I asked Dennis Wills, proprietor of D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, how he came to be a bookseller. “That’s a very long story,” he said. “It involves espionage, intrigue, years working for the National Security Agency and for Zbigniew Brzezinski — right before he became Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser — encounters in Europe with great bookstores like Blackwell’s in London, and, especially, two books that made a deep impression on me, Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It also involves my father’s illness that brought me back to Southern California after all those years away. Where should I start?”
“How about at the beginning,” I said.
Dennis has been selling books in La Jolla for 20 years, first in a tiny, narrow converted office space on La Jolla Boulevard, and later in his present location on Girard Avenue. He collects photos of authors with books in their hands, statues and figurines of people reading books, book presses, and all sorts of other paraphernalia associated with books. There are several paintings and photographs in the store based on a famous painting called The Bookworm by the 19th-century German genre painter Carl Spitzweg, which shows an elderly man, apparently a scholar, on a ladder in front of a row of bookshelves with a book under each arm, one tucked between his knees, and yet another open in his hands. This is a man who can’t get enough of book knowledge, and he seems emblematic of Dennis himself.
When I suggested to Dennis that he consider developing a website or at least catalog his rare and valuable books for one of the many used-book sites on the Internet, he looked at me as if I had gone loony. “You know,” he said, “someone walked in once and asked if we had our inventory online. ‘No,’ I told him, ‘our books are on the shelves. We walk over to the shelf and look.’ Imagine that!”
One of Dennis’s colleagues, Chuck Valverde of Wahrenbrock’s Book House, at 726 Broadway, San Diego’s oldest bookstore, recently underscored the feeling many independent booksellers have today. He likened book dealers to dirigible pilots or carriage makers. Some dirigible pilots learned to fly airplanes, and some buggy makers started manufacturing automobile chassis; others went out of business. Dennis shows no sign of adapting to the new technological realities of bookselling, but his bookstore remains a gathering place for the literati and a must destination for serious book lovers throughout Southern California. As I looked around the splendidly disarrayed yet orderly chaos of his one-of-a-kind La Jolla institution, I felt like I was in the middle of an archeological dig.
Nearly every square foot of space in the store is used. Yet Dennis still manages to host regular literary readings — aisles crammed with folding chairs, usually spilling out into the street — where speakers carry the word to faithful attendees. There is bric-a-brac everywhere: small Chinese sculptures, hand-carved busts, tribal ceremonial masks, a Laurel and Hardy poster, baseball caps, and, tacked all over, photos and letters and yellowed, curled newspaper clippings. Next to the arm of a worn-out easy chair, a pile of six or seven thick dictionaries proclaims the prominence of words in this place. Over the archway that connects one part of the store with another hangs a huge two-man crosscut saw, symbolic, I think, of the trees sacrificed to produce the books Dennis has sold. As if to emphasize this symbol, next to the counter is a circular, five-foot-long shellacked hardwood slab that has served as a podium for authors at his Friday- and Saturday-night readings. Among the writers who have stood at that podium are Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (three times), and Nobel Laureates Francis Crick and Derek Walcott.
Dennis talks about writers with reverence, and he obviously feels honored to have had these literary figures read and sign books in his store. I asked him why he held them in such esteem. “Because it’s knowledge,” he said. “We’re surrounded here by knowledge. To whatever extent members of our species are capable of understanding our failures or our potential is through knowledge. Our brains are capable of creating the symphonies of Beethoven or Brahms, or works of art that will excite us like those of Picasso or Michelangelo or Da Vinci, or words, stirring words that stimulate our thoughts and carry forth ideas about justice or freedom or individuality, as in the works of Thoreau, or Emerson, or Plato. And then there are characters in novels, plays, and short stories that give these ideas flesh and bones. While Hegel or Kant write very difficult books that only a handful of philosophers are going to fully understand, a character in a Tolstoy short story contemplating good and evil can speak to many more people who do not have serious, rigorous philosophical training.” As I listened to Dennis talk about books, philosophy, art, music, and religion, surrounded by his tens of thousands of books, I nearly became convinced that hordes of people are rummaging through The Death of Ivan Illych, hungry for ideas, instead of staring at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on TV. For him, books have a transformative power, and they certainly have transformed his life.
“I wasn’t always interested in books,” he told me. “Especially as a young man. I was born in Los Angeles in 1946. My parents came out from Nebraska during the Depression to Los Angeles, and I was their only child. My dad went to medical school in the Los Angeles area, and my mother worked at Newberry’s department store. My parents, I guess, were Presbyterian. We didn’t go to church that much because my dad was mainly at the hospital on Sunday mornings, and he was interested in sports medicine and sports in general. He ran track and was a pole-vaulter back in Nebraska, and so on Sunday we were never churchgoers in a formal sense.
“I went to California Military Academy for seven years and had a pretty good education there, I guess. Small classes. I lived at home. I did not board. And I went to Lutheran High School, which was then in Inglewood. I played football, in great part because my dad had played football, so I became very interested in sports. I loved football and particularly the Rams.” At the mention of the Rams, Dennis became more animated and lively. His face brightened. “After all these years, they finally won the Super Bowl even though they are in St. Louis. There are a lot of us from Los Angeles who fantasize and have the delusion that the Rams are still in L.A., and naturally we were excited about this year’s Super Bowl.