Lou Donato, who with his wife, Myrna, turned Amber Unicorn Books into a must-visit sanctuary for fans of rare and used books, died Wednesday after a short illness.
Donato, 77, suffered a heart attack Oct. 31 and died of complications that arose afterward, his wife said.
Donato was born in Newark, New Jersey, and served from 1959 to 1963 in the U.S. Marine Corps, mostly in Hawaii. He served in a reconnaissance unit and worked in demolitions. He also became a scuba diver in the Marines and worked as a diving instructor in Hawaii for several years before returning to the mainland.
After moving to Tucson, Arizona, Donato became acquainted with used books, “and he fell in love with it,” his wife said.
During the early 1970s, he moved to San Diego and opened his first bookstore. In 1978, he moved to Las Vegas and opened Bookstop 3 at Sandhill and Flamingo roads with his former wife.
“Then he and his wife decided to disagree, and she got the store and he went into dealing cards to get money so he could open another store,” Myrna Donato said. “That’s when I came into the picture, three years after they got divorced.”
At the time, Donato was preparing to open a bookstore at Charleston Boulevard and Rancho Drive. Concerned about the noise he was making remodeling the store, Donato walked into the dental office next door, in which Myrna worked, to apologize.
“I had a bad day and used some choice words,” Myrna recalled. “Then, the next day, I went over to apologize, and he was working so hard and doing most of the work himself, so I started to pitch in and help him, not knowing we were going to have a relationship.”
In 1981, Lou and Myrna, who have been married 36 years, opened Donato’s Fine Books. In 1984, they moved a few doors down and opened Amber Unicorn Books. They sold that store in 1997, and in 2008 opened at their current location at 2101 S. Decatur Blvd.
Drew Cohen, who with Scott Seeley co-owns The Writer’s Block, 1020 Fremont St., said the Donatos “were so welcoming to Scott and I when we opened our bookstore.”
The Donatos hosted a monthly booksellers’ dinner at a restaurant, Cohen said.
“We all go out together,” he said. “They were the ones who planned it and coordinated it and invited us, and they’re so welcoming to every new bookseller in this city.”
The Donatos also are “incredible fonts of knowledge,” Cohen said. “They know everything there is to know about used bookselling, and if you have any questions about the provenance of a particular book, both of them, they’ll just know the whole history.”
Over the past few months, the couple coped with the closing of the Trader Joe’s that anchored their shopping center. But Myrna Donato said she has no plans to close the bookshop.
“I’ve decided I’m taking it one day at a time,” she said. “But as long as our customers keep supporting us, I would hate to give it up because this was our life and there’s such a big part of him here in the store.”
Survivors include a daughter, Lisa Jacobs of Boulder, Colorado; stepsons Rick Hooper of Boise, Idaho, Jack Hooper of Tucson, Arizona, and Gregory Nauslar and Douglas Nauslar, both of Folsom, California.
Services will be private, Myrna said, although “I will probably down the road a month or two, have a celebration of life for him.”
Contact John Przybys at reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.