At first glance, the recent feature article in the Los Angeles Times about Santa Monica's well-known Midnight Special Bookstore seemed to be telling an all-too-familiar tale: independent bookshop forced out of long-time location by rising rents. Future prospects: bleak to none.
But, on closer inspection, the appreciative story by Lynell George showed the familiar from an unexpected angle -- not unlike one of Midnight Special's famously provocative window displays.
Take, for instance, the store's landlord in Santa Monica's upscale Third Street Promenade, Walter N. Marks. The story noted that he is not the profit-hungry entrepreneur of cliché, but, instead, a concerned landlord, praised by bookstore owner Margie Ghiz and customers alike for having allowed Midnight Special to occupy its space at a reduced rent for the past decade.
"He's believed in us more than anything; he's the one that gave us this opportunity," Ghiz told Bookselling This Week in a recent interview. "I mean, he's been subsidizing us for 10 years now; he just can't afford it anymore. So, because we have to move, he's helping us find a place; he's been going all over L.A."
And forget the image of the embattled independent crowded out or the one about the politically diverse store unable to make it in an apathetic or conservative environment.
According to the L.A. Times piece, Midnight Special's diverse patrons run the gamut from Latin American novelist-activist Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Hollywood actor-director Tim Robbins to Republican (former) L.A. mayor Richard Riordan.
"One of my customers says, 'You know, this store is amazing,'" Ghiz said, "'because you can come in and see people with fanny-packs that look like they just got off the bus from Iowa next to somebody with pink hair, next to a cross-dresser -- and everybody's reading the same thing, and nobody stares. Nobody cares.' The only thing that'll happen," Ghiz added, "is they may get into a discussion."
The real surprise came after the L.A. Times story (and a second Times piece): a flood of telephone calls, e-mails, and customer visits that quite overwhelmed Ghiz.
"We had one of our hugest weekends ever," said Ghiz. "People who had never even seen the store came in, after that article. What's happened is just the opposite of what we expected. Well, not just the opposite, but the amount of support has been amazing, absolutely amazing.... It's been wonderful. I'm just blown away by it, to tell you the truth."
Messages of encouragement and offers of help came from all over Southern California, Ghiz said, including Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego: "People in city departments, city halls, and city councils ... we got a call from a member of the L.A. City Council who wants us in Hollywood. I got a call from professors at Claremont colleges; they tell me that they're meeting, to figure out what to do! I mean, it's just incredible."
Ghiz said her current landlord has found any number of potential locations for Midnight Special. "Wally told me, 'People are fighting over getting you. You're going to have to pick and choose.' I said, 'Oh my God.' It's astounding.... I'm writing to someone in New York -- we got some messages from New York City, actually, from customers who come out here on vacation -- and I said, 'I guess this has been kind of upsetting' (even our landlord's upset that he has to do it, 'cause he really loves us); but I said, 'You know, this has been one of the best weeks of my life.' Because ... we have had an impact in this town.... I just had no idea; I just didn't. And I'm totally floored."
"Margie doesn't even realize the impact she has," says independent publisher's representative Dory Dutton. "She's the most generous person I've ever known, and I truly mean that. She would do anything for you, and she will not take credit. You can't compliment her on anything, because it's 'somebody else.' She believes her staff and everyone around her has made her store what it's become; she never gives herself credit."
"You know," Ghiz said, in a way that proves Dutton's point, "when I've got these landlords from all over the place offering to have us come ... I think what it does say is that we have had an impact in this town; and it's wonderful, because the impact has been that it's okay, it's really okay, to question your government. It's really okay to criticize the president. It's really okay to start fighting for things that matter.... You're not weird; you're not odd; you're fine. You're not some kind of weird lefty that's out screaming things."
"Her store is thought of as being a 'leftist' store," said Dutton, "but, in fact, all Margie wants you to do is see that there's another side to everything, and she will show the conservative side, or the other side -- whatever it takes.... There is always something that causes controversy, that makes people come in and slash up a book or scream at her or try to get somebody arrested there. She's had so many incidents over the years, and Margie herself handles it. And it's not a lot of fun, but she just sort of takes care of business."
For Ghiz, taking care of business means providing information -- even in the wake of one of the best weeks of her life.
"We're here because education matters," she said, "because information matters. And that's all that matters. And if we don't keep on doing that, it doesn't matter who likes us, you know?... Lynell George says, 'You're a 911 for L.A.' I said, 'All right! I love it!' You know: 'Wadya need? What kind of information do you want? Call Midnight Special.'"
So, discard, too, the cliche of the beleaguered indie crushed by the weight of market forces and social trends.
Margie Ghiz says: "Closing down's not an option for me." -- Tom Nolan