Portrait of a Bookstore: A Studio City Treasure

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atina110x110BY ATINA HARTUNIAN

Not too far and not too wide is  Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City.  While the size of this bookstore is no bigger than a walk-in closet, every inch, nook, corner and cranny has been filled with the very best literary titles, gifts and antiques. This secret little bookstore is sure to capture anyone that walks by its open doors.

The history of the bookstore is a story in itself.

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The inviting back entrance leads from the garden sitting area to the store itself and into a cozy sitting room. Photo: Julie von Zerneck.

In 1985, the von Zerneck family decided to start a family business. They had a long history in the entertainment industry — Frank, as a producer of “made-for-television” movies; wife Julie, an actor; daughter, Danielle, an actor-producer (she played Richie Valens’ wife in “La Bamba”); and son, Frank Jr,  a writer-director.

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Every inch, nook, corner and cranny has been filled by the very best literary titles, gifts and antiques. Photo: Julie von Zerneck

However, when it was time to decide what their business should be the only thing they could agree on was the fact they were all passionate about books. The family flew to Chicago to attend a seminar at the American Booksellers Association to get more information about owning and running a bookstore.

“We came away with three words drummed in our heads: Location, Location, Location,” recalls owner Julie von Zerneck.

Portrait of a Bookstore first opened its doors in Toluca Lake on a cozy stretch of Riverside Drive 23 years ago. For the last 13 years, the bookstore  has been tucked inside Aroma Café, owned by Mark Gunsky, which ensures a great deal of foot traffic.

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Julie von Zerneck brings back exquisite,antique finds from Europe,
like this Victorian china set. Photo: Courtesy Portrait of a Bookstore

“With all its rooms, chandeliers and gardens filled with geranium and red umbrellas it’s our best location yet,” says von Zerneck.

The Family von Zerneck decided early on that the bookstore should feel like their living room. Everyone who entered would be greeted and treated like a guest in their home.  They’ve filled every inch of the bookstore with current literary titles, hand-picked antique books and gifts from England and France.

The family- run bookstore has expanded its “family” to include some extraordinary staff members such as Aida Chaldranyan, who came to the position as store manager by way of Craigslist. “The criteria for the job was that the applicant had to be a veracious reader,” said Chaldranyan.

Owner Julie Von Zerneck

Owner Julie von Zerneck Photo: Courtesy Portrait of a Bookstore

Then there is Lucia Silva, the book buyer, who also selects the worthy titles that line the limited shelf space.  In her off time, Silva also does the summer and winter review for NPR.There are some popular current titles along side unknown gems waiting to be discovered, making the experience at Portrait of a Bookstore that much more exciting. It also helps that the staff has read most of the books they carry, ensuring anyone who is looking for a good book will be certain to find one here.

(L-R) back row:  Sabrina Johnson, Sharon Estridge, Christine Gitomer, and Donna DeLacy, founder and facilitator of the group.  Front row (L-R): Susan Emerson and Val Viglione.

The original book club members got together 10 years ago. (L-R) back row: Sabrina Johnson, Sharon Estridge, Christine Gitomer, and Donna DeLacy, founder and facilitator of the group. Front row (L-R): Susan Emerson and Val Viglione.

Which is why it is only natural that Portrait of a Bookstore has a book group.  Founded and facilitated by Donna DeLacy ten years ago, the idea of the book group was a part of DeLacy’s pitch when she was being interviewed for a position at the store. “It’s just a passion I found early on,” said DeLacy.

Before coming to Portrait of a Bookstore, DeLacy had blazed a trail of book groups throughout the country: from New York to Alabama to San Francisco and now, in Studio City.  There is a loose structure to DeLacy’s book groups. There are no leaders or experts that runs the discussions. Instead everyone is free to jump in with a comment, concern or question regarding the book they’ve just read.

Currently there are two women’s book groups. One has a membership of 20 and the other has 12.
The 12 member group meets on the second Monday of the month and is listed on the website as open for new members. The large group is now closed to new members.

BJ Hegadus, Aida C, Donna DeLacey

A few of the Portrait staff (L-R): BJ Hegedus (gift manager/buyer), Aida Chaldranyan (store manager), Donna DeLacy (ring buyer and book club founder/facilitator). Photo: Karen Young

“I think as the years have gone by the biggest problem is choosing the book. Not every book you read is a discussable book, in the way we discuss. Because if there’s not enough controversy, it’s got to strike a nerve. Or a book that leaves you with ambiguity,” said Delacy, who has worked at the store for ten years and is also the ring buyer.

“I can’t tell you what a joy it is to come to work here. I still look forward to it each day,” she adds.

Both staff and customers contribute to the success of the bookstore.

“Our customers, friends really, are unsurpassed. They have kept us open through the LA riots, earth quakes, fires, 9/11, the recession, Our friends, our customers, that come from all over the world, have come in knowing that if they didn’t come in we would have to close up,” says  von Zerneck.

What first started as a family venture has grown to be a place where great writing and literature is more than appreciated, its really loved.

“All we want to do is pass the written word around and keep open so that we can help tell the story, ” says von Zerneck.

Portrait of a Bookstore has a sister store in Stow-on-the-Wold, England and is known to be two-story heaven for book lovers.

Portrait of a Bookstore is located at 4360 Tujunga Ave. Studio City, CA 91604 Open seven days a week. Mon-Sat 9:30am-10pm, Sun.10am-10pm www.portraitofabookstore.com

Atina Hartunian’s articles have appeared in the North Valley Community News,  The Armenian Reporter,  The Pasadena Weekly, as well as current urban development for Fourstory.org. She is also a website content manager and freelance writer: www.atinahartunian.blogspot.com.

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About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

  • Leslee Greathead

    I just have to tell you how much I am enjoying My Daily Find. It’s fun, informative and a great resource for us locals.

    I was especially pleased to see the article on Portrait of a Bookstore. Portrait/Aroma is my favorite spot in the Valley. Atina captured the essence of its charm and the warmth of its people in the article. (I’m also a long time member of the bookclub.)

    Thanks so much for providing this wonderful newsletter and website!

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