irreverent history part one

An Irreverent History 

Book Passage: Looking back at age 40

(We ran this multi-part series in 2016 in our print-newsletter in our 40th anniversary celebration of Book Passage. We decided to post it again here, along with a few edits. History is history, so most of what we had to say then is still true now. But a lot of things have changed in the six or more years since we wrote this, so he hope to add more to this as time goes on. So please stay tuned for more of our commentary about Book Passage and the world of books and bookselling.  -- B.P.)

Part One: "The Early Years"

It began forty years ago when Elaine, then pregnant but already thinking about a new career, came up with the idea of opening a bookstore. For this ex-teacher and school principal, bookselling seemed like the perfect occupation. “The children can come by after school, and we'll read stories.”  That endearing vision lasted about a month. After battling with suppliers, struggling with construction deadlines, and absorbing insults from a few big-chain bankers, we realized this was going to be hard work. And we hadn’t yet fully understood the wise words from our friend, Nicky Salan, then owner of Cover to Cover books in San Francisco. “You realize, don’t you, that the deck is stacked against independent booksellers?”

Our first store opened in Larkspur under the name “Lark Creek Books.” The space we selected wasn’t exactly ideal – in fact, it was a former dry-dock for small boats. The whole building had been schlepped up the hill from Sausalito and rebuilt on a lot in Larkspur. Our “recommended opening inventory” came in the form of a long computer print-out from the Ingram Book Company, the major wholesaler, and it stretched out across the store. After reading it, however, we decided we had to be a bit selective. Ingram – a company located in Nashville – listed as its top best-sellers five Elvis biographies. Somehow, that didn’t sound right for the Bay Area. Our opening inventory was then rounded out by me, as I meandered through a couple of local distributors with s grocery cart (alas, those two distributors are now out of business, having been done-in by the increasing concentration in the book business at all levels). I basically walked down the narrow aisles of those two warehouses, picking out every book I ever wanted to read. Elaine believes that some of those books may still be on our bookstore shelves.

We were racing to get open before the fall shopping season, and when the day arrived we hadn’t quite figured out how to sell books. Forget credit cards – those were still a few years into the future.  We were having problems with cash. Sally Shephard, co-owner of the gallery next door, came to our rescue with a cash-drawer and some friendly suggestions. Since she was polite enough not to laugh at us, we decided we would like to work with her. We hired her as our first PR agent (and have been good friends ever since). Things settled down after that to the point where we were able to shelve books in some sensible order. The early environmental books went into the “Books for a Small Planet” section. By then, some of the Watergate burglars were getting out of jail, and they needed a place for their memoirs. We obliged them by setting up a “Books by Crooks” section.

Then, Elaine got another idea. This one came from a book entitled “How to Make a Million Dollars (and maybe More) through Mail Order.” The book was basically baloney, but what did we know? It wasn’t long before we found ourselves with a second, mail-order business (and a partner, whom we soon bought out) in a cramped office on the fifth-floor of the Mechanic’s Institute Building in San Francisco. This was the business we named “Book Passage.”  That office was intended to be a hub for mail-order sales only, but customers somehow managed to wander in and stumble over the boxes in search of exotic guide books.

Having two separate businesses in two different locations, of course, presented a management problem. Which way do you head each morning as you left home from Mill Valley. Do you go north to the Lark Creek Books store, or south to the new Book Passage operation? The problem was solved only after we decided to lease space in our present building in Corte Madera. We then closed the other two locations and combined the two businesses under one roof as “Book Passage.”

Our original space was only one-quarter of the size to which it eventually grew. Old-timers will remember that we had our children’s section in the space that was later occupied by our café. In designing the store, we had carefully chosen the north side of the island building in the center of the shopping center. With our usual sense of shrewd planning, we wanted to be sure that our door was exactly opposite the door of “Savories,” which at that point was Marin’s premier organic market. By now, you’ve guessed how our shrewd planning usually works out. Savories closed within weeks, leaving us to stare at a vacant building for many months to come.

The rest of the expansion came in stages. When the toy store on the other side of the island building closed, we decided to lease that space. If you think the dramatic U-shaped floor-space that goes around the building to the events-area was the result of some intelligent design, think again. It was simply the easiest way to knock out the wall and combine the two spaces. A year or so later, more space became available across the patio. We leased it, and then shortly after that we leased more space next to that for our used book collection.  We grabbed it, and then we decided to stop and catch our breath.

[Ed. note: our original partner for our Used Book department was "Hospice bythe Bay." After many years of that wonderful relationship, we're now working with "10,000 Degrees" for the sale of used books -- more on that below.]

Our next expansion didn’t occur until about a decade later. When someone tipped us off about the exciting new changes underway at the San Francisco Ferry Building, we raced down to the Embaracdero to see for ourselves. We took just one look at what the developers were doing – and the wonderful food tenants they had already lined up – and we were hooked. There would be no more delays for our pseudo-shrewdo planning. We wanted in.


Part Two: "The Crime of the Century"

We were happy to see books leaving our shelves, heading out the door in the hands of happy readers. The only problem was that not all of them were stopping at the cash register on the way out the door. By the early ‘90s we realized that a lot of books seemed to be walking out the door on their own. Shoplifting was eating us alive.

We finally got the idea of hiring an off-duty policeman to watch the merchandise. It didn’t take him long. After only a week of patrolling the floor in plainclothes, our cop got his man. He spotted him one evening, helping himself to books and stuffing them inside an over-sized coat. He took the guy into the back room and started questioning him. Our cop, we found out, can be very persuasive. Before long, the perp started blubbering and agreed to let him see what he had in his car. There, he showed him a stash of books that he’d stolen from several other bookstores (that was right about the time he wet his pants).

Our suspect was taken to the Twin Cities Police Department in Larkspur to be booked, but unluckily for him a San Francisco cop was also at the station at that moment and recognized him. It turned out that the SFPD had a few charges of its own involving this gentleman. By now, our perp was ready to deal. He told them he was working with a large shoplifting ring, and he gave them the details. He and his band of thieves had apparently been hitting bookstores up and down the California coast for weeks on a regular basis. He agreed to enter a plea, and as part of the deal he agreed to wear a wire and help get evidence on his bosses. Thus began what the local police jocularly referred to as the “crime of the century.”

The boss of the shoplifting operation was a shifty character who ran a now-defunct book store in San Francisco and operated a bookstall at a local flea market. He was a crook - but he was a crook with good taste in books. He’d always recommended the best new titles to his flea-market customers. And he was a full-service thief. He'd take special orders, and then he'd invite customers back in the following week to pick up their merchandise. He even sold books to a few libraries. The librarians involved later said they had no idea he was a thief – apparently, a shady guy walking in with a brown paper bag full of brand new, half-priced books didn’t arouse any suspicions. He had no accounts with any publishers, but he didn’t need them. He had us and other bookstores – and the guys in the oversized coats – providing him with all the inventory he needed for free.

They were all eventually caught and convicted. But in order to make their case, the police had to run a sting. They told their man who was wearing the wire (and a fresh pair of pants) to talk to the boss and get a copy of that week’s “special-order” list written in the boss’s handwriting. The plan then was to get those books to him and then have him hand them over to the boss -- just as were ready to nab him. But they couldn’t use just any books. To tie down their case, they had to have books that were taken from our store. And to make sure there were no slip-ups, they had to have books that the were taken out of the store at night with nothing showing on our records. And to make sure there were no leaks, it had to be just the two of us grabbing the books.

So there we were. Elaine and I went prowling though our store one night by flashlight, stealing books off the shelves of our own store. At one point the same thought crossed both of our minds: is this why we went into this business?


Part Three: "The Best Part of the Business"

At one of our earliest author events – nearly forty years ago – the guest didn’t say much. Mostly, he mumbled as he walked around in his heavy mask and costume in front of our old store in Larkspur. We had to use a hair-dryer every few minutes to blow cold air under his costume, since he was sweating in the heat. The kids loved the whole thing, however, as they hovered around him, trying to figure out how close they could get. Our guest was there courtesy of novelist Judy Greber and her husband Bob Greber, who at the time was CEO of Industrial Light and Magic. But we’re stretching it a bit to call this an "author event.  In all honesty, the Star Wars book we were featuring that day hadn’t really been written by Darth Vader.

By the time we'd moved to Corte Madera, our appetite for author events had grown. Cyra McFadden was the first author to appear at our new store, and as she talked about her new book we began to realize how gratifying these events could be. It was about this time – in the mid '80’s – that Elaine and a few other booksellers around the county started lobbying publishers to change the way they did author tours. Up till then, authors would simply drop by bookstores to sign books whenever they were in town for something else. The idea of this group of booksellers was a simple one: if you’re going to the expense to sending authors around the country, why not have them say something when they visited the stores? Soon, a new cultural tradition was born – author-events in bookstores.

Thirty years and more than 10,000 events later, the Book Passage author-events program is still going strong. We've hosted them in Corte Madera, San Francisco and otherparts of the Bay Area, at colleges, high schools, and grade-schools, in theatres, auditoriums, and parks, on-line and in-store, at churches and synagogues, and at just about anywhere we could gather an audicence. We realized early on that if we were going to have events with any frequency at our Corte Madera store, we’d have to set up an events space (we ended up with two of them), purchase chairs, mics, projectors, speakers, monitors (we have lots of that stuff), send out a newsletter (first in print, later on-line) announcing the events, and develop a staff dedicated to producing events (no modesty here – ours is the best in the country).

Book Passage programs have featured many famous authors – including eminent scholars and novelists, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, several senators and cabinet officers, and three U.S. Presidents.* But as wonderful as those events have been, some of the most important author-appearances have been those with new and aspiring writers. Sometimes these early events in an author's career draw only a small crowd, but that handful of people might be part of the author’s springboard to success. It’s only when the hitherto unknown author becomes famous and starts winning literary prizes – like Anthony Marra, Michael Chabon, Abraham Verghese, Amy Tan, Khaled Husseini - that you realize the significance of those earlier events. But whether the event is big or small, it is the interplay with the readers in the audience that makes the difference.  One evening, after watching a presentation by the famed feminist archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and listening to her lively Q&A session with the audience, it suddenly hit me that this was the best part of the business.

[*Ed. note: It's Actually five, by my count. As the author of a book that is critical of the Electoral College system, I'm inclined to include the three who got sworn in as President (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama) and also add two more B.P. guests who should have been sworn in because they got more votes than their opponent: i.e. Al Gore (who won by 543,895 votes) and Hillary Clinton (who won by 2,868,686 votes).]

Part Four: "A Place to Be"

After the World Trade center crashed into a heap of rubble in New York, several people gathered in the afternoon of 9/11 in the Café of our Marin store. None of them had planned to be there. Certainly, no one felt like buying anything. Some of them said they just felt drawn to the store. It was just a phenomenon that other independent bookstores around the country later noted. It came as a surprise to Elaine, because she had headed up to the store that morning, thinking that we would have to close becaue of the tragedy. But what she found instead was a group of people who just felt like sitting in a bookstore and talking.

Something like that happened again a few years later. When Amy Tan and a couple of other authors saw the disaster that Hurricane Katrina was inflicting upon New Orleans, they asked us if they could use the store as a gathering point to raise funds for the victims. We had about two days’ notice, but that was apparently all they needed to bring a few hundred people into the store for a spontaneous program. A lot of money was raised that night, due in no small part to the hitherto unknown talent of Ayelet Waldman as an auctioneer.

These were rather dramatic occasions, but they are indicative of the pull of a bookstore. People often gravitate towards bookstores even though they're not there to buy a book at that particular moment. Maybe they show up to meet a friend or have a gathering with their book group. Sometimes a writing group will politely commandeer a table for a meeting. Often an agent will meet in the store with a client, or a mentor might meet with a student-writer. People congregate in bookstores for all kinds of reasons. In communities where there is no obvious civic gathering place, bookstores sometimes fill the void. Sometimes people gather there to celebrate something; other times it’s to commiserate with others. People often walk in the door with a specific book in mind, but at other times they’re there just to walk around, browse the shelves, and maybe see if a book will jump out to meet them.

Around 1988 Elaine got the idea of hosting classes in the bookstore. In one of the earliest ones we pushed aside a few of the bookshelves (fortunately, they are mostly on wheels) and set up enough room for a class taught by Anne Lamott. She was a new novelist at the time and probably needed the extra money from the class tuition (so did we). It was a success. Now, when she returns as a famed and beloved writer to teach at the store, she packs the place. We started adding more classes on writing, publishing, language, art, and just about anything that might be of interest to our customers. The program was given a ridulous name – "B.P.U." (Our “University” boasted about its sketchy tenure-track and lack of a football team). there have been classes on almost everything, but we particularly love two types of classes - the ones that teach adults how to write for children and the ones that teach children how to build their own careers as writers. At its heart, the program has been mainly writers and other publishing professionals teaching new writers how to break into the business. We felt gratified from the first moment that we watched someone “graduate” from one of those classes into a writing career. And we felt really gratified when some of those writers came back and taught a few classes themselves. It was almost like having grandchildren.

One thing led to another. In 1991, Don George and Georgia Hesse (both former travel editors of the S.F. Chroniicle-Examiner) convinced us to take the classes idea, tweak it a bit, and stretch it out over a long weekend. That was the genesis of the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference, which has now gone on for about 28 years. We didn’t realize at the time, but we were providing a meeting place for great writers who rarely met anywhere else. And if we could do it for travel writing, why not mystery writing? Mystery writers Marilyn Wallace and Judy Greber looked at the success of the Travel Conference and helped us organize the annual Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference, which was born the following year. We kind of expected travel writers to be a convivial bunch, but it was somewhat surprising to find the same thing about mystery writers. But we soon realized that they are a warm, friendly bunch that get all their aggressions out on the page. Like most authors, they are very supportive of new writers.

For booksellers around the country, the important role of their bookstore within their community been a gratifying, if somewhat humbling, experience. It has now become part of the fabric of the business. It sometimes appears to be something new, but then you learn something (from a book, of course) that makes you think that this is part of an old and important tradition. In Adam Hochschild's wonderful book "Bury the Chains" he talks about the group of Quakers and others who first met in England on May 22, 1787, to put together a group that would ultimately force an end to the slave trade that had degraded America and the British Empire. Where did they meet? At "James Phillips's bookstore and printing shop" in London.