When I first looked for work after earning my Bachelor of Arts degree in Dramatic Arts/Playwriting from UC Berkeley, I discovered that I had a choice of careers: I could become a waitress with a college education or I could become a secretary with college education. Eliminating the position which would require me to be on my feet all day, I decided that if I had to be a secretary, at least it would be in a business I found of some interest.
Budget Films was a film rental library which shipped 16mm prints of older movies (Hollywood and foreign) to college film societies, social groups, families, anyone who wanted to rent them anywhere in the country – this was before videocassette players. The office was small and I was the only female; it was just Al the owner, a manager, and me; there were a couple of guys who worked in the warehouse doing shipping and receiving, rewinding and stocking. I was virtually the entire office operation: I did the customer service, correspondence, telephones, orders, scheduling, bank deposits; I wrote a lot of the thick catalog, made recommendations about movies to carry (I was personally responsible for rediscovering Reefer Madness and promoting it into the wild film society success it subsequently became). Al purchased inventory, handled the accounts, did whatever he did all day. The manager ... well, the manager went from drinking his lunches for an hour every day to drinking his lunches for three hours on the days he showed up at all. Al finally had enough and fired him. I felt sure I would be promoted to the manager’s job and salary, since I had been doing all his work for the previous two years anyway.
But Al promoted Larry, one of the stock guys in the back, to manager. When I asked him why, he said that Larry was about to get married and raise a family. I had just gotten married myself – David was a graduate film student at USC and my $550/month job at Budget Films provided all of our living expenses – but when I mentioned that to Al, I discovered that my boss didn’t believe women had need of careers. I told Al he could have as much notice as he needed to find my replacement (I ended up finding her, actually, and training her), but I was resigning; there was no point in staying with no chance for advancement.
I was 23 years old.
David asked (with some concern, I thought), "What are we going to do now?"
I replied, "I’m going to sit around and read science-fiction until we run out of money, and then I’ll worry about it. I wish there was a science-fiction bookstore here like Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed [a store I’d visited in London the year I graduated]."
David said idly, "You could open one up."
"That’s a good idea," I told him. "I could call it A Change of Hobbit."
I had no knowledge of how to start a business, nor any experience working in retail (save for a part-time job as a cashier in a dime store the summer after high school graduation), much less in a bookstore – nor did I even think to ask anyone’s advice. I wasn’t savvy enough to realize this could be a drawback. (My father asked didn’t I think it’d be better to carry best-sellers and not just science-fiction, but I was determined to specialize, and he made no other suggestions.)
I thought the first thing to do would be find out how to get inventory, so I sat down in front of our bookcase at home and copied down the names and addresses of all the paperback publishers. I wrote each of them a letter saying that I was planning to open a bookstore and how would I get their books to carry. Berkley Books sent me their catalog and offered to sell me books directly (40% discount, 25-book minimum order); all of the other publishers insisted I go to the local book wholesaler, where I could purchase books at 20% off list price. I bought one copy of each science-fiction, fantasy and horror paperback I could find.
I also made volume-priced deals with local used bookstores to buy quantities of their used science-fiction paperback inventory. They all offered to refer people looking for SF to my store. One guy told me to leave the books in boxes sitting on the floor of my bookstore ("People think they’ll find treasures in boxes of books."). I began to discover the unique and wonderful camaraderie of independent booksellers who regarded other booksellers as colleagues, not competitors. I put cards on bulletin boards around town offering to buy used paperback SF/F novels for a dime apiece, planning to sell them for half cover price, a potential profit of anywhere from 8 to 75 cents each. In a couple of weeks, I had accumulated a few thousand books and a 32-issue run of the old pulp magazine Weird Tales (which I read before selling).
Meanwhile, I needed to find a location for my bookstore. It seemed to me that the best place to sell science-fiction would be in walking distance of a college campus. Naïvely oblivious to any colleges except universities, I figured that left me a choice of either UCLA or USC. Since USC is in Watts, a low-income/high-crime area where I wouldn’t feel comfortable working alone, I opted for Westwood, where UCLA is located. It was a Sunday in early January when I opened the Los Angeles Times and turned to Stores for Rent.
I found an ad which read, "Small store, Westwood. $85 w/utilities." Sounded perfect. I called and found that it was still available; it was a 12'x15' room on the mezzanine of the Kleenco Building, a laundromat a couple of blocks from campus. I told the landlord (who ran the adjoining beauty salon; I would be subleasing some of his space) to hold it for me and I’d be right over with a deposit.
Next I needed to obtain a city business license. When I went to apply, the lady at the counter helped me fill out the form.
"How much in sales do you expect to make each month?" she asked.
I shrugged and did some quick math. Selling paperbacks for an average of one dollar each, maybe a couple of them a day...
"Fifty dollars," I told her.
"Fifty dollars?? How much is your rent, dear?"
"Eighty-five," I admitted. "But I can make up the difference typing term papers or something."
I could tell she didn’t think I’d manage, but she issued me my business license and explained that I would also need to apply for a California resale license, which is required anytime you’re selling used goods.
There was a bit of a problem getting the resale license, however. After taking my fingerprints and checking my criminal background (to see if I had any likelihood of becoming a fence for stolen used science-fiction paperbacks), the State Board of Equalization told me that David would have to go through the process as well, even though my husband was not involved in my business, to ensure that I wouldn’t be a "front" for him. When I questioned this and found that they wouldn’t require this of the wife if it were the husband opening a store, I dug in my heels and refused. I contacted the ACLU about this blatant unfairness, but the lawyer I spoke with told me I didn’t have much hope of prevailing -- since the ERA had not passed, gender discrimination wasn’t illegal. However, she made a call to the State Board of Equalization on my behalf, and I was finally informed that they would accept an affidavit from me that David had nothing to do with A Change of Hobbit.
OK, that took care of the legalities.
It was time to get the store ready to open. I wouldn’t be allowed a permanent sign on the outside of the building, but the building manager agreed that I could put a 2'x3' poster in the window of the laundromat downstairs.
A Change of Hobbit Bookstore
Catering to the Cravings of
Science-Fiction and Fantasy Fiends
Steve was a fellow hippie who owned a small custom sandal and leather shop downstairs; he and his friends Jeffrey and Patrick saw the sign I was putting up and told me they loved to read science-fiction. Patrick and Jeffrey offered to build bookcases for me – I paid for the lumber, nails and stain and they contributed the labor. I bought some paint and painted my store sky blue with sponge-dabbed white clouds, inside and out (I thought it would make the room look bigger); a professional sign painter lettered the store’s name. I bought a metal cashbox and a duplicate-form receipt book, brought a wicker butterfly chair from home and purchased a used Formica beauty-shop unit for $15 to use as counter and got a couple of armchairs at a thrift store for the customers. By the time Patrick and Jeffrey got the bookcases up, I thought it all looked pretty neat.
I added my opening date of February 1st to the sign in the front window downstairs, and made some flyers announcing the store. I walked all over UCLA tacking flyers to every bulletin board on campus. The manager of the very popular Papa Bach’s Bookstore pointed out that I’d forgotten to put the telephone number on the flyer, so I explained to him that I couldn’t afford a telephone yet, I’d be doing this word-of-mouth. He displayed my flyer in his science-fiction section and said he’d cut back on his stock of that category to help me out; he could use the room for other books. About 80% of my initial business came from Papa Bach’s.
It had cost me $1500 to start up A Change of Hobbit. Every time I sold a book, I’d write down the title in a receipt book with carbon paper so I’d know what to restock. My first day’s sales were $32 – nearly 75% of what I’d anticipated making in an entire month! -- and the next day, I sold the set of Weird Tales pulps for $100 profit.
I was thrilled. A Change of Hobbit was a success.
On my first day off, I drove over to Sunset News, the local book distributor, with the list of books I’d sold the previous week so I could buy another copy of each one. To my surprise, most of them weren’t on the shelves so I asked Sunset to order them for me. That’s when I found out that books go out-of-print. (It was many more months before I began to discover that out-of-print books sometimes have a value in excess of half of cover price – there was, for instance, the rare paperback collection of stories by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I’d sold for 18 cents, half the original cover price of 35 cents, before learning that it was worth $50.)
I decided that I would offer a free order and search service
to my customers – if I didn’t have what they wanted, I’d get it
for them, holding the request until I found the book, however long
that took. (The store’s record for longest wait for a satisfied
request for a rare book was 13 years!)
After A Change of Hobbit had been open for two months, it occurred to me that perhaps the science-fiction authors would like to know about it, so one night, I began searching the Los Angeles telephone book for all the writers I could think of. I found a surprising number of them listed, so I phoned and told them about my bookstore. (I still remember my husband waking me at 11:30 pm to tell me Harlan Ellison was on the phone, returning my call.)
Someone suggested I call Forrest J Ackerman – "Just dial MOON-FAN." -- I hadn’t heard of Forrie before, but was informed that he was the man who coined the term "sci-fi".
"Mr. Ackerman? My name is Sherry Gottlieb and I’ve recently opened a science-fiction and fantasy bookstore in Westwood. It’s called A Change of Hobbit."
"Who are you? I’ve never heard of you! Where did you come from?" he asked me with an astonishment I didn’t understand at the time.
"Uh...Sherry Gottlieb," I repeated. "I’m from Los Angeles."
Although I had been reading science-fiction since I was a kid, I was totally unaware of science-fiction fandom, which had been an established path to SF professionalism since long before my birth. If anyone were to open an SF bookstore, Ackerman was sure it would have been a well-connected fan, not a mere reader.
Within the next few days, several local professional writers dropped in, so I took Polaroid photos of each one and got them to autograph them for my "Rogues’ Gallery of Distinguished Visitors". I thought, like me, the readers might want to know what the authors looked like; I didn’t know one could meet them at science-fiction conventions – I didn’t know about cons then, either.
Those earliest visitors included Norman Spinrad, Alan Dean Foster, Larry Niven, David Gerrold...and Harlan Ellison, who arrived with his entourage of young writers, Edward Bryant and James Sutherland.
Shortly afterwards, Ed wrote an article on my store for the Los Angeles Flyer of Rolling Stone magazine: "Informality and character – the shop brims with it.... It’s that special ambience you find in a good pipe and tobacco shop, except postdated in the future."
Harlan told me if I’d host an autograph party for his new hardcover anthology, AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS, he’d bring several of the authors whose stories appeared in the book. He also wrote an advertisement for the event for The Daily Bruin, the UCLA student newspaper:
Come and bankrupt yourself purchasing this cornerstone of magic fiction and meet Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., James Blish, David Gerrold, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Sophocles, Friedrich Nietzche, Chang Tao-Ling, Benito Mussolini, Judge Crater or none of the above!
Banal punch will be served as Mr. Ellison autographs copies of his hernia-producing volume, insults visitors indiscriminately, hustles female students who wander in with their laundry from the Kleenco Complex, and for the first time anywhere, reads his latest unpublished story! Surely the social event of the decade!
The autograph party was an unqualified success – except for the fact that my tiny store could hold only about 20 people (and not comfortably, either, particularly because of the heat rising from the laundromat downstairs); the attending authors alone nearly filled the store! The turnout was sufficient to spill over onto the mezzanine and people had to circulate into the store in shifts. And they bought books, lots of books.
That was the first of 200 autograph parties over the course of the store’s history...and generated a new type of literary event for Los Angeles. It also generated some press, particularly in the alternative newspapers like The Staff: "Every fan of the genre has dreamed of a place like this. A central nexus for all the books you could never get, never even saw, at other bookstores."
It was time to get a telephone.
In retrospect, one of the brightest business decisions I made was getting a telephone number which spelled out GREAT SF. Countless people over the years found my store on referral from others who didn’t quite remember the store’s name, but they all remembered the telephone number!
I’ve never liked getting up early (my only early-morning college courses were in my first semester), so when I started up my bookstore clear across Los Angeles from my home, I decided that a 10:30 am opening time would allow me to sleep in until 8 am. My clientele those first years was mostly drawn from UCLA, a commuter school where many of the students had gone home by dark, so even though the laundromat was open until 8:30, I closed the store at 5:30 pm – except on Tuesdays.
I wanted to offer my customers one day with extended hours, so A Change of Hobbit was open until 8:30 pm every Tuesday, the first day of my work week (the store was closed Sunday and Monday until I got my first employee – more about that shortly). The evening hours didn’t pay off much in business at first. But a strange thing began to happen...
An article in The Staff, one of L.A.’s alternative press weeklies, observed: "There is a...web of mutually interlocking relationships. People who know each other are always meeting by accident in A Change of Hobbit."
Pretty soon, the store developed its own crowd of Tuesday evening regulars, comprised mostly of young writers and editors who knew each other; they would show up during the last hour, after the wander-in customers were long gone. Any Tuesday evening would see six or eight (of a revolving group of maybe a dozen) people, who’d show up to shop and sit around to discuss books, politics, movies – several regulars referred to the ongoing gathering as a literary salon.
We were usually the only ones in the entire building at that hour, so it didn’t take long before we began passing around a joint or a pipe. Everyone bought some books before leaving, but even if they hadn’t, I would’ve kept the ritual going because the company was so much fun.
This semi-private impromptu pot party at the store became a tradition which continued for much of the next 19 years in one form or another. (In the store’s next incarnation, it usually took place in the store’s bathroom, where it became known as "a meeting" – as in: "Sherry will be out in a little while; she’s in a meeting" – a euphemism instantly recognized as an invitation by Those-in-the-Know; we’d cram as many as ten people into a tiny bathroom to pass around a joint.)
Even during that period, when the ‘70s were still the ‘60s, pot-smoking wasn’t generally viewed as acceptable business policy, but by that time, A Change of Hobbit’s quirky image had become a major drawing card -- "...one part newsstand, one part living room, one part literary gathering place – all leavened through with the warmth of Sherry herself to create a congenial focal point for western Los Angeles speculative fiction freaks." (The Staff, alternative newspaper) – and the pot was just one part of that.
A sign in the store read:
Reality is a crutch for people who can’t handle science fiction.
The store had been open only a few months when Barry Routh, a customer who was a student at UCLA, said to me, "I’d like to work here."
I laughed -- there was no way I could pay an employee, which I explained.
Barry was unfazed. "That’s OK. I just like it here, so I’ll work for free. How about I work on Sundays and Mondays, when you’re off?"
It was hard to pass up an offer like that, particularly since it would add two business days a week to the store’s potential income, but I couldn’t let him babysit for nothing, so I made Barry an offer: I’d pay him ten percent of whatever sales he made while he was working or fifty cents an hour (the current rate for babysitters), whichever was greater. He could borrow/read all the used books he wanted and could have new books at my cost.
In spite of many days when fifty cents/hour worked out to more than ten percent of the take, Barry worked part-time at A Change of Hobbit for the next several years. He was the first in a long succession of dedicated, reliable, college-educated and underpaid employees at A Change of Hobbit – staff who stayed for an average of five years (and one who stayed a record 17 years!), in spite of low wages and no chance for advancement.
Among those hanging out on Tuesday evenings at A Change of Hobbit that first summer were Hank Stine, Gil Lamont, Jane Gallion and other young writers who’d had novels published a few years earlier by an obscure imprint called Essex House. This venture, edited by Brian Kirby, had published 43 paperback novels of experimental literary – and mostly science-fiction – pornography, including three books by Philip José Farmer and a collection by Charles Bukowski. But in spite of the high literary quality of the offerings, Essex House had failed miserably in the marketplace because the readers who might have snapped up the volumes didn’t shop in adult bookstores (the line’s sole distribution venue) and all that experimental writing hadn’t appealed to the parent company’s usual one-handed clientele.
I tracked down the parent porn publisher in the nearby San Fernando Valley and asked if they had any of the Essex House books left in inventory. Delighted to get rid of moribund stock (though very astonished to have a store ordering books by authors’ names), they offered to sell me as many as I wanted of the remaining stock at a dollar apiece; over the next few months, I bought all they had left. I sold dozens of the books at $4 each to an eager audience who’d either never heard of the line before or who could never find the books while they were still in print. (Of course, I saved a complete set for myself and eventually got over half of them signed. Many years later, in a moment of financial need, I sold my 43 Essex House paperbacks to a collector for $600.)
Even though I’d never heard of science-fiction fandom and conventions before I opened my bookstore, I happened to start A Change of Hobbit the same year that the world science-fiction convention was being held in Los Angeles. LACon was Labor Day weekend, so I purchased a one-day half-table in the Hucksters’ Room, where dealers would sell science-fiction and fantasy books and magazines to some of the 7500 attendees. I took only four titles with me to sell: Philip José Farmer’s three Essex House novels (IMAGE OF THE BEAST, BLOWN, and A FEAST UNKNOWN) and an autographed first edition hardcover of Alfred Bester’s iconic 1953 novel THE DEMOLISHED MAN, which I had priced at $25.
I manned my table for an entire day, selling only a handful of the Essex House books, and watching everyone else having a good time at the convention while I was stuck in one place doing the same thing I could do at my store. Although I attended probably 100 conventions over the next 20 years, that was the last time I had a table; in the future, I would purchase collectors’ items from other hucksters to sell later at my bookstore.
Because most of the people at LACon I already knew were writers, I quickly found myself socializing with "the pros" and was invited to their room parties and introduced to their friends.
I remember sitting in the hotel coffee shop with some of the store’s Tuesday night regulars when Gil Lamont mentioned, "That’s Robert Silverberg."
"Ohmigawd, Robert Silverberg??" I said. "I love his books!"
Before I knew it, Gil had hooked Bob and introduced me.
"Oh, Mr. Silverberg, I’m thrilled to meet you – you’re my second favorite author!"
Silverberg asked, "And who is your first favorite author?"
"Henrik Ibsen," I told him honestly. I studied Ibsen’s plays quite extensively in college.
"Call me Bob. I don’t mind coming in second to Ibsen," he told me. He later admitted that he had been terribly afraid I would say my favorite author was Lin Carter. For years, Bob would sign any notes to me as "Henrik."
At that first convention, I met also Philip K. Dick and within months, we’d begun a correspondence of lengthy bimonthly letters which continued for the next couple of years. (Excerpts from many of those letters later appeared in the 1972-1973 and 1974 volumes of THE SELECTED LETTERS OF PHILIP K. DICK.)
While I’m on the subject of PK Dick: One of my side jobs during the store’s early years was as a script reader at United Artists. When Mike Medavoy, then a mere development executive, found out I was knowledgeable about science-fiction, he told me if there were any books that I thought would make good movies, he’d pay me to write up a synopsis/analysis. One of the first books I did that for was Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? which resulted in the book getting its first option. (It eventually became the movie Bladerunner, but not through United Artists.) It was also the first time in the history of United Artists that a book recommended by a reader had actually been optioned. Phil Dick sent me a postcard, which read (in part):
"I read your synopsis, etc. on ANDROIDS and I have never seen a novel of mine boiled down like that where it made sense and everything fitted in. I mean, you showed why each element was there. I had never imagined that this could be done with a novel of mine; people always told me there were dangling parts that were not really functional, but my god, Sherry, you proved them – and me – wrong! God bless you. What a trip!"
I covered Robert Silverberg’s novel BOOK OF SKULLS for United Artists shortly afterwards, but unfortunately was not as successful with that submission.
A couple of months after A Change of Hobbit’s first anniversary, I realized that it was not just my job that had changed – my life was different.
I had met my husband David when we were hippie college students at UC Berkeley. We had been living together for nearly five years, legally wed for the last eighteen months or so. He was a graduate film student at USC, and spent all his time with fellow students – either at our house in Echo Park or on campus working on student films. I had my bookstore on the other side of town and spent as much of my time as I could with people I’d met through the store. When our paths crossed at home (rarely), we weren’t getting along. Unbeknownst to each other, each of us was having an extramarital affair. By the spring of 1973, we’d split.
Virtually on impulse, I got an apartment in "East Hollywood" with Essex House author Gil Lamont, who’d just split from his [second? third?] wife, in Phoenix. Gil and I decided to have an "open relationship," a social-sexual experiment which was not uncommon in science-fiction circles, nor during that era. It took Gil and me a little while to work out the house rules, but we managed to keep the relationship viable for the next two-plus years.
It won’t have escaped the notice of a savvy reader that the costs of running the bookstore were more than I’d anticipated, nor that the income was insufficient to cover those costs, in spite of exceeding my wildest fantasies. That summer presented an unexpected drop in sales – the commuting students at UCLA all went away for the summer; they had been the majority of my customers. The store’s location on the mezzanine of a laundromat, with no sign on the outside of the building, was even more of a problem. People used to telephone me from the payphone in the laundromat downstairs and say, "I’m at 1101 Gayley. Where are you?" And I’d reply, "Look up." I needed more space, but even more importantly, I needed more visible space.
By that Fall, A Change of Hobbit was in danger of closing. If I could only raise a few thousand dollars, I might be able to find a better and larger store and attract more customers.
Mike Hodel was the host of KPFK’s Hour 25, a weekly science-fiction radio talk show which began the same time A Change of Hobbit opened. Mike arranged for KPFK to donate the loft over the radio station for an entire Sunday. Eight authors, including Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison, agreed to do readings of works-in-progress. They, and several others who could not attend, contributed collectors’ items to be auctioned, including signed manuscripts, photos, movie posters, and Star Trek scripts. Harlan Ellison volunteered to emcee and serve as auctioneer. The labor for a buffet luncheon was contributed.
Announcing a "Save the Store" Benefit
For A Change of Hobbit
Sunday, 14 October 1973 at Strange Hall, KPFK
Advance tickets were $10/person with a limit of 125 guests; there would be no tickets available at the door.
The sold-out benefit lasted nine hours. From the UCLA Daily Bruin: "[Theodore] Sturgeon’s presence and his intricately beautiful style of writing kept the audience spellbound during the entire reading. As he left the lectern, emcee Ellison remarked, ‘He really does it to you, doesn’t he?’"
From the SFWA Bulletin: "Capping the evening was a virtuoso performance by Harlan [Ellison]: a complete novelette about the adventures of a Jewish alien, all delivered in the appropriate Yiddish accent, from start to finish. Earlier, Harlan coaxed a total of $1330.50 from the audience during the auction.... Harlan auctioned himself off for an evening for $30. A bit later, a UCLA coed purchased Ed Bryant in perpetuity for $17.
After the dust had cleared and the lights came up, the benefit was found to have secured a total of $2444.13 profit for the Hobbit, and the very next day Ms Gottlieb was out scouting the area around UCLA for a new location for the store."
(To be continued...perhaps.)