A Shelf Life That's Always Growing: At Doug Dutton's house, books rule -- from rare texts to paperbacks

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By Susan Salter Reynolds
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Poetry is in the front hall. Music in the living room. Books on books in the dining room. Science under the piano in the family room. Classics are in the little wooden bookshelf with glass-paneled doors, but only run through Aristotle before they spill over into the den. There are 4,000 books inside the house, 10,000 more in storage. Once, the pantry held cans and plates and no books. Now, the shelves are filled with pages.

"If I want a book, I just poach from the store," says Doug Dutton, one of L.A.'s preeminent independent booksellers, the owner of Dutton's Brentwood Books on San Vicente in Brentwood (Dutton's brother Dave owns the Laurel Canyon Dutton's Books in North Hollywood). In one sense, Doug Dutton inherited his store, one of the longest-lived independents in Los Angeles, which his parents opened in 1961. In another sense, it inherited him.

Conjure the bookseller, his keen gaze as he assesses the worthiness of his customers before fixing them up with, say, Marguerite Yourcenar. He's a businessman -- has to be to survive. His store has a vital reading series, and its employees are devoted and knowledgeable. But he's also a soft-hearted humanist and, for regular customers, a kind of psychotherapist. Take this travel book and call me in the morning. Give your adolescent daughter J.R.R. Tolkien and see me after Christmas. "That Edgar Allen Poe that frightened you so much as a child in your grandmother's living room," he asks a visitor, "were the illustrations by any chance by Harry Clarke?"

It's hard enough to visit most people socially without staring at their bookshelves and making judgments. (There's an L.A. author who shall remain nameless who is fond of turning anything Freud-related upside down when he visits friends.) At the Duttons' home, simply making your way through all the shelves could take several days. Penny Dutton, 47, and Doug, 52, who live in a 1940s tract house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Valley Village, often find friends, long after a dinner has ended, curled up in a corner reading. California Institute of the Arts President Steven Lavine might visit or Louise Lepley, chairwoman of the Colburn School of Performing Arts, with her husband, Joe. "But my closest friends," Dutton says, "are the people who work at the store. Those are the people I'd always choose to hang out with."

Few visitors seem immune from the call of the Duttons' books. Daughter Charlotte, 13, reports that her best friend, Kelly, might be part way out the door before crying out, "Oh! Book!" and return to pick one out. The house is a kind of informal lending library.

Which is not to say that the books are organized informally. No. They enter the house and rest on the dining room table before being assigned to their bunkers. Perhaps, if they are extremely current, like Ian McEwan's new novel, Atonement, due out in January, they come to rest on the trestle table in the family room. If they fall under the heading "Doug's Current Obsession" (at the moment, Faust) they move to Dutton's obsession corner, a primo spot in front of the bay window, looking out on the pool, next to the Aeolian piano with the Laurie Anderson CD on top.

From the outside, the Duttons' home looks like a nice wooden house on a quiet street with old trees -- liquid ambers, oaks, Chinese maples. A stern but beautiful old ginkgo guards the door. Inside, it is buzzing, humming with intellectual activity. Similarly, from the outside, Doug and Penny are handsome, trim, friendly people. But three sentences into a subject they know something about, it's clear that their knowledge runs deep, a realization that comes not because they are ungracious, but because subjects such as music or literature are what they live and breathe. On the surface, theirs is a comfortable suburban home, complete with family photos and fruit in the kitchen. Except that, Hitchcock-like, there are books everywhere. If someone took away all the books ("I would be dead because I couldn't live without them," says Dutton, who is not normally given to hyperbole), the place would still be lovely, filled with Oriental rugs and antiques passed down or found in flea markets -- a 17th century grandfather clock, a Duncan Fife coffee table. Yes, the house has 14th century illuminated pages and illuminated calligraphy from Thailand and pillows covered in Pierre Deux fabrics, but it wouldn't be the same without the library.

"Everything is determined by the books," Dutton says. There's some overhead lighting, but most of the reading light comes from windows and lamps. And of course there are shelves, all at least 15 inches wide and 12 inches high. Shelf size should vary, says Dutton, but shelves must not bow in the center. This means hardwoods only; oak is best, but they could also be birch or mahogany. No pine, sorry.

The house, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, is held together by books -- they are the binding of all the house's contents. The lovingly planted hardenburgia and Carolina jasmine vines destined to meet over the entranceway would seem a little rootless without the books on gardening that reveal hours of study indoors on winter evenings. The food in the kitchen, the coffee Dutton offers, the apples, the bread, all have their references on the shelves. Even the collection of brass bells, (Dutton gives one to each of his children, Charlotte; Emily, 26; and Colin, 20, every Christmas) would lack the resounding evidence of obsession betrayed by the lifelong book collector.

"Obsession, now there's a Freud-and-after word, linked to the idea of possession," says Dutton, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary (shorter version). Could Dutton, like a Hobbit run amok, be possessed by some book spirit? Could this explain the garage full of books and the two storage units, also full. Or the fact that when his two older children went on to college it meant, gleefully, "more room for books"?

"No one ever gives me books," he says sadly. "Except for my 50th birthday, [when] everyone was asked to bring a used book that was important to them." He is proud of his Doves Press Bible, his Dante with illustrations by John Henry Nash, his Doves Press Art of the Painted Book (one of 300 in the world) and his first edition of the Anders/Houghton Psalms, 1605. British craftsman, designer and writer William Morris gets two solid feet of shelf space. But books, he says, are meant to be used. Even these extremely valuable books are strewn in with the others, get pulled out and admired.

Dutton grew up in Southern California. He received advanced degrees in English and music from UC Berkeley and teaches music theory and harmony at L.A. City College. He met Penny Breitner, who is now a nurse (and has a nurse's calm, gentle, capable manner), while he was working in his parents' bookstore. She was "looking for [Chaim] Potok for a friend." He mentioned a flute concerto he admired, a C.P.E. Bach concerto. She gently corrected him. It was a recorder, not a flute. Clearly, she knew more about music than he did -- she was a flutist, studying with Jean-Pierre Rampal. Love ensued, followed by marriage, followed by children.

Books have played a driving, defining role in their evolving life. Eight years ago, for example, they moved to their current house from one just a few blocks away because there were more pure linear feet for bookshelves.

These come in all shapes and sizes, the horror being when one starts shelving two deep, a veritable admission of failure for a book collector, indicating and leading to, eventual loss of control altogether.

(There was no visible double shelving at the Duttons' recently, though cleaning was performed before a visitor's arrival.)

Favorite books receive no special attention other than being joined by duplicate copies. Dutton's favorites include Le Morte d'Arthur, Huckleberry Finn, and anything by Marcel Proust, also The Great Gatsby, and Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson. Penny Dutton loves Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte claims I Stay Near You by M.E. Kerr. Any flat space in this house is fair game for books. "The floor is particularly good," says Dutton, who remembers a Boston collector who put his books in the refrigerator. "We're not at that point," Penny Dutton says, the slippery slope of obsession looming.

When the Duttons go on vacation, they go to music stores and antique stores. Charlotte, a pianist, is the child who seems doomed and destined to inherit the obsession. With her dark, direct, suffer-no-fools gaze, she is the one who loves to hang around the bookstore. With a mixture of pride and horror, Dutton says: "She loves to alphabetize books."

Dutton's two passions, music and books, exist happily side by side, the Grove music dictionary with the Celtic mythology. "I can listen to the B-minor Mass and read a novel at the same time," he says.

"Great music should be listened to," disagrees Penny.

"Heaven, for me," says Doug, closing his eyes, "is to put my feet up on the coffee table [yes, the Duncan Fife!] and have a fire in the hearth, and read and listen to music."

Copyright, 2001, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.