"To be a book collector," Canadian novelist Robertson Davies wrote, "is to combine the worst characteristics of a dope fiend with those of a miser."
A healthy throng of fiends and misers gathered at Dawson's Books in Larchmont recently on the first day of a sale that ultimately closes the doors of the 105-year-old L.A. bookstore. For seven hours, shelves and boxes of books on Californiana and photography were dissected, as buyers — some of whom have enjoyed a personal relationship with Dawson's for decades — made off with the good stuff.
Losing a bookstore this way is like pulling off a hangnail: It's painful but also fascinating to watch which way the blood runs.
Californiana, the study of lost and neglected corners of state history popularized by Huell Howser, was most readily available. The only thing missing was Howser himself, looking sad and giving his "Gee, whiz!" exclamation an entirely different dimension.
One set of shelves overflowed with volumes published by Arcadia Press, the company that cranks out those soft, hazily arcane paperbacks about things you never knew could fill a book, like vintage postcards of Long Beach, or photo studies of L.A. County lifeguards.
The scope of the books at the sale beggared belief, and most were written by nameless authors for a different world now increasingly lost to time. Some titles: Ghost Towns and Relics of '49, Common Marine Fishes of California, Violence in the City — An End or a Beginning (Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots).
Ancient maps and historical-society pamphlets further fattened boxes brimming with the sweet and friendly stink of age; the key word here was "ephemera." Americana & World Ephemera, 50 percent off; California Ephemera, 50 percent off; Native American ephemera 50 percent off.
Eight-foot-tall bookshelves burnished by time began to resemble gaping mouths with increasingly fewer teeth. The art from the Dawson's exhibitions was gone, leaving the walls white and bare, and the sounds that echoed through the space were that much deeper, that much lonelier.
As for the structure itself, owner Michael Dawson says, "We own the building, and we're in the process of leasing the space. ... If one of the deals that we're negotiating goes through, I'll probably be out by October 1."
Dawson plans to work out of his home for the time being, and will have an online presence. But he won't have a store. "I've done this full-time for almost the last 30 years — and I don't think that, for me, the retail model works anymore."
Asked why the store is closing, he pauses, then explains: "The Internet has really changed the landscape for both new and out-of-print books and, to a large degree, rare books. And if you put the overhead of a retail space in, the numbers go lopsided.
"I'm doing a lot of appraisal work. I also do collection development, and I'm moving more toward a service-based model rather than a collecting-'things' model.
"The thing that's the difficult model is that of a general used-book shop," Dawson says. "I've never been quite that; I've never been the highest-end antiquarian business. When I realized it was sort of the end of this era was when one of my rare-book colleagues, Heritage Books, closed."
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Does closing Dawson's Books send a bad message to other bookstores in L.A.? "There's a fellow over in Atwater, Patrick Paper, who just opened Alias Books East. He's 20 years younger than I am, he's energetic and he has a good business model. There's Jonathan Brown, who has Lead Apron and specializes in rare photographic books."
The door shut at 5 p.m., but people still wandered in, looking for something to read beyond the "Sorry, We're Closed" sign.
"I think it's like when you reach the point of a certain age, you say, 'I'm going to be on a declining scale as opposed to an inclining scale' " of work, Dawson adds. "I just don't want to be tied down to a place where I have to come in at 10 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. Simply put, it's just time for a change."
It is the end of a bookstore's life, ironically, that truly differentiates a bookstore from just a storehouse of books. After all, no one goes to a funeral for the corpse.