TRASHED – How I Boosted My Immune System and Made Money Wallowing in Hoarder’s Hell

Trash-Training To Be An Effective Book Buyer.  Choosing an Appropriate Costume For Hoarder’s Castles and Landfill Estates. What the ABAA Won’t Tell You.

by Paul Hunt

Paul Hunt in full book buying costume.

The Author in full book buying costume. A side benefit is that the seller can never positively identify you as the buyer in case of later trouble, like when they say the map to the treasure granddad buried during the Great Depression was hidden in a Reader’s Digest condensed novel.

It’s weird, and I know it goes against all medical advice, but hoarders who live with two feet of trash throughout their house usually live longer than people who live in a place where you can eat off the floor. I’ve been in houses that were so clean they look like a commercial for comet cleanser. The human occupants were dead in their 40s or 50s. On the other hand, old folks living in refuse are always in their 90s. Maybe it’s the chemicals in all the cleansers we use. Maybe I’ve just been a victim of extreme coincidence, who knows? My theory is that people living in rubbish piles have built up their immune systems to the point that almost nothing can kill them. Maybe the billions of parasitic, microscopic things living on and near them actually protect them from other dangerous-to-human bacteria. The answer to this, and many other medical questions are probably to be found in the basement of Harvard Medical School, where the millions of scientific papers from the last two hundred years are stored away from prying eyes. I don’t have the time to look through them, but maybe some AI robot could be put to work in the future.

Ah, the life of a bookseller. You just sit around and read books all day, right? Once in a while, someone calls and you trudge over to a neatly kept house and browse through some dust-free books and select some nice things to fill in your inventory. For me, the reality was quite different from the get-go. I began in the warehouse district of downtown Los Angeles, over 40 years ago. I started by prowling through the bins of trash, books, papers, and magazines found in the back rooms of charities. Gritty work. But good training because it was downhill from there.

The Living Room Had Real Possibilities

The Living Room Had Real Possibilities

It also seems that when you get the call to look through a hoarders hell house, it always happens when the temperature in L.A. Is around 100 degrees, with no breeze. Crawling through some old garage or attic, breathing the thick dust that is disturbed, looking for something decent that can be sold if it doesn’t get ruined by the gallons of sweat dripping off you.

It was just such a hot day in the San Fernando Valley when a call came in from my pal Keith Burns. “Hey, meet me tomorrow at (blank, blank address). Oh, and wear your combat gear, the place is a bit of a mess.” The next day I showed up in full gear, ready to root through the debris. Gloves, goggles, hat, boots, dust mask, flashlight. The old gal in her 90’s who opened the door to this hoarders hell did not say a thing about my costume. “Your friend is in the living room” she said cheerfully, looking down at my combat boots.

Another View of the "Living" Room

Another View of the “Living” Room

What a mess the place was. A charming stilt house perched on the side of a canyon hill, nothing could prepare me for the two to three feet of trash solid throughout. A rare case this was, as Keith researched the psychological impacts, as both husband and wife were hoarders. Usually, I was told, it was only one person. In this case both contributed to the décor. Both also lived to a ripe old age. I thought of all the hours they saved by never taking out the trash. Just pitch it on the floor, why bother to trudge to the garbage can? The time could be better spent reading a book or watching TV. Well, in this case, not TV, it took us a while to find it, buried under a landslide in the living room.

Before there can be bucks on the bookshelves, there's cash in the trash.

Before there can be bucks on the bookshelves, there’s books in the trash.

We started in the living room, digging down to the lower levels, finding quite a few books. The dead husband was a photographer, and ordered a lot of books on the subject, which we found wrapped and unopened as delivered by the mailman a decade previously.

We worked one day a week at the house, throughout the hot summer. It was so hot and dusty, one day a week was about all we could take. We made our way, room by room, digging and rooting through the debris. The lady of the house had been moved out into a long- term care facility, Keith would pick her up and let her roam around the house, looking for a few little tchotchkes to take back to her room at the old folks home. Keith and I avoided the kitchen, which was a breeding ground of biological materials. One day when I arrived I swear I saw a guy who looked like Saddam Hussein taking samples from the refrigerator. Maybe it was just the ghost of the husband, looking for a beer.

A bio-war kitchen

A bio-war kitchen

We had to shovel out enough debris from the bathroom and bring in some soap so it could be used. When we got to the bedroom, we had to step up about a foot above the two foot debris level, careful not to hit our heads on the ceiling. I spent one entire day with Keith digging out books from under the bed, which had been packed with old newspapers. There was no air conditioning. We opened the windows, and only more 100 degree heat came in. We sweat through our clothes. I was laying on the bed, hanging over the side, digging out stuff from under the bed when Keith reached over with a stick, pretending it was a rat running up my leg.  I screamed and levitated three feet in the air. I came down and landed hard on the filthy bedspread, sending up a monstrous dust cloud. He laughed about that for weeks.  One day, we went out and grabbed a few burgers for lunch. We accidentally left one in the bedroom on top of the dresser. The next week when we returned, it was gone. Only a few shreds of paper were left. Something else, something not human, was living in the bedroom, and it was hungry.

The Bathroom

The Bathroom

We eventually finished up the house as best we could, and spent the last few outings in the garage, just before the whole place was to be gutted out, I assume with steamshovels.

The Garage

The Garage

When we opened the garage door, the sunlight glistened off the hundreds of black widow webs, covering most of the airspace. Since I was the one with the boots on, I clambered over the 5 foot stack of crumbling boxes of stuff, rooting around, trying to find something of interest. I found a case of unopened coke cans.  Maybe we could put them in the fridge.  Alas, although they were unopened, they were empty. I have no idea what biological process was at work to perform that strange miracle. I eventually found some books and some wrapped up prints that I sailed across the garage like Frisbees through the spider webs to Keith who then brushed them off and loaded them into boxes. I made it out of the garage without a bite, but I had nightmares for a week of being attacked by huge black widow spiders.

Keith with booty from the garage.

Keith with booty from the garage.

We did find some good books and prints in this epoch, enough to pay gas, lunch, and maybe laundry bills. This includes the food offerings to the mysterious creature in the bedroom. I’m writing about this “book call” to the hoarders lair only because I happened to bring my camera on a couple of the days and snapped some photos, to remind me of how hard it is to get books sometimes. It’s not for the squeamish. There were many other such adventures, the story usually better than the actual booty, but as the saying goes, “The journey is it’s own reward.”

Always wear the proper costume for the event.

Always wear the proper costume for the event.  This should be required dress for all Booksellers. They should be given stripes or pins for each outing, like the Boy Scouts.  Eventually you would look like a South American Generalissimo.

Dave Dutton, Beloved Los Angeles Bookseller, Passes

The Lost Realms of the Dutton’s Family Book Empire

Some Fleeting Memories

by Paul Hunt

Dutton's Bookmark with all stores listed.

Dutton’s Bookmark with all stores listed.

It’s always a sad moment when an old-time bookseller dies.  Dave Dutton recently died, he was 79.  It magnifies and gives reflection to the great days of the second half of the 20th Century, when booksellers contributed so much to Southern California.  It was a wonderful time, and entire families built book empires around the area.  The Dawsons, The Duttons, and the Weinsteins come to mind.  So many of the founders of the legendary shops have passed, that we are only left with a few memories and some faded photos.

Dave Dutton had a large shop on Laurel Canyon at Magnolia Blvd. in the Valley.  The building is still standing, now a yoga studio.  At its zenith it also spawned a few other shops that opened around it on Magnolia just east of Laurel Canyon.  Dutton’s attracted so much activity that other booksellers opened shops near-by.  I remember Gilbert Coronel had a small shop on Magnolia.  He was also a book binder.  Next door or near was Michael Blatty who had a well organized shop.  Michael’s father was William Peter Blatty, the famous novelist of Exorcist fame.  These shops faded away at the same time that Dutton’s business declined. (Gilbert died last year, William Peter Blatty just recently.  I’ve lost track of Michael, a cheerful guy who loved books.)

Dutton’s was a fun place to visit.  The staff was friendly (a nice fellow named Abbott comes to mind) and the place was just packed with books. Dave had both new books and used books on the shelves.  What he didn’t have he was happy to search for. The word to describe Dave Dutton was “gentleman”, because that’s what he was, in the full sense of the word.  The Duttons, like their older friends the Dawsons, were from the old school of behavior, something not seen much anymore in the new world of corporate onslaught and greed.  They were all polite, friendly, and honest in their dealings.

Dave loved hanging out behind the shop where he had some tables set up.  It was here that he sorted through the tonnage of boxes of books that poured in.  In one of the articles in the local press, Dave said that when they first opened the shop they had a hard time getting books.  Boy, did that turn around.  By the 1990s the store was so packed that it was at times tough to get down the aisles. One of my friends, a local book scout, told me that Dutton’s wife Judy would get exasperated at the sheer quantity flowing in, and issue an edict that there was to be a strict halt on buying books. When my friend called Dave for an appointment to bring in some books to sell, Dave would say “Come around to the back of the shop, and don’t let my wife see you!”

Stopping by Dutton’s place to browse through the books would sometimes turn into an epic adventure of sorts. One time, driving into the back area behind the shop, I said hello to Dave, who was out in the back lot under a swap meet tent sorting through a huge pile of books.  He immediately sent me out to look at an estate of gambling books in the North Valley.  We always had a deal, if they were good I would buy them and bring them back to his shop and we would divvy them up.  It was on this trip that I spotted the legendary news rack of “pick-a-book” that was at one time owned by Harry Beirman.  I wasn’t able to buy it, but at least I can verify that it existed.  You can read the article on Beirman on this blog, click here.

Dave and his brother Doug loved books.  They had other stores, one in Magnolia Park in Burbank on Magnolia Blvd, one downtown Los Angeles, It was in the Arco tower, a downtown L.A. office building, and Doug ran a huge shop in Brentwood.  I found a few photos of the Magnolia Park shop and some pix that I took at the closing of Dutton’s Brentwood.

Photos of Dave Dutton’s nice shop in Burbank

Dutton's Burbank at closing. Photo by Paul Hunt

Dutton’s Burbank at closing. Photos by Paul Hunt

Duttons#2 Duttons#3

The above photos show the last days of the Burbank Store, which closed around 2005.

Dutton’s Brentwood closed in 2008

Dave’s brother Doug ran the Brentwood Store.  All photos by Paul Hunt.  I took these pictures around the time they closed.  At the time I was working for a company that distributed magazines, and we serviced the the news stand that was inside the coffee shop.

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Dutton's had a warm friendly coffee house & news stand

Dutton’s had a warm friendly coffee house & news stand

A friendly Dutton's Barrista greeted you with a big smile

A friendly Dutton’s Barrista greeted you with a big smile

Part of the courtyard

Part of the courtyard

Dutton’s Brentwood was a large building that was  “U” shaped.  It was originally a lot of small shops, so each shop area became a mini-bookstore organized by subject.  It was really cool, but probably hard to manage and employee intensive.  A big 5,000 sq. ft. store in the shape of a box or a rectangle can be managed by a couple of people, with some part-time help.  Dutton’s must have been a challenge, as there were multiple little shops, some without employees at times.  A most unusual layout.

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The news stand in the coffee shop, pretty much stripped of all the magazines by this time, just before the final day.  When it was operating, it was thick with literary titles, poetry magazines and more scholarly titles as well as the top mainstream magazines.

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Duttons Closing - John Sinclair - more 047

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Duttons Closing - John Sinclair - more 048

This knowledgeable lady ran the Children’s Department

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The closing of the Brentwood store brought to an end the saga of the great Dutton’s Book Shops.  The family was innovative, consumer friendly, and hard working.  In the end, as so many other book shops have found, it is near impossible to fight the insane escalating rents of the landlords.  The real estate industry, along with help from the Federal Reserve, have almost turned the nation into a “rentier state.”  Both business and individuals have been the victims of this deadly game.  The so-called mortgage crises drove this to a new paradigm, from which  there seems to be no escape for the 99%.

In Dutton’s case, the Brentwood property was owned by Warren Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger.  He had dreams of building a huge shopping center on the property, so when Dutton’s lease was up, it was the end.  The good news here is that at least Charlie Munger was very fair and actually provided a large settlement for Dutton, allowing him to take care of his business obligations, at least this is the rumor.  For Munger, in a way, it was also the end.  The neighbors protested against building a large center, so the old building is still standing, and after some years now has been re-leased to new tenants. Looking at it from Munger’s view, I personally can’t see why he was denied permission to rebuild the site after Dutton was gone, although I wish Dutton could have stayed and prospered.  It was an old structure, but a large lot with plenty of parking.  Munger had plenty of money to invest (he has given many millions to the Huntington) and would probably have put up a nice structure. Maybe Dutton could have come back to the new building with a smaller store.  Just speculation.  Sometimes, life gets weird for all of us, and our plans go haywire, even for the rich and powerful.

Please feel free to send in comments, annotations, corrections or your memories to: unclepaulie@rocketmail.com

Death Claims 2 Booksellers From the Now Closed Cliff’s Books in Pasadena

Both Jerry Lang and Paul Johnson Were Longtime Employees of Cliff’s Books

A Few Notes

by Paul Hunt

Jerry Lang

Jerry Lang

Two former employees of Cliff’s Books in Pasadena have died unexpectedly.  Jerry Lang was the Manager of Cliff’s until the last days when Cliff Gildart, the owner, suddenly closed the shop and sold the stock to an online bookdealer in September, 2013.  Jerry passed on Saturday, February 13, 2016. I am not totally sure of this date, so anyone who has more exact information please contact me.

Jerry Lang Interview4 (3).Movie_SnapshotThe closing of the store came without prior notice to the employees (or the landlord for that matter).  One day we came to work to find a crew of guys boxing up books, and were told that Cliff had sold the stock and closed the store.  You can imagine the shock to the employees.  The buyer of the books kept a couple of the employees on for a few days while unwanted stock was reduced and sold off, pretty much paying for the amount that he paid Cliff for the whole stock of 150,000 books.  More on all this later, but this post is about Jerry Lang and Paul Johnson.

Jerry Lang Interview4 (2).Movie_SnapshotJerry tried to find another job, but the suddenness of the closing made it almost impossible. He was, like most of us, “one paycheck away from being on the street.”  More so because working at a used bookstore is financially 3 steps lower than working at a taco stand in Monrovia.  And that is what happened to him.  Without a job, he was unable to pay his rent and had to give up the apartment.  The stress of all this hit him like a bolt of lightning, and he suffered a massive stroke. He ended up in a hospital and made a valiant fight to recover, but died this month undergoing surgery for an unrelated matter.

A few days after the store closed, in October of 2013, I filmed an interview with Jerry as the store was being demolished, books being moved out, and shelving knocked down. You can see the edited interview by clicking on the box below. Jerry was a great guy, a really good self-taught bookseller, and I loved working with him.  We made super-human efforts to keep the store going, and Jerry would be just the guy you would want to be in charge of saving your business. I consider it an honor to have known him.

Paul Johnson, 2013

Paul Johnson, 2013

Paul Johnson was basically Cliff’s right-hand man.  When Mark Sailor died around 2011, Paul filled in, working at the store a couple nights, helping Cliff in personal matters, and running the Annex warehouse where Cliff kept a huge overstock of books.  After the store closed, Paul supervised the moving of Cliff’s mail-order and rare books up to the Annex.  He was working at the Annex listing books for sale on the internet up until his death on February 15th.  He was 59 years old.

Jerry Lang Interview3.Movie_SnapshotIt’s always shocking to hear of a middle-aged person dying.  Paul was as strong as an ox, and seemed to be in pretty good health, but both he and Jerry smoked, which did neither of them any good.  In addition, Paul had hypertension due to a number of problems that I won’t go into, and smoked pot to keep down his blood pressure.  Both he and Jerry were really good bookmen.  Paul went to numerous book buys and estate sales and often came up with some rare and choice books for Cliff.

A couple of funny incidents might be in order to lift some of the death pall that settles in over these types of articles.  As I mentioned, Paul, or “Short Paul” as another member of Cliff’s book family, Nick Meier called him, to differentiate him from me, did partake of the gentle leaf of mary jane.   This lowered his blood pressure and probably kept him alive for an extra few years, but led to a lot of absent-minded behavior.  He was always misplacing his cel phone and/or his car keys, or both.  Once, when I was tending the store late at night, Paul came down to bring some books from the Annex.  He unloaded the car, which was Cliff’s old Mustang that Cliff couldn’t drive any more for some mysterious reason, and then puttered around the shop for a while

Just before he was to drive off he started to dredge around the shop for his cel phone.  I started calling the number and then listening, walking around the shop, you know the routine.  No luck.  After calling the number over 30 times I gave up.  Paul went out in front of the store for a smoke.  I joined him to get some fresh air, and for some reason of immediate habit dialed his number one more time.  His phone was heard ringing, outside the store on Colorado Blvd., resting on a tiny ledge, right where Paul had left it an hour earlier during another smoke break. This was astounding, because nothing survives the eagle eyes of passing thieves on Colorado Blvd.  A bicycle not locked will last 2 minutes max. I could hardly believe his luck, because although it was dark out, it had been ringing continuously for at least a half hour.  Maybe all the thieves were snuggled into their sleeping bags by then.

IMG_0170Another time, again late at night about 11:30 pm, Paul had come in to drop off something. He didn’t stay long, but called back to the store a few minutes later from the land line phone at the Annex.  He had lost his phone again and asked me if I could call the number and walk around the shop and listen for the ring.  It was a big shop, with three storefronts, back rooms, a paperback room, and an upstairs office where the “rare” books were kept. Believe me, it took a while just to walk around the place, and 30 or 40 dials to Paul’s cel produced nothing, not a peep.  I called back to the Annex and asked him to come in and help me look for it.

About 15 minutes later Johnson pulled into the back lot of Cliff’s, still driving the old Mustang.  He was not in a good mood, angry at himself for once again (for the seven hundredth time in a month)  misplacing the damned phone.  I started dialing his cel number right away, and was startled to hear it chirping back just a few feet away, laying in the groove of the hood of the Mustang.  I have no idea how it stayed perched there as Paul had driven all the way up to the Annex, about 3 miles away, and then all the way back to Cliff’s.  I inspected the thing so see if there was some glue on the back of it or something, and then realized that Paul was so stoned that he probably drove really slow, like you do when pot paranoia takes over, and every passing cop car is a potential threat.

Aside from the daily cel hell that Johnson had to endure,, I remember another incident of forgetfulness that was even more startling. Unnerving really. One night, on his shift, he decided to consolidate the fiction section.  So he started to snug all the books up to each other, and when he was done, he had created a space of two entire shelving units.  This was a lot of space at Cliff’s. where even a mouse-hole would have a book blocking the entrance.  He had something in mind for the space, but forgot what it was.  The two empty units were sitting right near the front of the store, prime space.  I for one kept asking him what he was going to put there, but never got much of a coherent answer.  After 4 months he didn’t even remember that he had done it, and asked me one night who had emptied the two units in the middle of the store.  I stared at him, stupefied, and was going to yell at him that he was the one, but upon instant reflection of what it might do to upset his fragile psyche, and the fact he was my friend,  I decided to blame it on Nick, the homeless guy who was crashing upstairs and told him I would see to it that some books were put in the empty space right away.  He said that would be really great, and went outside for a smoke. What ever it was he was smoking was powerful stuff, the kind that makes you dream in technicolor.

The Send Off

St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church

St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church

On March 3, 2016 a Memorial Celebration for Paul Edward Johnson took place at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Altadena.  It was a beautiful and touching ceremony.  Paul’s friends and family were present, including an honor guard from the U.S. Army to present an American Flag to his family. Deacon Charles Mitchell  conducted the ceremonial, along with his wife Mrs. Cynthia Mitchell. Soloist Peter Vecchio with his accompanist Sydney Gullaume performed lovely songs. For those who didn’t know much about Paul’s personal life, I am reprinting the biography that was in the memorial folder handed out at the ceremony:

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Paul Edward Johnson of Altadena passed away February 15, 2016.  Paul was a lovnig father, grandfather, son, brother and a good friend to many.  Paul was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Pasadena, California on June 7, 1956, to Lloyd and Margit Johnson and grew up in Altadena.  He attended St. Elizabeth Elementary School and St. Francis and John Muir high schools.  He was a military veteran who served in the U.S. Army.  Paul loved camping and fishing in the mountains and was especially fond of Kernville.  He was also an avid antique book collector.  Paul will be remembered for his generosity and kindness to his family and friends.  He had a big smile and big heart and will be dearly missed and forever cherished in our hearts.

He is survived by a son, Skyler Martinez; daughter, Bryana Miller (Thomas); grandchild, Daniel Paul; sister, Anita and brother, Carl (kathleen).

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Paul and his grandson Dan

Paul and his grandson Dan

The Christian church, for some 2,000 years now, marks with ceremony the passage of humans through their lives at important times.  Birth, baptism, marriage, death, these all mark places in our journey.  None of us know when that final marker will take place, and it is sad for us when someone as young as our friend Paul passes.  If anyone reading this has any memories of Paul and his activities in the book business, please send them along, so we can make this a part of the record.  Paul had a great sense of humor and would himself want us to think of him in laughter and good times.

“Don’t Worry about a thing, “Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”  – Bob Marley singing Three Little Birds, Paul Johnson’t favorite song.

Strangely, Paul had purchased an expensive bottle of wine which he shared a couple of glasses with Cliff Gildart only a day before he passed.  Did he have a premonition and want to have a final toast with Cliff, his friend?  Cliff said he was glad that he could share those last moments with Paul, who had really become Cliff’s right-hand man.  Cliff, of course, is very saddened about this, and although he is not a religious person, please say a few prayers for him, along with Paul’s family.

Both Jerry and Paul were good bookmen, both loved books and served the Pasadena community.  They were both men of good temperament and good will, and we will miss them for their humor, as well as their tremendous knowledge.  Rest in Peace, my friends.

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I may have some more entertainment about Clliff’s and other bookshops and booksellers in the future, if I can bring myself to do it.  Letters, emails, brick-bats encouraged.  Please consider everything on this website to be a massive work of fiction.  I’m not really sure, in my advanced dotage that any of this actually happened.  I swear under penalty of perjury that I wasn’t smoking anything during those years.  Well, at least pretty much.  Maybe a little wine now and then.  Really.  Swear it.

unclepaulie@rocketmail.com