Remembering Dave Dutton, and Dutton’s Books

Editor-in-Chief Mary Melton’s farewell to the bookstore and its beloved owner

Editor’s note: Bookstore owner Dave Dutton, 79, passed away today at his home in Valley Village. Ten years ago, when Dutton announced that he would be closing his legendary North Hollywood store, Los Angeles magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Mary Melton wrote a memoir of the teenage years she spent there as a clerk—and an homage to a man who was not only a quintessential book lover, but a storekeeper extraordinaire. 

For most of the last 45 years, there wasn’t a finer bookstore in Southern California than Dutton’s of North Hollywood. Bill and Thelma Dutton opened the shop on New Year’s Day, 1961—he the pragmatic dealer, she the warm shopkeeper who offered cups of foamy root beer to little girls whose fathers were whiling away Saturdays in the stacks. Dutton’s was musty; its shelves were homemade and mismatched, its labeling system arbitrary, its floors littered with collapsed piles of books waiting, sometimes weeks, to be righted. The disorder led to a surprise on every visit—Well, I wasn’t looking for a history of bohemian life in the mystery section, but what the heck? In short, it was everything you wanted a bookstore to be.

The author (and Dave Dutton’s van) in the parking lot of Dutton’s in the late ‘80s

Photo courtesy Mary Melton

Bill Dutton began the store to cash in on the new wave of paperbacks that was making literature available for 50 cents a title. Then he started picking up used titles to resell and, after a trip to England, rare ones, too. Gradually the used books took over most of the inventory, which was heavy on history, the arts, and classic fiction for children and adults. There were also prints and etchings and one of the more eclectic greeting card selections in town. Over the years Dutton’s grew to fill three adjoining storefronts on Laurel Canyon near Magnolia, each with a whimsical facade inspired, it seemed, by a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Bill’s sons Dave and Doug took over the place in the mid-’70s. The Duttons were one of three book dynasties in L.A. (the Weinsteins of Book City, Heritage Book Shop, and Book Baron, and the Dawsons of Dawson’s Book Shop being the others). Doug left North Hollywood in 1984 to run his own successful bookstores in Brentwood and, later, Beverly Hills, and Dave opened (and later closed) two other Dutton’s—in Burbank and in the subterranean bleakness of ARCO Plaza downtown. But Dutton’s North Hollywood was always the mother ship, and Dave its captain. That was until this January, when Dave announced that he was closing the original Dutton’s for good and moving with his wife, Judy, to Washington State.

Dave has his mother’s shopkeeper sensibilities and his father’s acumen for dealing. He is a book lover who loves the business of books. Which is to say, you would never find him sitting on a stool at the cash register, annoyed by your presence as he savored a volume of Walt Whitman. Instead you would hear him shouting the joys of Wallace Stegner as he clung to the top rungs of a wood ladder to reach for a copy of Angle of Repose that had been double shelved, or crouching down on the worn linoleum floor in his untucked button-down shirt and dusty white leather sneakers, rummaging through a laundry basket of old cookbooks and excitedly hesitating on an out-of-print M.F.K. Fisher, or in the parking lot stuffing a battered van with thousands of dollars’ worth of leather-bound classics to be delivered to movie sets or to the homes of L.A. billionaires. Once, as Dave unpacked boxes in the library of the oil baron Marvin Davis’s estate, he noticed some duplicate titles. When he brought this to the attention of Davis’s interior decorator, he told Dave “not to worry about it—they’re just for show anyway,” before taking Dave and a couple of Dutton’s employees into the living room to check out Mrs. Davis’s Faberge eggs.

I know this story because I spent a good portion of my adolescence shelving books, buying and filling libraries, and supplementing my education at Dutton’s. It was Bill Dutton who had sparked my own father’s obsession with rare books when in the early ’70s my dad traded a pair of antique samurai swords inherited by my mom for a beat-up Holinshed’s Chronicles. My father’s book obsession ignited my own, and a trip to Dutton’s was an anticipated part of my family’s weekends, as common as a jaunt to Dale’s Market or Der Wienerschnitzel. We pulled into the parking lot and entered the back if we were feeling discreet, the front if we wanted the bell hanging from the door to announce our arrival. Dave always greeted us, engaging my dad in a conversation about Pepys or Boswell or Cook’s voyages, leading my mom to the latest Stephen King, or indulging my own interests in all things royal or Kennedy (“There’s a new assassination title over here, kiddo”). I had to beseech Dad for a pair of K-Swiss tennis shoes or a Duran Duran album, but books? They were our mutual craving, and there were no raised eyebrows when I asked to bring something home, no matter the topic. We always left the store clutching at least one paper bag, with its striking black-and-white sun design, and a handful of the bookmarks in pastel blues, yellows, and greens that still poke out between so many pages on my shelves.

It was never a question that my first job would be at Dutton’s. I don’t recall even inquiring about it, but I do remember my first day, which was in fact a night. Dad dropped me off after dinner for the 6-to-9 shift. Dave asked me to “straighten up the third room.” Even for a store that thrived on disorder, the third room was exceptional. I didn’t know where to start, so I dived into a mound of travel-photo books that covered a large plywood table. It wasn’t long before I got into the Zen of sorting, of befriending each cover as it took me to a different part of the world, a different chapter in history. The work cleared my head, much like gardening—and in a sense, writing—would years later. The futility took a little longer to accept. However impeccably I arranged a table, a shelf, a section, it went to hell within a few days. I am an organization freak—I knew that even then—but at Dutton’s I learned that no matter how hard you try, sometimes it is impossible to impose order upon chaos, and sometimes only chaos can produce creative sparks and revelations.

I loved the contrast of the night shift, which was dreamy and quiet, to the hectic Saturday shift. On weeknights at about 8:45, we rolled in the carts filled with 99-cent books that stood on the sidewalk, flipped the closed sign, and did a sweep for anyone who might have been lulled to sleep by the classical music wafting through the third room. (We always checked, because once a customer woke to a darkened store and rang up Dave and Judy at home—fortunately the number was posted in the office—to release him.) On Saturdays Dave was in his element. He never stopped moving, a coffee in one hand (to this day I’ve never seen him eat anything), answering a phone with the other. He knew every regular at a glance. I wish I could say the same; when a customer requested that I charge his or her bill to a house account, I’d occasionally need to ask what name it was under, and that didn’t go over well. “I’m Macdonald Carey, damn it!” reprimanded the longtime Days of Our Lives star—a line my friends from Dutton’s still use on me.

I was charmed, amused, and at times annoyed by our customers. There were the semifamous who would allow Dave and only Dave to serve them, which I found unfair to him and us. Dave could hold your hand through each purchase, you pampered ninny, but he had a store to run! After Bill Moyers’s series The Power of Myth aired, I spent an entire summer guiding what seemed to be every public television watcher in Los Angeles to yet another copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (As soon as an unfamiliar face walked through the door, employees would mutter, “Here comes a Power of Myth, I bet you.”) We had understated celebrities, like Jodie Foster in a baseball cap perusing philosophy or Warren Beatty checking out the prints. We had some customers who were cranks, no doubt, but more often they were a friendly bunch who loved to introduce you to a writer as much as discover one themselves. A wonderful character actor named John Myhers, who always walked through the back door singing arias, insisted I grasp Stanislavsky and bought me a copy of An Actor Prepares. One night Diane Ladd led me into a spirited conversation about conspiracy theories and JFK; another afternoon Penn Jillette told me all about this guy named Ricky Jay who’d written this book that I had to read, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women.

My colleagues also influenced what I took home (much more than I could ever read, thanks to the 30 percent employee discount). You ascertained a lot about another person’s tastes when you spent hours at the table in the parking lot pricing used books freshly purchased out of a car trunk. Standing there on 100-degree Valley afternoons, the air permeated with the scent of fast-food fried chicken and biscuits from next door, I was introduced to jazz and pulp novels by Amy, poetry by Herman, obscure pop culture by Mark, cartoon artists by Cunningham, Rimbaud by Abbott, and old movies by Steve.

I worked at Dutton’s until a college internship at the L.A. Weekly turned into a job. I remember telling Dave that I was thinking about becoming a writer. “Look around you,” he said. “What more is there to say?” When I got my first byline, however, he couldn’t have been more excited. I left the job but never left the place. Every Christmas and birthday since, the most likely gift I received from my family was a Dutton’s gift certificate. My mom, my brothers, my husband and I—we all kept house accounts. I loved how the store made few concessions to an evolving industry; at the same time I knew that its stubborn integrity would be its demise, that it couldn’t continue to compete with the deep discounts offered by the chains or the ease of ordering from Amazon. Dave never opened a cafe or got the hang of the Internet. His brother Doug hosted book signings and ran stores that were literary salons; as welcoming as the original Dutton’s, they were also more orderly and modern. You could walk into Dutton’s North Hollywood and feel, save for the new dates on the Thomas Guides, as if little had changed since Mrs. Dutton was pouring root beer in the back kitchen.

For the last few years Dave has been afflicted with medical conditions that have slowed him down. When the store put up signs announcing 50 percent off all stock last November, I knew there was trouble—Dave isn’t one to discount willy-nilly, especially at Christmas. Earlier this year he finally confessed that he was closing the store in March. I’ve been in more times than usual of late, using up my gift certificates, mostly to build my little boy’s library. On a recent visit I was leafing through art books with my one free hand—the other holding a teetering stack, just like old times—when I looked back into the children’s section. Dave was sprawled on the worn linoleum floor, which at first alarmed me; then I saw that he was helping my two-year-old find helicopters in picture books. Dutton’s, I realized, was not just an indelible part of my past but also of my future. It will be the place I pull out of my hat when I meet someone for the first time who asks, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” and I say, “Were you a Dutton’s customer?” Even if it’s no longer there, it will be where I’ll go when I need to feel safe. I’ll always be able to reconstruct the third room in my head—the history section I’d dawdle in on a slow night, the moment I spotted a first edition of Joan Didion’s Run River lying atop a pile, that classical music washing over me as I clutched another find close to my chest.

My senior year in high school I went to New York with some friends after the Christmas rush at Dutton’s. We looked out the window of our Times Square hotel room one evening on a crowd of probably 200 women gathered outside a stage door. They were waiting for Billy Dee Williams, who was starring in Fences. I bragged to my friends that I knew him. He was one of my favorite customers at Dutton’s, I said, always gracious and kind, filling the store with his velvet voice on many Saturdays. “Yeah, right,” they challenged, so I led them downstairs and across 46th Street. Williams was exiting the door as we pushed our way through the screaming crowd. He wasn’t stopping to sign autographs—had he, he would have been there until the next day’s matinee—but he waved and smiled and touched a few hands. I broke through the throng just as he stepped into his waiting car. I shouted, “Hey, Billy, it’s Mary from Dutton’s!” He turned to look and, God bless him, stepped right out of that car to walk over and greet me. Whether he was responding to me or just to the word “Dutton’s,” so reassuring to hear 2,800 miles away, I think I know.

Melton with Dutton’s Books customer, the actor Billy Dee Williams, on Broadway in 1988.

Photo courtesy Mary Melton

This article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of Los Angeles magazine.