon a waterway that resembled the mighty Mississipp. Patrons would ride for free on river rafts, guided by actors portraying Tom, Huck, Jim, maybe even Aunt Sally, who would regale us with tales and suggestions for great reading.

An LA Times reader, M.T. Gyepes, from Pacific Palisades wrote to the Op Ed page this note, which I think says it all quite well: "Ah, the sadness and the sorrow of it all; poor L.A. -- so much money, so little refuge."

No comments: