By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“My father was the original hand seller,” Doug Dutton likes to say. “The art of hand selling is being able to sell someone on a book you particularly like by explaining why you like it. We do it with each other all the time.” Knowing exactly what young Doug would like, Dutton’s father would “put one book in [his] hands after another.”
That father-son dialogue has had its dividends. Now 59, Dutton has some 4,000 volumes in his home, and another 5,000 in storage waiting to come out. The books are everywhere, in shelves, in the hallways, on tables, on the floors, congregating in corners and, like bunnies, there always seem to be more of them each time you look. Subgroupings impose order on the horde, such as a set of signed Raymond Carvers. His largest collection, however, is composed of books on books.Specifically, books about collecting books: books on early editions, books on cover designs, and books glorifying other book collections, such as those at the Morgan Library, the Library of Congress and the British Museum. When his son got married and moved out, Dutton promptly turned the bedroom into book storage. “Maybe when my youngest daughter moves out, we can turn her room into a library too,” he muses.
Doug Dutton’s personal collection, and whether it has a home, is of comparatively little consequence to us, of course. It is his public collection, and the building that houses it, that matters. Dutton’s Brentwood Books looks like a concrete daycare center, but, with its row after row of precarious floor-to-ceiling stacks, is closer in ethos to a library at Hogwarts. It’s not fancy, by any stretch. Dutton, the éminence grise of Los Angeles’ independent-bookstore world, has spared most expense with the interior décor. The carpets are ripped, the shelves mismatched and hand labeled, a contrast to its location in tony Brentwood. Dutton’s is probably the only place in the neighborhood where people can get away from the perfection of their $3 million homes, crawl into a dusty alcove for a few hours, and lose themselves in a good romance, or thriller, or otherworldly tale. Parking here is a problem, and on a recent day there is an ongoing stream of shiny vintage Mercedes or limousines cruising by, its occupants hopping out in the middle of traffic, mucking up the flow and getting honked at by grumpy grandmas trying to park so that they can get their hands on the next Mitch Albom.
Dutton is a cheerful, self-effacing person, but a kind of sadness comes upon him whenever he enters a Borders or a Barnes & Noble — which happens when forced by his family to go to the mall. He’ll gaze with horror at a wall that has been more or less decorated with the new Stephen King. “I see a corporate mind at work at these places,” he says, “trying to maximize the space by making everything salable. Maybe it’s not good business policy, [but] I’m happy to have an excellent, intelligent book sit on a shelf for a year waiting for the right person to buy it.” He will carry the new Dan Brown, for instance, but he won’t give over a whole window. William T. Vollmann, maybe, or Kate Atkinson, but not Dan Brown.
Every bookstore should have a personality, Dutton believes, and his store’s is that of the rumply, wizardly professor with a heart of gold, who puts stock less in appearances than in the character of your soul. Which is to say, the personality of Doug Dutton himself. “What we try to do is have a good deal of depth. It doesn’t mean having The Brothers Karamazov, it means having three different translations of it. It doesn’t mean just having Bach, Beethoven and Brahms biographies, but also having Bartók, Britten and Boulez. We can’t have everything, but we try to go more serious.”
This quality of having everything, the infinite bookstore, is something that only Amazon.com has been able to approach. Amazon sells a third of all the books in this country, often at prices below wholesale. “I’ve had many so-called brilliant people tell me to charge more per book,” Dutton says, “but you can’t do that for something that comes with the price printed on it. And how can we sell books at below what we pay for them? All I can compete with is the human touch.”
These days, besides the Dr. Faustus he’s reading, it’s the land that Dutton’s Brentwood sits on that keeps Dutton up at night. The property owner is talking redevelopment, though an application for historical landmark status is in the works. Dutton can’t walk through the store without someone asking him about it.
These have been trying times for his store. Last year, the 2-year-old satellite store — Dutton’s Beverly Hills on North Cañon Drive — closed down when he couldn’t make the rent. That one sat on property owned by Beverly Hills, but the city refused to renegotiate the lease. It was a bitter ending, and Dutton schlepped out the last of his Beverly Hills books on New Year’s Eve.