For almost a dozen years, arguably the finest independent bookstore in town has been Dushoff Books Ltd. in the shopping center at 32nd Street and Camelback.

Last week a sign with a dreadful message appeared on the empty magazine rack near the front door. It informed Dushoff's many faithful customers of a terrible turn of events. Dushoff's is being forced to close. It has fallen victim to competition from Bookstar, the huge, discount bookstore in the shopping center at 20th Street and Camelback.

"I noticed that some of the customers were in tears after they read the sign," said Cathy West, who owns the place with her mother, Diane Dushoff.

What do you say about a bookstore like Dushoff's, a place loaded with charm and staffed by knowledgeable book lovers?

Dushoff's was a place you were drawn to if you appreciated browsing in a store with a book collection put together by a team that both loved as well as read books of all kinds.

At its high point, there were only six employees. It was a small business, something the Reaganauts always professed to foster.

Dushoff's had more charm than any bookstore around. Lovingly, it arranged and rearranged its books in a 2,000-square-foot store and then expanded it to 4,000 square feet.

Books stretched from floor to ceiling. There were polished wooden ladders that made it easy to climb and search for books on the upper shelves. There was a couch and armchairs and plenty of other places to sit and turn pages in mint-fresh volumes before deciding which to buy. No salesperson in Dushoff's ever hassled a customer. In a community that attracts large numbers of transients who pride themselves on their car phones and wall-size television sets, Dushoff's was an oasis.

If you wanted a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, anything by Henry Miller or the collected stories of William Trevor, Dushoff's was a place you could find it. If you wanted the most recent biography of Lyndon Johnson or Ernest Hemingway, you could find those, as well, at Dushoff's.

Available also were the latest nonfiction books and best-selling novels, as well as an extensive collection on jazz, classical music and film. There were rows and rows of books on cooking and travel. There was also a magazine-and-newspaper rack that ran almost the length of an entire wall. Dushoff's had everything a book lover or an avid magazine reader could desire. Everything was painstakingly arranged and recorded on computer so it could be found within minutes. For book lovers, Dushoff's was a snug harbor . . . a place to get away from it all.

So now Dushoff's is gone. Or at least it will be by the end of this month, when the doors close for the final time.

Diane Dushoff leaned on the counter in the center of the store and talked seemingly without rancor, thinking about how tough it had been for her to watch business fall off with the arrival of the big chain bookstores in town.

"I appreciate all those customers who have been supportive over the years," she said. "I guess you'd say that we're all going through mourning right now.

"But there's a discount mentality out there now." Dushoff's has occupied space in the shopping center at 32nd Street and Camelback since 1981. It's probably not possible to explain the magic that takes over a good bookstore without seeming intellectually pretentious.

But there was an almost magical spell about Dushoff's. It was almost always quiet. When people did speak, they did so softly. They were amazingly courteous. Nobody ever saw harsh words being exchanged or a fistfight. But on many occasions, there were recorded acts of kindness. A particularly pugnacious friend of mine used to bring his small boy with him on Saturdays. Quieted by his surroundings, he browsed through the shelves. His toddler sat on the floor, transfixed by the children's book collection.

In Phoenix, there were only two independent stores in Phoenix during the Reagan-Bush era that were worth repeated visits.

Dushoff's was one. Houle Books, run by Peter Barbie in the Uptown Plaza, was the other. The two were in competition, but far enough apart to easily co-exist. Happily, Houle Books remains alive and well. But the mortal blow was dealt Dushoff's when the branch of Bookstar opened a year ago in the Town & Country Shopping Center at 20th Street and Camelback. Bookstar not only sells books at big discounts, but also has deep enough pockets to stock thousands of them.

What Bookstar lacks, however, is character. It is like any cut-rate supermarket. There are long lines. No clerk ever indicates either knowledge or enthusiasm for books. A Bookstar clerk is programmed only to perform a few rudimentary tasks. If you ask about a book's location, the clerks will point you to a computer on the far wall. If you want the key to the bathroom, they will look you over carefully--and give you one if you do not appear to be homeless.

Cathy West, aware that her regular customers were being inexorably drawn away by the discounts at Bookstar, went over one day to look at the competition.

"I looked in the window," she said. "I could see they have a lot of neon and open space. I also know they have the backing to stock 15 copies of books that I can only afford to stock a couple of. "But I found myself reluctant to go inside that store. I just couldn't make myself go through the door."
She hesitated.
"It's hard," she said, "to see something you've built up for almost 12 years dissolve into nothing before your eyes. We're staggered."
For a while, mother and daughter thought they would be able to sell the store to a retired couple from the West Coast.

But just before the deal went through, there was an announcement in the papers that still another big chain bookstore, this one called Borders, will open soon in Biltmore Fashion Park. Borders will go head to head against Bookstar. It is reportedly going to have 30,000 square feet of space, as well as a coffee bar.

"The profit margin on books has always been small," Cathy said. "But for a long while, we were able to make it. And we loved having our own bookstore. "My kids were a part of the store. They used to sleep in the back. Now my daughter is about to graduate from Xavier High School and has received a college scholarship. But when she comes home on vacation, there will be no bookstore for her to visit. It's hard to believe this will be all gone." Diane Dushoff, just as dismayed and shattered as her daughter, stood over the counter. She stared out the front door. Then she said, ever so softly:

"It reminds you of that old Janis Joplin song, 'Take another little piece of my heart.'

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Tom Fitzpatrick