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Dec 11, 2006
Heritage Books - ForbesLife

LOS ANGELES

Hollywood: Ben Weinstein and his assistant gingerly pull an ancient, atlas-sized French book off the shelf and lay it on their oak library table. The copper clasps unfasten and the stiff covers open to reveal not vellum pages but an antique toilet seat on a hinge. Voilà: a portable 18th-century latrine. In Hollywood, turning books into latrines is usually known as "making movies." But there's nothing usual about the Heritage Book Shop. Tucked into a former mortuary along West Hollywood's glittering Melrose Avenue, Heritage should get an Oscar for World's Greatest Bookstore. You step through a set of discreetly marked oak doors into a faux Tudor hall lined with some of the 20,000 rare books and manuscripts presided over by a team of hushed and tweedy book dealers. This scholarly haven seems a century and continent removed from Los Angeles, though some of the massive high chairs were in fact salvaged from the set of Gone with the Wind, particularly apt given that Clark Gable once lay in state here.



Heritage is uniquely suited to supplying the two things that Hollywood values most: good stories and exclusivity. "Our criteria for buying books is that there can't be more than a couple like it on the market. We usually are only interested in the best of the rare," explains Ben Weinstein, who launched this business 43 years ago with his brother, Louis--Hollywood's original Weinstein brothers. Stare long enough at the stained-glass windows in the main room, and the siblings' features become apparent in two of the monks' faces.

Despite appearances, business here is as hopping as it is on nearby Rodeo Drive: Weinstein estimates that the store sells 10 to 20 million dollars' worth of books a year. Trolling the shelves with the elder Weinstein, it's reassuring to discover that the $150,000 price tag for a 1776 first edition of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations vanquishes the $25,000 price for a first Russian edition of Karl Marx's Das Kapital and the $18,500 for a 1964 first edition of Mao's Little Red Book. And $60,000 gets you a set of three letters from F. Scott Fitzgerald to a high school sweetheart, noting that his "mind is all a-tumble/And the letter seems a jumble/for the words they seem to mumble/And my pen's about to stumble/and the papers made to jumble." A first edition of Andreas Vesalius's revolutionary 16th-century book on anatomy, if you were in the market, sells for $550,000.


Ben and Louis Weinstein

Although Heritage's clients hail from around the world--thanks largely to the shop's online presence--local film and music stars come by in their limos to prowl the shelves in person. Movies with literary ties inevitably inspire high-end book-giving amongst film people, and Heritage has done a thriving business in Ian Fleming, Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien and other cinematically favored authors.

And what should a savvy investor be buying? "New people in the market inevitably want rare editions of books they read when they were young," says Weinstein. "First editions of books like The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye will always be desirable." He then pulls out immaculate copies of both.

But freshman English first editions are mere gateway drugs here, and the Heritage crew is ready to supply higher-grade stuff to deep-pocketed addicts lurking in their alcoves. "This is something interesting," Weinstein says with typical understatement, lifting three volumes of a first edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in the store safe sitting next to a page from a Gutenberg Bible and a signed Jules Verne.

But before one can digest Shelley's monster--and the true horror of paying $135,000 to bring it home--Weinstein has already moved farther along the shelves and is pulling something else out, inevitably another one-of-a-kind literary treasure.

Heritage Book Shop, 8540 Melrose Ave.; (310) 659-3674, www.heritagebookshop.com.
   
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