By the time I began formulating the path that led me from working at Rhino Records to opening Arcana: Books on the Arts down the street on Westwood Boulevard in a tiny one bedroom apartment in 1984, the notion of the gentleman bookseller catering to the erudite carriage trade had all but disappeared. Then as now, the independent book trade consisted mostly of a bunch of idiosyncratic entrepreneurs eking out mostly-modest livings doing what they loved – mostly with too many books and too little room. In Southern California, this group included such departed greats as Harry Bierman, Jake Zeitlin, Peggy Christian, Charlie Saltzman, Melvin Gupton, Jerome Joseph, Alan Siegel, and Chuck Valverde - whose personalities were each as large and varied as their inventory.
Dozens and dozens of used and out-of-print bookstores flourished between Santa Barbara and San Diego, and I visited as many of them as I could each month to pick up new stock for the shop. The San Fernando Valley became my prime feeding ground, and very early on I realized that Dutton’s Books at Laurel Canyon and Magnolia was something special. I bought my first copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” there from out of the bed of the shop’s pickup truck, and one of my favorite finds of all time – a Grove Press edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” that had been rebound in Mexico in a wacky calfskin arrangement whose gilt-stamped “Los Americanos” on its rococo raised and banded spine called out to me from the travel section - still resides on my shelves at home.
Founded in the early sixties by the eponymous bookselling clan, it was a literary haven that catered equally to discerning intellectuals and generations of Valley Village first graders alike. Located inconspicuously between a gas station and a fast-food purveyor redolent of fried chicken grease, the shop possessed an accretive, stylistically eclectic architecture that frequently - but not always - held back the rain from a labyrinth of makeshift rooms, shelving, and décor. The interior was liberally peppered with prints and posters too high on the walls to inspect without use of the store's gigantic wooden library ladder, tables filled with volumes arrayed spine up, and seemingly random stacks of books that truly might contain anything deployed throughout. And there were always those loads of boxes mysteriously coming and going through the rear door from their giant parking lot that seemed to function mostly as a Volvo-littered staging ground. Most importantly, there was its proprietor - Davis Dutton - known to all simply as Dave. Dave possessed an impressive head of snow white hair, a friendly demeanor, and was as generally knowledgeable a man as I can recall meeting. What I immediately noticed upon getting to know Dave was that unlike the esteemed group of colleagues mentioned above, his expertise was always offered freely and graciously without an accompanying dose of prickliness.
Whether personally dealing with a mother frantic to pick up her kid’s assigned reading list on the last day before classes started, or a delusional book scout demanding way too much for the box of crappy paperbacks just deposited on one of the weathered wooden tables out back, Dave always conveyed a sense of good-natured calm. In twenty-some years of regularly visiting that wonderful store, while often frustrated, I cannot ever remember seeing him lose his cool. As the book trade inevitably changed, the Dutton’s chain expanded and contracted, and loyal customers begat children and grandchildren, that ingrained passion for literacy and friendly, impeccable customer service never wavered. Dave possessed the booksellers’ innate gift of always putting the book you never knew you needed in your hand while his wife Judy could usually be overheard from behind the door of the cramped – and when I write cramped, you cannot possibly imagine how gracious a description that is – office in the archaic ritual of calling in the shop’s daily order of new books to Ingram.
Dave pursued other professions in his early life, but ultimately returned to run Dutton’s with his gifted brother Doug. He energetically oversaw buying and selling for a fleet of shops and garages filled with books, artwork, plus god-knows-what, and an ever-rotating staff of characters. He always made time to chat when I visited, and on the occasions I would receive a call to modestly let me know he’d made a book buy that I “might want to take a look at”, I knew to drop everything and head over Laurel Canyon. In later years, Dave granted me access to the as-yet-unpriced material in the secretive, velvet-curtained closet chaotically shelved with treasures presumed to be too precious for the open shelves. This privilege came with the sly caveat that it could only occur when Judy wasn’t around, so she wouldn't take him to task the moment I walked out over his wisdom in allowing me to do this... Even towards the end of the Dutton’s reign when Dave had begun to slow down and his posture was at times as precarious as those stacks strewn about the place, he never lost his sense of humour or that child-like twinkle in his eye.
This week, Davis Martin Dutton passed away peacefully at home a month short of eighty years of age. On behalf of our own “Mom and Pop” shop, I would like to extend sincere condolences to Judy, Doug, sister Dory, and the extended Dutton family. In my thirty-plus years in this racket I have known many great booksellers and a number of gentlemen as well, but have encountered only a handful that combined both qualities as effortlessly as Dave. He is, and will be, missed.