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Bookstore of the Week: Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City

March 3, 2011 |  5:24 pm

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To find Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, look for the Aroma Cafe and then duck inside. It's just 900 square feet and surrounded on all sides -- an outdoor patio in the back and, at the facing door, an interior room with a fireplace. The two are separate businesses that are "unbelievably amicable," says bookstore manager Aida Chaldranyan.

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Because the store is small, the titles are very carefully selected by people who really care about the books they stock and read. "We have a book buyer who is a genius," says Chaldranyan. That's Lucia Silva, whose reading recommendations are heard regularly on NPR in Susan Stamberg segment.

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Sitting on a main display are books that are popular with customers and of current interest. Like at other independent bookstores across the Southland, Patti Smith's memoir "Just Kids" is doing well; Milena Agus' debut novel "From the Land of the Moon" has been particularly popular in the store, even though the author is not very well known; "Skippy Dies" is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction; "The House of Tomorrow" is a finalist for the L.A. Times book prize for first fiction; and the memoir "A Freewheelin' Time" by Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan's former girlfriend, was up front because she died last week.

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What Chaldranyan describes as a "very well curated wall of books" can be seen above. About the only thing Chelsea Handler's, Anne Frank's and Andre Debus III's books have in common are that they're memoirs -- certainly very different memoirs. But grouped together this way, each kind of makes the others stand out for their own qualities.

But what about the strange name? Does it sound strangely like a salacious TV movie? (Hint: Yes.)

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The store opened almost 25 years ago -- the anniversary is coming up in May -- by Julie von Zerneck, a former actress. Husband and co-owner Frank von Zerneck is a television producer who had, at the time, been producing a series of Lifetime TV movies: "Portrait of an Escort," "Portrait of a Stripper," "Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold," "Sharon: Portrait of a Mistress." Naming a bookshop Portrait of a Bookstore was kind of an inside joke. Now you're in on it too.

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Despite the store's entertainment history and proximity to the Valley's studios, Chaldranyan says entertainment books aren't a big draw. Instead, people mostly focus on the fiction; because the floorspace is so small, someone who stops at the wall of fiction is inevitably standing near the register, and then conversation ensues. "There are people who've been coming here for 20 years," Chaldranyan says. "People 16 or 18 now that we watched grow up -- from 'Green Eggs and Ham' to 'Life of Pi.'"

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The children's section -- or maybe children's corner -- is a fraction of a super store's but is still stocked with all the latest national prizewinners, perennial classics and some new favorites. And pink purses.

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Gifts are an important part of the store's business. Since the beginning, Julie traveled abroad and brought back collectible books and vintage knickknacks. Today there are still collectible books, but the gift items are both new and old, pen sets and housewares, consumables like candles as well as jewelry. Donna, who runs the store's two book clubs and has a lot to say about story collections masquerading as novels (she's not in favor), also buys the rings. There's an overlapping sensibility between the gifts for sale and the books.

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It's the first place I've ever seen an Edgar Allen Poe candle.

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Portrait of a Bookstore doesn't have a computerized sales system. They had a discussion about selling books online but decided against it. "We want to see the people we sell books to," Chaldranyan explains. "There are serendipitous accidents. A customer thinks they want to buy the Bible, and you have a half hour conversation with them and end up giving them the Bible and the Koran."

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Portrait of a Bookstore manager Aida Chaldranyan, left, with bookseller Donna Delacy. As they did for several customers when I was there, they'll find a book they think you'll like. The store is at 4360 Tujunga Ave. in Studio City.

 -- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Portrait of a Bookstore. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

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