LOS ANGELES — In the southeast section of Larchmont Village sits a quiet, but storied bookselling operation. Chevalier's Books has operated on Larchmont Boulevard for more than 80 years, under a handful of owners and locations along the boulevard, before settling into its current location at 126 N. Larchmont, and current owners Bert Deixler and Darryl Holter.
Under Deixler and Holter, the store has hosted a steady stream of author events and in-store clubs, in keeping with their vision of running the place as a community center at the heart of Larchmont's town square.
Those events ended abruptly, as they did for so many bookstores and community centers when the pandemic kicked into public consciousness. Now, the future of Chevalier's Books is uncertain.
On Monday, Chevalier's customers learned, in an email signed by Deixler and Holter, that the store would be forced to move out of its space, as well as every other business in its strip of buildings. The bookstore's owners have identified a new location along Larchmont Boulevard, though they haven't yet signed a lease. But the move would more than double the current rent and create significant moving and design costs for the store.
"It will be a huge financial undertaking for us, made even more daunting by the uncertainty that COVID-19 poses for our business and everybody's lives," the email stated.
It goes on to ask customers for help, requesting they buy gift certificates, store memberships, pre-order books, make curbside pick-up orders, or shop through affiliate links.
Since that call for help, the store's fortunes have flipped.
"You'd think it was a Saturday in the middle of the Christmas season," Chevalier's acting manager Theresa Phung said.
The store's typical Monday business increased by five times after the letter went out.
"It seems that people are willing to, quite frankly, put their money where their mouths are."
A bookseller’s conundrum
Chevalier's Books was opened in 1940 by Joe Chevalier. In a 2014 article published by the local Larchmont Buzz news outlet, the store began as a lending library in 1939 and moved from storefront to storefront before landing in a former bank building. The vault door is still there, too — sharp-eyed booklovers can occasionally spot it through a cracked door in the store's main room.
Deixler, an attorney, and Holter, an entrepreneur and historian, bought Chevalier's in 2014. The two business associates were discussing their favorite neighborhood bookstores. It took a few minutes, and soon realized they were talking about Chevalier's — which was not in the best monetary shape.
"At the time, we said that we had more books on our nightstands than the then-owner had in the store," Deixler quipped.
The two decided they should try to save the bookstore, and approached then-owner Filis Winthrop, to ask her future plans for the shop. Deixler recalled her saying that, if she could find someone to keep the store alive, she'd sell it in a minute.
After closing on the sale, Deixler and Holter remodeled the space and turned its day-to-day operations over to staff.
"Over the six years, we've had significant year-over-year growth — not in the way that we'll make a profit, but we stopped the losses," Deixler said.
After three years, Chevalier's reached a point of steady expansion.
And then, the pandemic happened.
"Take that baseline and lose 40 percent of your business, and then look forward to a 250 percent increase in rent, with no idea when the pandemic ends, and when it ends, people's views of shopping will have changed," Deixler said. "It's a conundrum."
In Pasadena, Vroman's Bookstore is among the largest, oldest bookselling businesses in Southern California, and a tentpole of Colorado Avenue. It wasn't immune to the pandemic crash either.
When the pandemic struck, and the store shut down completely, sales sank 99 percent from 2019. As they slowly reopened, figures inched up. As they reopened to a limited number of customers in June, things leveled off, down only 40 percent from last year.
"No one plans for zero sales," Vroman's CEO Julia Cowlishaw said.
On Sept. 28, Vroman's put out a call for help, telling its customers that "if Vroman's is to survive, sales must increase significantly from now through the holidays."
The response was far greater than anyone could have expected. Vroman's went from averaging about 60 online orders a day to hitting a one-day high with more than 1,000 orders. On social media, best-selling authors and everyday patrons alike offered to help however they could. Someone even started a GoFundMe to benefit the store.
"I've had handwritten letters from people across the country, sharing their memories of shopping at Vroman's from when they were a child," Cowlishaw said. "It's been incredible."
Over the decades, Vroman's has grown to fill so many niches that it's cemented itself as a community center, holding a litany of author events and even opening up a wine bar.
"I think the community is very committed to us, and we are committed to them," Cowlishaw said. "[At] this moment in time, they're supporting us. When we make a misstep, they let us know. They're very invested in us — it's such a gift, such a responsibility."
The Third Place
When Phung moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, leaving her job in the tech industry, she thought she would only work in a bookstore. She sent out her resume to every independent bookstore in the city — among the interested stores was Chevalier's.
When Phung walked in for the first time, she found it unlike any of the indie bookstores with which she was familiar. It was set apart by its large children's book section, with a reading area and carpeting, laid down to ensure that visiting kids had a cushion if they tripped and smacked into the floor.
"I remember thinking, it's a little weird and different, because it felt homier," Phung said. "It felt less cool and more cozy," acting as the kind of "third place" that can be a refuge away from both home and work.
Chevalier's was essentially purpose-built to support every generation of booklover, from grandchild to grandparent. On Tuesday, one window display was packed with biographies of Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris. Beside it, another display was dedicated to the release of Spy School Revolution, the latest book from children's author Stuart Gibbs, who lives only two blocks away from the store.
The neighborhoods around Chevalier's have a "bizarrely large" population of authors, Gibbs said.
"Sometimes, we all wonder what it is about this neighborhood that has us move here…but there's something about the idea of having a bookstore to walk to."
If Gibbs needs a book for research, he'll call in an order and stroll over for his copy. If a reader's looking for an autographed copy of his books, he'll tell them to contact Chevalier's, and then he'll sign one on his way to grab a coffee or a bagel.
"The people of this community — and not just the ones in walking distance — need to know how lucky they are to have a bookstore like this… if you lose those, you lose a part of your community," Gibbs said.
It seems that many seem to know. Gibbs said that many of his contacts within the author community are ginning up ways to help the bookstore, and he thinks that plenty of Chevalier's faithful would even schlep boxes to the new space on moving day if the store asked for help. Monday morning's email even drove one handyman to reach out to the store to offer his services, helping out however he could to finish the new space.
Chevalier's owner Darryl Holter isn't surprised.
"I know that we have a very strong clientele and support," he said. "Bookstores are not just places for people to get books, but places for people to meet, to intersect with other people who know books…this is one of the elements that has enabled our bookstore and others like it to survive in the pre-COVID world."
It remains to be seen if the support will be sustained after the initial call for support. But the community answered the store's call for help, and Chevalier's has been overwhelmed by their support, Phung said. Gift cards and $25 annual store memberships flew off of the proverbial shelves.
One supporter bet big on Chevalier's future, Phung said. After the letter went out, a member of the Chevalier's community spent $1,000 to establish a 40-year membership with the store, with the hope that Chevalier's will stay in business well beyond its 100th anniversary.