The Mysterious Bookbinder Who Roamed Hollywood Blvd Looking For Tattered Tomes.

Robert G. Cowan:  An Extraordinary Life in the Shadows of History

by

Paul Hunt

The Mysterious Book Binder

Hanging around the old Atlantis Book Shop in Hollywood in the 1970s was the first time I heard about an old bookbinder who came into Hollywood once a week and made the rounds to the book shops and picked up books that needed repair and dropped off the finished books from the previous week. “ Doc” Burroughs, the owner of Atlantis, told me his name was “old man Cowan.” He repaired a lot of books for Atlantis. The repair jobs were always distinctive because Cowan often used wallpaper for end-paper, which was colorful but looked down upon by the rare book dealers who pointed out that wallpaper was usually made from wood pulp and highly acidic.

The reason Cowan had so much business was that he was really reasonable and his repairs were sturdy and lasting. Because he was around doing this he saved thousands of books from being tossed out. Every book dealer runs across books that have a detached cover, or weak hinges, or a missing end paper. A normal book bindery or hand bindery would charge something like $75 on up at that time to do a proper repair. Cowan would do it for $3-$5 dollars on average. He had his own methods to tackle some of the jobs that needed to be completely re-sewn. His technique was similar to that of William Hawley, the orientalist who published “Culture Charts” on Samurai Swords and Japanese language and dealt in books on Japan and China. Hawley lived in a house on a hill in the Silverlake district and it had about 100 steps to get up to it. I went there many times to buy his “Culture Charts” that I sold at the swap meets and military shows. In the basement of the house was a bindery, and he explained how he repaired books without using a sewing frame. I will save the general reader boredom and not go into detail on this.

Mr. Cowan used a similar technique to avoid actually having to sew the books. Between the time that I met Hawley in the early 1970s and the time I met Cowan in the 1980s I had been to UCLA’s bookbinding school for a couple semesters and learned the proper way to bind books. The teacher was the great Margaret Leckie, an internationally recognized rare book binder. Any thoughts I had of becoming a book binder vanished while taking that course. It requires so much time to sew and rebind a book that making a living at it seemed impossible to me. A few of the students were sent to the school by the Getty to learn how to bind and repair books because they had the income to hire and train folks to maintain their massive collections. Unless one can become a master book binder in order to work only on rare and expensive books, it is impossible to make a living repairing $10 and $20 dollar books for book dealers. Although I decided not to pursue the trade of binding, I learned a lot, and by the time I finally met Cowan I had a grateful respect for what he was doing, although at times wincing at the wallpaper he used for end paper.

 

Bill Chase, Manager of Gilbert’s Book Shop

Robert G. Cowan was really a character, a one of a kind man who had done many things in life. I greatly admired him and was very fond of him. I finally met him in the mid-1980’s. I got his phone number from Bill Chase, who was working for me at that time. The glory days of Hollywood Boulevard were almost gone, and shops were closing up or moving to Westwood. Bill Chase had run Gilbert’s Book Shop at Hollywood and Vine. This was formerly known as Satyr books, and was around the corner on Vine Street and I think this was run by Stanley Rose. When Rose moved to Hollywood Blvd next to Musso and Franks, Mr. Gilbert took over the store and later moved around the corner on to Hollywood Blvd. just east of Vine Street.

Gilbert was married to one of Edgar Rice Burroughts daughters, and had an extensive collection of rare Tarzan books. Unfortunately a fire at his home did a lot of damage to his books, including the Tarzan books, and he sent boxes of them to Cowan to repair. Cowan had by then (mid-1980s) stopped his weekly trips to Hollywood Blvd to pick up and drop off books. He was doing that in his 80s, but as he approached 90 years old he would no longer drive, so if you wanted some books repaired you had to find him in his house in the steep hills of Silverlake. When I finally connected with him he was still repairing the damaged books for Gilbert, a time consuming job because many of the books were really badly damaged from the fire and the water used to put out the fire. I could see trying to save some of the rare Burroughs titles but many of the books Gilbert had sent to Cowan were very common books, and not worth fixing. However, it was job security for Cowan, who had a nice bindery set up in the basement of his hillside home.

Robert G. Cowan at work in his bindery, 1985. Photo by Paul Hunt

I was at the Book Castle at the time, and we got in an enormous amount of books. A fair amount of older books would need some of Cowan’s repair expertise, and I tried to take him a box of books every other week. I had solved the “wallpaper” problem, at least for myself. Back in the 1970s I had an antique store with another guy down in the old Ramparts section of Los Angeles. One day I heard about an old bindery that was going out of business, down near 11th and Rampart, and I went over and bought a fair amount of equipment and tools. I also got a few big rolls of printed end papers with a couple of different designs but mainly blue background with tiny little gold fleur de lis, so I dug these out of storage and gave Cowan a bunch of rolls so that he could put on decent end papers on my books. No more wallpaper for me! The drawback, however was that all my repaired books screamed Vive la France!

Robert Cowan with Ted Miller, Manager of Avon Book Shop, Burbank, CA.

Cowan was reasonable in his pricing. He saved a lot of good books that we could sell that would have otherwise been thrown out. I often took my manager Ted Miller with me to see Cowan, he enjoyed talking to a “living legend” as Ted called him. On other occasions I brought along Western Americana collector John Riordan and also Janet Jarvits who had worked at the Arthur Clarke Company, publishers and booksellers of fine Western Americana. Cowan had been one of the authors of the authoritative “Bibliography of California with his father Robert E. Cowan. There is so much that could be said of Robert E., a famous book man who had a book shop in San Francisco before the terrible earthquake and fire of April 1906. Cowan worked with libraries and books all his life, and his son Robert G. followed much of that. The family lived for years on the William Andrews Clark estate, which later became part of U.C.L.A. The Cowans cataloged the books that Clark had purchased, and were actually private librarians.

William Andrews Clark, Jr

On occasion I was RGC’s guest at meetings of the Los Angeles Corral of the Westerners, a fine group of historians, authors, scholars, educators, and collectors of Western Americana and Californiana. These meetings were held at the famous French restaurant on Sunset Blvd., Taix, established in 1927.

At one point in the late-1980s, Mr. Cowan fell down the outside staircase on his way down to work in his bindery. He was in the hospital for a few weeks, and he was sadly confined to a wheel chair after that. Most people in their 90s would just give up and head for the old folks home. Not Cowan. He was a survivor. He hired a lady to come in a few times a week and help him with household chores. The nice lady was from Belize, and she would often fix a great meal for Mr. Cowan and some house guests he would have over for dinner, drinks, and a lot of fascinating book talk. I was privileged to be invited to a few of those dinners and listen to the stories of his legendary father Robert E. Cowan and his pursuit of rare books around the State.

RGC getting award at the Lummis house in L.A.

I went with Cowan to an event at the Lummis house in downtown Los Angeles. Cowan was in a wheel chair then, but he had a great time. He was given an award by a local history organization, and he showed me around the old adobe house. He later gave me a receipt that his father had written up when Lummis purchased $15 worth of books around 1898. The receipt is signed by Lummis (see photo).

 

Above:  Receipt for books sold to Charles Lummis,  1898.

Robert G. Cowan had a life full of fun and excitement. He was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1895. His father’s side was Scotch. His middle name was Granniss, not a name from Scotland, but interesting as to how he got it. His father, Robert E. Cowan, was acquainted with a Col. George Granniss, who worked for Gen. Grant’s Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck. It seems Halleck had been a partner in one of California’s premier law firms, Halleck, Peachy & Billings. They had handled most of the old land cases in early California days. The firm also did business with the Army. So Halleck ordered Col. Granniss out to San Francisco to close up the law firm, send the appropriate papers to the Army, and dispose of the “civilian” papers that the law firm had accumulated. At one of the dinner parties, Mr. Cowan told me that the files were primary source material for many of the important land transactions of the early days. Col. Granniss gave all these files to Cowan’s father, who later sold them to Collis P. Huntington on behalf of the University of California for something like $3,000. This gave Robert E. Cowan enough money to plunge into the book business, and he gratefully put Col. Granniss’ name on his son. In his book, Foibles, Fun, Flukes and Facts, Mr. Cowan referred to himself as “RGC” to differentiate himself from his famous father, Robert E. Cowan.

Robert E. Cowan, Bookseller and Bibliographer. RGC’s esteemed father.

 

RGC’s aforementioned book goes into great detail about his life in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th Century, including the horrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. He spins tales of his life in the bay area during the teens, his experiences at school, at work, and outdoors camping with friends. How different things were in those days. Also included in his autobiography is his diary of his days in World War 1, kept in secret against orders. He served overseas in France with a unit that transported artillery shells to the artillery units during many of the crucial battles that led to the end of the war.

RGC’s Autobiography

After the war, RGC returned to the bay area and worked at several jobs, including the Southern Pacific Railroad. His father, meanwhile, was spending half his time in Southern California, working for William Andrews Clark, Jr as a librarian. In 1926, the Clark Memorial Library was finished and Clark wanted Robert E. Cowan full time. He hired his son, our RGC to move down to Los Angeles and work on the library, so the Cowan family moved all their belongings, including Robert E.’s massive collection of books (2 Bekins Vans full) down to the Clark property, where Robert E. had been assigned a house to live in. RGC and his wife found a small house nearby, and this started his odyssey in Los Angeles.

I have jammed this little article with photos, there is not much on the internet about the life and adventures of Robert G. Cowan, and his wide range of interests. How many folks today would start a new business when they are in their 80s? You have to admire him, scurrying up and down Hollywood Blvd. and building a stable business binding and repairing books for all the Hollywood book dealers. He was an authentic California pioneer of the 20th Century. The first person to shake hands with him when he was a child was the flamboyant Emperor Norton. I was probably one of the last to shake Mr. Cowan’s hand before he passed, age about 98.

Using his autobiography and other material as a guide, I compiled a list of all the houses that RGB build or lived in. What I didn’t know during the time that I personally knew him was that he was the architect on several of his houses, and also the contractor on at least two. He also on one occasion showed me photos of a sailboat that he built in his backyard, he still had all the plans and blueprints neatly rolled up in a cupboard. He built the boat entirely by hand, over a period of years, going through an elaborate process to bend the long pieces of lumber to fit the design. This was done by wetting the boards and bending them a little at a time, until just the right bend angle occurred. He said the Cowan family spent many pleasant hours sailing in the Pacific.

Above:  Paul Hunt and Robert Cowan at the Lummis House in the Mid-1980s.

Out of curiosity, I started a google map search, and much to my surprise, most of the houses in Los Angeles and two of the Victorians in San Francisco, were still standing, although slightly altered in some cases. With my partner Julie Webster, and armed with cameras, we set out on a “RGC House Hunting Safari” to find and photograph the existing houses that Cowan occupied. The results are given below, including the San Francisco Houses that are still standing according to Google maps.

Above:  Robert E. Cowan’s house, 321 (now 3229) 20th St., San Francisco, CA.  This is where Robert G. Cowan was born.  These Victorians are still standing.

Above:  867 Treat Ave., San Francisco.  This became father Robert E. Cowan’s residence around 1899 and also the book shop, which was on the ground floor, (known as the basement in those days.).

Above:  1321 South Redondo Blvd., Los Angeles. Robert G. Cowan lived here from 1927-1942.  RGC was the architect.  Note he used the attic for his books and the skylights are visible on the right hand side of the roof.  This house had 3 bedrooms and one bath.  Current value on Zillo is $1,278,000.

Above:  2151 W. 20th St., Los  Angeles, CA.   This is in the Jefferson Park area.  This is where RGC’s father Robert E. Cowan lived after leaving the Andrews Clark Library.  When he died in 1942, RGC sold the Redondo Blvd. house and moved in here.  The house was packed with books.  His father had the habit of buying books and leaving them wrapped up in the original packaging, so RGC had the fun of opening hundreds of these, finding great treasures.  The house was a huge old craftsman (circa 1911) and RGC lived there until 1950.  It has 5 bedrooms and 3 baths.  Zillo value is over $1,200,000.  It is used by studios for filming often.

Above:  5522 Harcross Drive,  Los Angeles, CA.  Windsor Hills area.  RGC was both architect and contractor.  The large attic was for his books. He built this house in 1949 but was only here for a short time, as he and his wife Georgia separated in 1951.  2 bedrooms, 2 baths, current Zillo value  is above $822,000.

Above:  1650 Redcliffe Drive, Los Angeles CA (Silverlake area).  RGC was the architect and contractor.  He had to raise the roof in order to fit in a massive glass front case that came from the Clark estate.  The bindery was entered on the right at street level.  He lived here from 1952 until his death.  The house was last sold in 1994 for $132,000.  The estimated Zillo value today is over $1,533,000.  This is the house that RGC fell down the front stairs, putting him in a wheelchair.

Above:  The Philharmonic Building.   Demolished 1985.

In 1933 RGC became a partner in a Stamp and Coin business, called La Cal Stamp Co. During the depression years stamp collecting was huge. Within a few months, he was the sole owner. RGC did well, the small shop was near 4th and Main. He later moved into a storefront in the magnificent Philharmonic Building at 5th and Olive. I assume he got that shop because William Andrews Clark, Jr founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Society and built the building. Sadly, it was demolished around 1985 without much outcry. With the coming of WW2, the country became more affluent, and RGC found it harder to buy collections. His lease on the shop was coming due and because of inflation a large rent increase was coming. He decided wisely that it was time to sell his business, and although he does not give a date in his autobiography, it might have been 1942 around the time his father died. His next business venture was buying up small apartment courts. He eventually had 18 units which he said gave him an adequate income, plus exercise as he did the maintenance himself

.

I have not been able to pin down the exact date of death of RGC. His last house was sold in July of 1994, so I am guessing he died in 1993 or early 1994 (year of the Los Angeles earthquake.) This would make him around 98 years old, a ripe old age. I would note that although I never saw him smoke, he did have a couple of shots or a couple glasses of wine most nights.

He lived to see incredible changes in California. He saw the last of the west, two world wars, and the rise of a modern civilization. He was a down to earth gentleman, and I treasure the time we spent together in his bindery or at his dinner parties. I only wish I had met him much earlier, back in the 1970s when he was a mysterious old guy who roamed Hollywood Blvd. Bookshops looking for tattered books to repair. As I discovered, he was so much more than just an old book binder. He was a Veteran, an Architect, a Contractor, a Bibliographer with his father of the great Bibliography of California, a Bookseller, an Author of several books, a Stamp and Coin Dealer, a Real Estate apartment landlord, a Boat Builder, a Sailor, and an owner of a Model T Ford. The most fascinating man I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

Above:  Robert G.  Cowan at about 90 years old.  Photo by Paul Hunt.

Bucks on the Bookshelf Radio Show June 2, 2018

Host Steve Eisenstein and Paul Hunt Discuss Topics Including:

The Mystery Surrounding The Vanishing Erle Stanley Gardner Museum

Gus Hasford, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Legal Responsibilities of Book Dealers Who Buy From an Estate

Rare Guest Book From Tokyo Medical Conference in 1905

and much more on this 2 hour show.

This show was recorded from WDBF Tune-In radio.  The show is every Saturday 9am-11am Pacific Time.

Click Here to Listen to the show:

 

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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This knowledgeable lady ran the Children’s Department

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Duttons Closing - John Sinclair - more 055

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