“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.
When he’s not at the store, Dutton teaches music composition at a local community college. He used to think English was the most useless of degrees, but then he discovered music, which beats English by plenty (he has degrees in both). And yes, he’s joking. I ask him which he loves more, books or music. He frowns. “Why don’t you ask me which child I love most? The great testaments of mankind’s aspirations and hopes are contained in both of those.” Then he tells me that the chair I am sitting on, the one beside the plant with leaves poking me in the neck, is the one that Esa-Pekka Salonen usually sits in.
We’re sitting on the patio outside the bookstore’s small café. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, and customers stop by every few minutes to say hello and then when they leave to say goodbye, like visitors at a housewarming. “I’ll be the first to chain myself to the doors when the bulldozers come,” says Derek Shearer, a Clinton staff aide, former undersecretary of commerce and former ambassador to Finland.
“He’s a great mystery reader,” says Dutton as Shearer leaves, bag of books tucked under arm. “[President] Clinton was once interviewed about what he was reading, and of the list of books he named, Derek had recommended half of them.”
A Dutton’s clerk comes over with a broken stapler.
“See?” says Dutton with a smile. “This is what I do, fix staplers.”
Then a little old lady and her little old husband, both of them as cute as can be, stop by. “Doug, I want to get my granddaughter a graduation present,” she squeaks. “She did her thesis on Jane Austen. What can you recommend?” Dutton thinks for a moment. The girl in question, a second-generation shopper, used to come in with her mother when she was a baby. She is 21 now. Dutton knows her mom, her father, her grandmother and grandfather. “Workman Publishers came out with a nice book on Austen called The History of England,” he says finally. It has an introduction by A.S. Byatt and paintings by Austen’s sister Cassandra. Dutton scratches his beard. “But if she’s doing a college thesis on Austen, she probably knows that one. I’ll have to look around for something more offbeat.”
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, none of Dutton’s kids want to go into the bookstore business. They are turning out to be graphic designers, publishers, musicians. Doug is the last of the clan still in the business, his brother Davis having closed the North Hollywood store a while back due to health problems. (His oldest brother, Denis, edits the Web site Arts & Letters Daily from his home in New Zealand.) When he retires, Dutton says, he trusts that people will come up in the ranks to keep the books going.
“I’m going to a meeting in Culver City,” he says. “It’s becoming an arts city and they want me to move there. They need a bookstore. I don’t want to move, but it’s good to keep your options open. They’re gonna twist my arm.” Pantomiming, he yanks his arm behind his back and winks. A Brer Rabbit wink. When I tell him I’m going to go home to finish a book, he seems genuinely envious. “Can’t I just go over to your house and read?” he says.