LIVES: Gene de Chene's Used Books

GENE DE CHENE TOURED FRANCE during World War II and came back home to Los Angeles with nothing to do. He started looking for the meaning of life — first in alcohol, and then in books. He thinks probably the meaning of life was in the alcohol, but things got out of control, so he gave it up and opened a bookshop instead. He would never be so dramatic as to say that the Gene de Chene bookstore saved him, but when you see how seriously he talks about it you know it means more to him than a livelihood.

Gene learned the used-book trade by making mistakes — when books didn't sell, or when another dealer pounced on a collectible book that he had priced as a regular old book. Gene de Chene's store became known for its quirks. The only section of the store where the books were alphabetized was the World War II section. "Best years of my life," he told anyone who would listen. Once, someone started alphabetizing the fiction, and Gene mixed it up again. "Serendipity is the best part of life," he said, and then he told a war story involving easy sex in Normandy.

The place was robbed twice. The first time, the thief got away with $40. Gene said, "We've been robbed worse by the book dealers who find a first edition on the shelf that we missed." The second robbery was not really a robbery. Someone broke into the bookstore, saw nothing worth stealing, and punched a hole in the wall to get to the neighboring business. That's when Gene put a real lock on the door. "The guy next door made me," he said.

Gene became an entrepreneur, but not in the reckless '90s sense of the word. No stock options. No VC money. In fact, the biggest checks he got came from Hollywood. Set designers bought books by the yard. "I'd like hardback books in browns and dark reds," they'd say. Location scouts used the shop routinely when a script called for an "old bookshop," or, in one case, a "haunted library." Everyone else paid Gene in one- and two-dollar increments — just enough for him to raise a family in West L.A.

By 1993 it was unclear whether Gene really worked at the store or just used the place to escape to when he had fights with his wife. That was the year he hired Samantha Scully, a former Ralph Lauren model who had already spent hours wandering among the shelves and had visions of cleaning the place up. Samantha was sickened by her own life back then, but she was having a hard time giving up the money she made modeling. So she cut her hair short, and then she only got calls when someone needed a lesbian. That made quitting easier.

Gene hired Samantha because he was impressed with her looks, and she seemed smart. But if he'd known how much she knew about books when she started buying for him, he'd have fired her. He told her that it was her job to leave everything as it was. It wasn't long, though, before Samantha started running the place her own way, buying used books with a hawk's eye for a good deal on a first edition.

She learned Gene's rules quickly. Examples: Business books don't sell unless they're very recent. Pornography sells no matter what. She learned that people are fanatics about mysteries and cheap when it comes to romance. She learned to say no to the people who stole from the Waldenbooks down the street and tried to sell their books to her.

The customers became Samantha's biggest fans. Some of them left anonymous gifts at the back door of the store. One day she came to the store sunburned, and the next morning there were three sun hats tied to the back doorknob. Some doted on her openly, browsing for hours or asking for a date. One customer told her about his daughter in Brooklyn who couldn't find a husband. Another customer told her he was bipolar and maybe losing his kids. "The store is like an orphanage," she told me, "a place for the lost and out of place. The books, the customers, Gene, me."

As Gene got older, he fought less with his wife and had fewer reasons to spend time at the store. Samantha ran the store alone for a few years before she asked Gene if she could buy it. She asked him about 50 times. Each time he said no, without an explanation. Anyone else in Samantha's position would have pressed him — she had been managing the store on Santa Monica Boulevard for seven years, and would certainly have had a hard time finding a similar job somewhere else. But Samantha knew Gene well; she knew he had nothing else to do with the store but sell it to her, and she knew that as Gene got older, the store was his last attachment to the world beyond his apartment.

Gene lost his driver's license at the beginning of this year and couldn't get himself to the store. So when the lease came up for renewal last May, Gene said to Samantha, "You sign it."

Samantha said, "I can't. I don't own the store."

Gene said, "Well, figure out what to do to own it."

A customer helped Samantha with the paperwork, and she and Gene worked out a payment plan. At one point, Samantha told Gene, "I have no idea how to do the finances."

And Gene said, "I don't either, and I've been doing it for 34 years."

On her first day as the owner, Samantha threw out 10 boxes of books that hadn't sold in 30 years. She compressed the war books to make room for feminism. Sections that she had created below Gene's radar became more prominent, with signs like, "Some gay books" and "Lesbianica."

It took weeks, but Samantha cleaned up a storage area and turned it into a kitchen. When Gene saw the bright turquoise paint and large selection of teas, he said, "It's so clean. Where do you put your junk?"

Samantha said, "I throw it out."

Further investigation, however, revealed the relative nature of junk. Gene kept dull pencils, unusable coins, books with no covers he thought people should read. Samantha keeps a bulletin board for "things that fall out of books," and under thumbtacks are pictures of men and women with children and dogs, as well as inscrutable notes and random bookmarks.

Samantha is conscious that most used bookstores die quickly. In fact, one went out of business across the street from her. "He spent too much money on beautiful books," she says. "He forgot Gene's golden rule that bad books sell." She also thinks it's important to have the vintage books, because, "They contain images that are oppressive to women and people of color. I love pulp fiction because it is evidence." She looks up at me when she says this, to make sure I'm writing. "Put that in your article," she says.

Sometimes she goes against Gene's rules — like she hosted a teach-in for peace last Friday. I look at the narrow aisles and wobbly bookshelves and I consider that maybe some of Gene's rules made sense.

She breaks another of Gene's rules by staying open on Sunday. "Everyone should have a day to rest," he would say. In fact, she couldn't drink enough coffee to get through a seven-day workweek. So she hired her first employee. And her second and her third. She went through five in five months. One guy stole from the store. One guy talked on the phone instead of helping customers. Older people wouldn't take orders from her. "And you know what?" she tells me, "Men won't sweep."

So she hired her mom, who reportedly works harder than Samantha or Gene ever worked. "She's alphabetizing," Samantha tells me. "Section by section."

Samantha comes to work on her day off to introduce me to her mom. Samantha whispers to me, "She dressed up for you."

Her mom tells me, "We didn't always get along this well." I hear about when the mom was a schoolteacher and Samantha was a model and everyone had their Thanksgiving dinners separate from each other. She tells me she is happy to have such a wonderful job for her retirement and feels incredibly lucky to be spending so much time with her daughter. I see tears in her eyes.

Samantha says she's teaching her mom about the book business — starting by teaching her all of Gene's rules. As the store goes through its latest transition, one more life may be transformed.