L-S Distributors of South San Francisco has become the second West Coast wholesaler to recently close its doors. (Cal-West Periodicals of Stockton, Calif., closed in late 1998.) The wholesaler was founded as a newspaper distributor, in 1956, by Lou Swift. A year later, Richard Seifert came on board as general manager. At the time, the Bay Area book business consisted only of ID Wholesaler for mass market books, American News Company and a few independent bookstores.

In the 1960s, when ID Wholesaler decided to stop distributing a new format of books -- trade paperbacks -- L-S picked up the new niche and gradually moved into hardcovers, mass markets, audiobooks, calendars and magazines. At its peak, the wholesaler carried 35,000 titles from every major American publisher and from selected small and university presses.

Seifert, who took over the company after Swift's death, in 1975, attempted to sell the business, but after long deliberation decided to terminate the company's book distribution and retire. "We weren't in any trouble," he told PW. "I just resolved to retire and do the things I've always wanted to do. But it's a tough business to be in, and a tough one to sell. Who has the money? It would take millions of dollars."

L-S began to cut back its operation in 1997, when it stopped its dwindling magazine distribution, and over the past year scaled down its title base to 25,000-30,000 titles. In a letter sent to publishers on January 4 of this year, Seifert wrote that L-S will "cease to operate as of today. Please cancel all orders and back orders you are holding." Seifert told PW that he sold as much inventory as he could in January and has started returns this month. He plans to wind up with publishers and settle balances by mid to late March. "I've given myself the first six months of 1999 to finish everything up," he explained.

Seifert said his jaw dropped when he saw Meg Ryan, in the film You Have Mail, post a sign on her empty store that read: "After 42 years in business we're closing our doors. Thank you for letting us be part of your lives." Having been in the industry for 42 years himself, Seifert had used the same words in his retirement letter to friends in publishing. "I don't imagine there's a copyright on that sort of thing," he joked.

The former president and owner of L-S plans to travel, go back to school and return to a passion he left at the age of eight: "I'm going to complete my piano lessons."