In the nearly two years since Bert Deixler and Darryl Holter bought Chevalier's Books, a general-interest bookstore in the Larchmont neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif., general manager Erica Luttrell has been busy getting the 76-year-old store on firmer financial footing.
"We're getting to a point where the bookstore is certainly profitable," said Luttrell, who grew up in Toronto, Canada, before moving to Larchmont with her family as a teenager. She has worked at Chevalier's for some 13 years. "It's doing so, so much better than when they [Deixler and Holter] took over. And in turn, it's doing exponentially better now than even the first year of their ownership."
Deixler and Holter, who are neighborhood residents and longtime store customers, have given Luttrell and her co-manager, Liz Newstat, a great deal of freedom when it comes to running Chevalier's Books. Newstat is the store's primary book buyer, covering fiction, nonfiction, biography, art and more while Luttrell buys for psychology and spiritual, animals, nature and kids. Luttrell also handles much of the administrative aspects of running the store. When it comes to events, Luttrell and Newstat typically split or delegate responsibility.
In 1940, Joe Chevalier and his wife opened Chevalier's Books as a bookstore and lending library on Larchmont Boulevard. The store changed locations once over the years, but has always been on the same block of Larchmont Boulevard. In 1990, Joe Chevalier sold the store to Filis Winthrop and two co-owners. Though her various co-owners changed over times, Winthrop remained as an owner for some 25 years, and by the time Deixler and Holter bought the store, she was the sole owner of Chevalier's Books. Since then, Winthrop has stayed on as a consultant, and usually still comes into the store every afternoon.
"It's such a sort of old world thing," said Luttrell, of having a neighborhood bookstore within walking distance. "But it's so supported by the people who live here."
After the change in ownership, the store closed for a month as it underwent renovations. By the time it reopened in November 2014, all of the carpeting had been replaced; new shelves were installed that did not obscure the store's crown molding and wood paneling; the walls got a fresh coat of paint; and the children's section was relocated. It was the kind of renovation that built on the store's strengths and beauty, making it shine more than it had in years. Perhaps most significantly, the store's inventory was dramatically expanded and continues to expand. Chevalier's Books contains about 1,200 square feet of retail space, and now stocks some 12,000 volumes; before the renovations there were thousands fewer books and to make the inventory seem fuller, many were shelved face-out.
Recently, Chevalier's added 15 new shelving units in the store's side room, where it created "cozy nooks," complete with wingback chairs in which customers are encouraged to sit and read. Explained Luttrell: "It was getting to the point where we couldn't shelve books face out anymore."
According to Luttrell, general fiction is the store's largest and typically bestselling category. But since the renovation and restocking, nonfiction has been doing extremely well. In particular, the sub-category of nonfiction that Luttrell calls "lit," which includes essay collections, memoirs and other works that don't fit with biographies, works of history or political books, is one of the store's fastest selling sections. In just the last six months, the section has turned over eight times. The store also features a small but very robust science section. "We're in a really inquisitive, intellectual neighborhood," Luttrell noted.
In the past two years, events have become a major focus of the store. Before then, Luttrell said, events were not much of a priority and Chevalier's hosted one about every three weeks on average. Now, in a typical week, the store hosts three events, and there are some weeks in which there is an event every night. Scheduling, organizing and hosting that many events has been a big learning curve. In fact, Chevalier's recently hired someone to pitch and promote events; eventually she may manage events almost exclusively. "In terms of doing events, we're still a sort of new store on the scene," Luttrell commented.
Luttrell has lived in the Larchmont neighborhood for 18 years, an area that in the last five to 10 years has been changing at a fast rate. According to Luttrell, residents have mixed opinions about whether those changes are ultimately a good thing. But, she continued, there is an incredible amount of support within the community for Chevalier's Books.
"Amidst all of that, people are incredibly tied to the warmth and sort of magic of having a bookstore in their neighborhood," she said. "People feel like it's a bit of a home away from home."
Looking ahead, Chevalier's Books is trying to find the right balance: making sure the store's buying matches its sales, and figuring out the optimal number of events to host in any given week. The goal, Luttrell said, is to see Chevalier's be profitable, self-sustaining and, ultimately, in co-owner Deixler's words, remain a vibrant part of "the intellectual infrastructure" of Los Angeles. --Alex Mutter
[Editor's note: Besides being the CEO of a real estate investment firm, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, a former labor leader, a musician and music historian, Chevalier's co-owner Darryl Holter is also an author: in the 1990s, he published two books on labor history, and more recently was the co-author of Woody Guthrie L.A.: 1937 to 1941, published in January by Angel City Press, Santa Monica. Holter happens to be the first subject of a new blog-post series from Prospect Park Books, the Altadena, Calif., publisher, in which it asks seven questions of a Southern California bookseller.]