One of Southern California’s most famous and respected booksellers, Dave Dutton, the former owner of Dutton’s Books in North Hollywood, died at home on January 13 after a long illness. He was 79.
The store’s loyal customers would never have confused Dutton’s Books with a Barnes & Noble, with its wide aisles, orderly book displays, and plush-carpeted splendor. Dutton’s was a hodgepodge of books strewn on shelves, tables, and the cluttered floor. But it was that very haphazard and old-fashioned style that longtime customers found charming and comfortable—the antithesis of chain store slick.
Dave became a masterful bookseller at the Laurel Canyon Boulevard store and always seemed to know where each and every beloved volume was hidden among the nooks and crannies of his small kingdom. He combined infinite book knowledge with an even temperament, and always exhibited patience and genuine caring toward his customers.
His parents, Bill and Thelma Dutton, who opened their store in 1961 and joined the ranks of such legendary local booksellers as Vroman, Fowler, Zeitlin, Epstein, Dawson, and Hunter, paved the way for a family business that would last for almost half a century. Three of the Dutton children played vital roles in continuing the legacy: Dave and his brother Doug were both dedicated, popular booksellers in Southern California, and sister Dory continues to be a successful publishers’ sales rep in the West.
Dave returned from study and travel abroad in the 1970s to run his parents’ store. He had promised to stay for only a year, but ultimately began a bookselling career that lasted decades.
My job as a book sales rep had me visiting the store several times a year. The atmosphere at Dutton’s always reminded me of the old sitcom Cheers. When customers walked in the front door, they were often greeted by name and were made to feel that the store was their second home. Dave was a hands-on bookseller who enjoyed the challenge of matching his customer with the right book.
In later years the store was forced to contend with the stark realities of the changing book business. Dave and his wife Judy, who helped run Dutton’s, decided to close the North Hollywood store in 2006 and opted to warehouse many of the remaining 50,000 volumes and sell their inventory online. They bought real estate in Washington State, which became their second home.
I’ll always remember one particular visit to the store many years earlier that epitomized the spirit and essential mission of Dave Dutton as a bookseller. That day there was a dozen customers quietly perusing the shelves as I entered the back door from the parking lot. Among them I noticed CBS News anchor Connie Chung sitting on the floor in the travel section surrounded by stacks of guidebooks about Greece and Turkey.
Suddenly the engine of a Harley on the street just outside the front door revved up and shattered the tranquility of the summer afternoon. All eyes turned to the front door as a burly, unkempt man entered, taking off his motorcycle helmet to reveal shoulder-length hair and a dark scraggly beard. Dave quickly approached the menacing-looking stranger and asked if he needed help. The Hell’s Angel wannabe looked curiously around the store and asked meekly, “Do you have poetry books in here?”
Dave chuckled as the tension in the room dissolved and he put his uncomfortable guest at ease. He pointed toward the back wall and said, “Follow me, and I’ll show you more poetry books than you ever imagined.” Dave led him to the poetry section and said, “By the way, I’m Dave.” The two shook hands and Dave said: “Pull up a chair. I’d like to introduce you to a man named Dylan Thomas.”
I shook my head in awe and smiled as I made my way to the back office. I could hear Dave’s strong baritone voice in the background reading aloud to his new friend: “Do not go gentle into the good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Bob Vickrey was a sales rep for Houghton Mifflin for 36 years before retiring in 2008. He now writes for several Southwestern newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle.