Bookstores aren't usually considered to be dangerous places. There's a certain ritual that most book shoppers follow: the prerequisite browsing, even if the customer knows what he or she is looking for; the purchase; and the exit, mission accomplished. A safe bet to last an hour, all told.
Now a new breed of bookshop is threatening to disrupt that time-honored process. SportsBooks in Los Angeles is the largest bookstore in the nation devoted entirely, passionately and comprehensively to sports. New and old, popular and obscure, filled with graceful prose and eye-blurring statistics, sports books are the one and only game in this store. From archery to yachting, SportsBooks has it all, and then some, for fans of every age and sports orientation. How does that make it dangerous? "There's too much to read, and too much I want to buy," says one customer, in a combination of complaint and ecstasy.
Sportsbooks' co-owner, Otto Penzler, is counting on just such customers. Penzler, a former sportswriter for the New York Daily News and a former publicist for ABC Sports, began looking for a new venture after he sold his 15-year-old Mysterious Press to Warner Books in 1990. He still owned The Mysterious Bookshop, with outlets in New York City and Los Angeles, but the bibliophile Penzler wanted another interest. Besides, the retail space next to his L.A. store lay enticingly vacant, like a gaping hole in a defensive secondary.
He approached sports agent Art Kaminsky for financial backing and to help with sports contacts. Kaminsky, who had gotten to know Penzler after he wandered into The Mysterious Bookshop in New York one day, was an enthusiast from the start. "The first Mysterious Bookshop became the center of the mystery book industry," says Kaminsky. "We hope we can make SportsBooks the center of the sports publishing business."
According to SportsBooks manager Neil Vincent, that's precisely what's happening. "We're becoming the stock exchange of sports," he says. "Not only are we getting book inquiries, but people are also asking if we're buying and selling, and at what prices. We are the market."
Located down the street from the hip Beverly Center shopping mall-minicity in West Hollywood, SportsBooks boasts 38,000 books, magazines, pamphlets, guides and other sports-related publications. The store also offers such treasures as a copy of the 1967 book Backstage at the Mets, about the Amazin' Mets, signed by 28 members of the team. "This is fantastic," says Tim McCarthy, a customer, clutching Maury Wills's signed autobiography, On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking life of Maury Wills. "Most libraries could not even come close to this collection."
Baseball is the standout sport at SportsBooks, with almost two entire walls filled with every imaginable aspect of America's pastime. "I'm drooling over those Yankee shelves," says pinstripes fan Gary Kamornick of L.A. But baseball fans are not the only readers who can lose themselves in the hardbacks and softcovers. Followers of bow hunting, fly-fishing, jujitsu, horse racing, rowing and squash will find their cravings satisfied as well. And there is a special section dedicated to women in sports. If you can't visit SportsBooks in person, you can try the store's mail-order department, which is reachable by calling 800-626-0158, extension 4.
For East Coast aficionados, there's Sports Books, Etc., which may well be the nation's first sports bookstore. Located in a shopping center just outside Washington, D.C., Sports Books, Etc., which opened in 1984, carries 5,000 books and 1,000 videos, as well as trading cards, posters and audio cassettes. Paul Haas started the shop because he was constantly frustrated in his searches for books on sports. Through his retail store and mail-order business (5224 Port Royal Rd., Springfield, Va., 22151; 703-321-8660), Haas has supplied reading material to sports fans as far away as Australia, France and Japan.
Meanwhile out in L.A., Vincent is certain SportsBooks will be a winner. "Most men have an extremely hard time letting the past and their youth go," he says. "They keep in touch through sports. We're helping them do that."
The bookshop already has its regulars, who linger for hours, flipping through pages, matching stories and exchanging sports trivia. There is no clock in SportsBooks, so there's no way to tell if you have gone into overtime. It is indeed a wonderful, and dangerous, place.
Sally B. Donnelly is a reporter for Time magazine in Los Angeles.