The Grand Pooh-Bah: An Interview with Lynn deWeese-Parkinson


"the Grand PooBah"

“the Grand PooBah”

Barbara: Of the many projects you have taken on in your life, Bibliophile has been important to many booksellers. Let’s begin there. What is Bibliophile, how many subscribers do you have, and how does one subscribe?

Lynn: Bibliophile is an email list for buying and selling books among its members, and discussing issues of interest related to book collecting and the book trade. The list also covers Books Wanted. There are between 1100 and 1200 subscribers. To subscribe, mailto:biblio-request@bibliophilegroup.com; and in the body of the email, simply put the word Subscribe. [Cost of subscription is $30/year.]

Barbara: When you first became co-owner of Bibliophile, then owner Shoshona Edwards introduced you as The Grand Pooh-Bah and the name certainly caught on. What is it about this Gilbert and Sullivan character that lends itself to your role now as sole owner of Bibliophile?

Lynn: I have no idea why the name The Grand Pooh-Bah popped into my mind but I used to be a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, so something back in my childhood and youth put it up there. The reason I did it, I think, was twofold. One, I was uncomfortable owning anything, I’d owned so little in my life, I didn’t like the name Owner, and was looking for something else. The other is that in watching Shoshona run the list as owner, it seemed as if her main difficulty was not being able to put distance between her role as owner and her personal self. For my own mental state, I wanted to be able to distance myself from my role as owner. The Grand Pooh-Bah allowed me that kind of psychic separation where I wouldn’t take seriously the kind of names I was going to get called.

What surprised me was that people liked it. The name really caught on. It’s had legs now for what is it? four and half years.

Barbara: You’re also a bookseller. Where besides Bibliophile do you list your books? How do you decide where to list your books?

Lynn: At the moment I list on ABE and Antiqbook. That’s all. I’m getting older and life is too short to do business with people you don’t enjoy doing business with. I met Rick Pura and talked to him at ABE when they first started the database (I think my number is something like 112) and I liked him a lot and I liked his family and so I signed up with them. When I got to know Piet of Antiqbook electronically, he seemed like a very sweet, dear, man; I liked him and so I signed up with him.

There are several other databases where I just don’t want to work with the people, and so I don’t. There are others where it’s not that; it’s just that two is enough. Cathie, my wife, says it’s a wonder I can smell any more since I so often cut off my nose to spite my face.


The new house

Barbara: Tell us about your mailing list the whys, wherefores and the how-to’s.

Lynn: At this point I think I can thrive, no matter what happens. If all the databases in the world, all the easy ways to sell books, just disappeared tomorrow, I have enough people who are good customers now that I can survive. That was my goal with the mailing list. It’s really that felt necessity for independence from anybody else’s business that’s pushed me.

The how-to is just to keep good records. From my first sale I’ve kept every bit of data I could on my customers what they bought, what areas they were interested in, all of their contact information. It goes so far at this point that I know some children’s names, birth dates, whatever. It’s relatively easy in this day and age. That’s the number one thing: Save All Data! I also put customers in groups corresponding to the subject matters that I put catalogues out in, according to what they’ve bought or told me.

The first time someone orders something from me they get a fairly extended letter, probably four or five paragraphs, explaining that I’d love to make them aware of new stock in their areas of interest, and asking them if they would please describe those to me so I can serve them better. I’m pretty chatty in my emails so if there’s something about the person I can identify with, I sort of chat folks up, too, especially those who order a book from me. I also ask them for permission to send them both electronic and paper catalogues as new stock comes in. Unless people give me permission, I don’t send them.

At this point, working alone, I have about 1500-1600 people who receive regular mailings from me. It’s taken me almost 11 years. I add to the list at a rate of about 150-160 per year. Which doesn’t seem like much. Most days I have, maybe, ten orders and I’m adding someone to my list only every other day. Less than half my customers want to be on the mailing list.

Barbara: In doing research for this interview, I discovered thatliterallypages come up in doing a Google search on Lynn deWeese-Parkinson. Do you find a broad internet spread an effective way to market your books?

Lynn: Yes, to give a short answer. One of the advantages is in having an absolutely unique name. As far as I know (and I’m sure it’s true) Cathie and I are the only deWeese-Parkinsons ever in the history of the universe. The other part is that I have a lot of interests beyond books. Much of what turns up on a thorough search has nothing to do with books.

Barbara: What are your specialties as book collector and seller?

Lynn: I have divorced myself from book collecting. I got down to Neruda and I have given to my poet daughter my best things in that collection, sold the rest.

As a bookseller, half the books I selland my main interestis toreo, bullfighting. I belong to Torine Bibliophiles of America, which is the only organization I belong to at this point. It’s here that my sales have been most successful. But I deal in all subjects relating to Latin America, Spain and Portugal.

Barbara: How did you come to your love of bullfighting and Mexico? How did you get into those specialties?

Lynn: I don’t know. As a little kid, I’m not sure what first attracted me whether I was young and saw blood in the sand, or what. I know I saw that. By 9 or 10, I was entranced and gave serious thought, when I was 13 or14, to becoming an apprentice matador but didn’t have the courage to run away. I had also worked picking berries in the state of Washington until I was 18, and had spent several years in the fields. A lot of the field workers were Mexican and I had a lot of Mexican friends. Then a grade school friend’s dad had fought as child with Pancho Villa and used to tell us his storiesvery romantic to me as a 10-year old. But I didn’t think of bullfighting or Mexico relating to a career until I went out on my own as a bookseller.

When Maury Neville, the greatest bull fight bookseller everhe was also a publisherretired, I bought the stock that was left. That launched me. I also joined Torine Bibliophiles of America, which was handy because they published a bibliography of books in English. But I didn’t have any real feeling in this area. When Meggan, my 2nd daughter, died in a car accident, the people most helpful and most generous and most kind, and who have done the most to memorialize Meggan, were the Torine Bibliophiles. That touched me a lot and deepened my commitment to the area. I give a 10% discount to Torine members.

With the possible exception of baseball no, not even baseball–some of the best literature and art is about bullfightingespecially when looked at from a Spanish, Latin American context from Goya to Picasso in art; and of course Hemingway, Spota from Mexico, who is a brilliant writer; Lorca’s poem At Exactly 5 O’clock in the Afternoon. There is fine literature going back all the way to Crete.

The other area I have recently developed an interest inand have been having a terrible time finding material onis Flamenco. Bullfighting and Flamenco are closely associated. They study in great depth the two things that are very important in the world. Bullfighting is a deep examination of death; Flamenco is deep celebration of vitality in life, sex in large part. One of the things Hemingway said was that ‘every true story ends in death and it’s a false story teller who tells you otherwise.’ I am fascinated by death; also the vitality in life. I’m coming to think more and more that they are the only things worth studying.

Barbara: On Bibliophile you’ve spoken with great fondness of your bone folder. There are also plastic ones. One bookseller has suggested that fingernails are fine. My father (in a non-book context) used to tell me that thumbnail against flesh of the index finger gave the best fold. Tell us about your tools of the book trade.

Lynn: I have four tools I use. I have a very well-worn block of Douglas fir that’s worn down and now rounded on all the corners, used for smoothing things, if something doesn’t want to fold smoothly. I use a fresh business card for opening unopened pages. And I have my thumbnail and finger.

I really don’t use the bone folder for anything other than comfort. I keep it on my desk. It feels good and when I’m thinking about something I like to rub it. It’s my Linus blanket.

Barbara: You’re known on Bibliophile as a seasoned traveler in search of books. Tell us something about your book buying trips.

Lynn: I try, once a year, to get just about everywhere on the west coast, to book stores in every major city from Vancouver, BC to Guatemala City. I wander up and down the coast it’s tax deductible travel of course!and given my specialty, there are never that many books in any one place. I have to cover a wide area. If I go into a bookstore and find four different books on bullfighting, that’s good. Portland is awfully good and Vancouver, BC. Mexico City is terrific, and Guatemala City is very, very good. In Guatemala City, they have the largest book fair in Central America; the entire main plaza in front of the presidential palace is full of booksellers during the fair.

I’m still discovering new bookstores. In U.S. cities, and in Vancouver, too, I can look in the yellow pages. They tend to be more hidden in Mexico and Guatemala City. Very few book sellers advertise in the phone book. It’s more a matter of wandering the streets, finding a bookstore, buying some books, and then chatting and finding out where another bookstore is. It’s more exploring than anything else. The nice thing about it is that virtually no one south of the Rio Grande is on the net and so prices tend to be quite good, and materials are available.

Barbara: And your recent trip to Barcelona?

Lynn: I really got lucky in Barcelona. Every Sunday in Barcelona there is this one market, Mercat Sant Antoni, that’s totally devoted to paper, mostly books and posters. It’s like a full square block book fair every Sunday. On Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, there’s a flea market, Las Glorias, with five to six booksellers. The flea market is very inexpensive.


Lynn, on a Barcelona Bench

The interesting thing about Barcelona is that it’s not in their culture to have estate sales. A wholesale dealer comes in and makes a lump sum offer to the family for the entire estate, then take all that stuff and wholesales it to the people selling at the flea market. What this means is that you have this large block full of all fresh stuff four times a week.

Another interesting thing is that they don’t put extra value on books because they are inscribed or autographed. Nobody cares about them so I was able to pick up some very good inscribed poetry by prize-winning poets at a price I thought was very cheap. There are also booksellers around the university and in old town in Barcelona. Their prices tend to be above what I would consider market, but they have some very old, very nice, material vellum. I’d never been to Europe and the thing that struck me was how old everything is.

Barbara: Let’s talk about some more personal history. Tell us about your last name deWeese-Parkinson. What’s the history of that?


Lynn and Cathie

Lynn: [Laughter] Well, Cathie and I were together a long time before we got married. That was her choice, not mine. I’d asked her to marry me several times and she wasn’t going to have anything to do with it. And then I caught her in a moment of weakness. Actually what had happened is a very romantic story. She had decided to at least live with me and had borrowed my old Volvo to move her stuff to my apartment. I got a phone call that afternoon from a stranger who said, you know, are you, you? and do you have an old Volvo? and I said, Yes. He said, Your girlfriend is in the Kaiser Emergency Ward. She maxed on the bridge and your car’s totalled. I busted over to the hospital emergency ward. She was looking very bad. All she had was a broken nose, but they bleed a lot so there was blood all over. I got this sudden inspiration to ask her to marry me again, and said, This is stupid. Who ever knows what will happen to either of us? We’ve gotta get married. And she agreed. It was very romantic, this man on his knees in the emergency room, with blood all around.

Anyway, the agreement was that she wasn’t going to change her name. She was a 60’s liberated woman and if she was going to change her name, I was going to change mine. She was deWeese, I was Parkinson, so we finally decided to hyphenate it. We put the deWeese first just because it sounded better. Then we became involved in things Latin American where everybody has two names, sometimes hyphenated, but the man’s name usually comes before the woman’s so everybody thought it was a very strong woman who had her name come first. It became a funny joke.

Barbara: How did you get to the point of becoming a lawyer, and then a bookseller?

Lynn: I’d worked my way though college at a bookstore, Richard Abel’s. That was sold and became Blackwell’s North America. I’d begun in ’61 selling used books; then a rock ‘n’ roll band; then law school, when I was 30, practicing for 15 years. At some point, my health demanded I get out of law. I was in a federal criminal, high-pressured, law practice. I had most psychosomatic diseases known to man. At that point it seemed natural to go back into used books.

Barbara: Tell us about the lawyer who got static in The New York Times.

Lynn: The bulk of my practice was for progressive and radical folks, and organizations. I represented the local Black Panther health clinic when the federal government tried to subpoena their records. I represented the American Indian Movement. I worked 13 years representing AIM and managed to get three mistrials in a row. Most of the static was around AIM. In the state of Washington, I’d represented the Yakima over salmon fishing rights. The static was a case of lawyers being confused with their clientsnot totally unfair in my case because I really did identify with my Native American clients, and respected them.

It was interesting because the one prejudice I firmly grew up with as a kid was anti-Indian prejudice in our family. Our family was an old pioneer family in the state of Washington and there was a lot of prejudice I had to get over. I think the reason I’ve identified so strongly with Guatemalans comes out of that, where Indians are in the majority and have no power at all.

Barbara: Is there anything else you like about yourself or your life you would like to share with us?


Packing medical supplies to go to Mexico

Lynn: The main thing in my life, besides scraping a living together in the book business, is supporting Los Romeritos, a shelter in Guatemala City. My daughter Meggan and a friend, Jaime, founded it on the streets in the worst section of Guatemala City. Both Meggan and Jaime had theater backgrounds and they went out on the streets in this very bad section and played theater games with the street kids, the homeless, the orphaned, single mom kids. Afterwards they’d sit down with the kids and have meetings about how the kids could organize themselves to better their lives. There are blocks and blocks of single mother prostitutes working that area undocumented refugee immigrants, no papers, no rights, no legal activity, and they have children. The kids said they needed homes but they couldn’t work that out so they founded a day shelter for the children.

Since the mothers aren’t legal immigrants, their children’s births aren’t registered. Without papers showing they were born in Guatemala, they had no way to go to school in a country where you had to have papers to attend. So Meggan and Jaime started a shelter where the kids could be, and they started educating them. They raised money from popular new song artists (sort of popular, progressive, music) during the Guatemalan civil war got the musicians to come into a studio and cut a cassette and from that raised enough money to rent a building for shelter. That was six and a half to seven years ago and it’s still going strong. Today there are eight people employed, who take care of about 40 kids; they have expanded the shelter to a school; they have a women’s health project that concentrates on HIV prevention and education; and they have a family social services project.

At one point a woman named Laura Romero became involved in Los Romeritos. Through Laura’s family, Queen Sophia of Spain, who is also the head of the Red Cross in that country, got the Spanish Red Cross to donate a building so they don’t have to pay rent. I’ve become a royalist now. Pretty funny for someone who represented the American Indian Movement. I am quite dedicated, seriously.

Barbara: And after that?

Lynn: At some point Meggan came back to California. She had job that summer directing and acting in radio soap opera about AIDS/HIV prevention, her first real acting job. On her way there, she ran head-on into a semi in Bakersfield and died. Within a month Laura died in a head-on in Spain. That was four and half year ago. Both the families have taken on Los Romeritos. We just recently had a dinner and raised about $1700.

Barbara: You have a special place on your web site about all of this, don’t you, where people can learn the stories in more detail than we can go into here, and contribute to Los Romeritos?

Lynn: Yes, at http://www.bibliophilegroup.com/lynnsbookstore .The picture of Meggan is the first thing you see. It explains tax-deductible donations for the general operating expenses that we fund, lights, heat, food, crayons, paper.

The biggest sources for contributions have been from the Bibliophile mailing list and the torine bibliophile movement. Kendra, my youngest daughter, is down there now. They need a school bus. In Guatemala, a bus can be a city bus, which would provide a steady income, as well as the kind of bus they need, which can be pulled off city duty to take the kids to the zoo, etc. They are looking for a grant about $15,000 for that unless someone wants to give it on their own!

Barbara: Now for the big topic of the day. You are president of Bibliophile Books, Inc., at www.bibliodirect.com, a listing service to be launched in March. How did you first get involved?

Lynn: I was not happy with any of the databases available. Some I just don’t like the model I want a database to add to my own customer base, not just sell books. Some seem just not able to generate the business necessary to attract enough dealers to make them viable even though I like the model very much. Had ABE remained what it was when it began I probably wouldn’t have considered this.

My own business does not depend much on databases for sales but it does depend on databases to add to and freshen my customer base. Since I didn’t see anyone answering my needs, and I didn’t trust any of the major players in the field to put the needs of booksellers first, I decided to go ahead with this when approached with sufficient capital to take a serious shot.

Barbara: How did you get to know the other owners, Roger and Jan O’Connor?

Lynn: I only knew them as members of the Bibliophile list. Their main asset in my mind was a motivation similar to my own. I think they are not happy with the direction of our trade and thought together we had a shot at doing something about it.

I tend to reveal myself in any context. I think to put forward a little bit more of oneself helps people in any context. It makes my business dealings things between people, and not corporate. I’m just me and I don’t mind folks knowing that. Actually I think I learned this in Guatemala where nobody would think of doing business without inquiring about your family, your health, discussing almost anything. I like to deal with people on that level and people seem to appreciate it. I think this habit led the O’Connors to think that I would be a good person to head up the project. So far I have enjoyed working with them. They seem like real folks who put their customers’ concerns first.

Barbara: What’s important to you about Bibliophile Book, Inc.?

Lynn: Basically I’m a bookseller and I want things to work well for me. I want absolute ease and simplicity of dealing with the database. I myself have a very old DOS database program that’s ancient but I’m never going to change it. I want it to be simple to upload. That’s what Piet does. When I signed up with Antiqbooks, I asked Piet about it and he said, Send it. If I can’t figure out how to load it I shouldn’t be in this business. I want it to be that simple. You don’t have to follow a model, things don’t have to be difficult, you ought to be able to just blast it up there and have it work. In terms of simplicity, I think Piet’s got it down and we’re basically just copying him, his methods.

I also want sales and this is where we’re going to break new ground. We’re going to go in several directions on that one. We are going to be monitoring our sellers. We have a complaint procedure and, as with Bibliophile, if somebody’s a crook, they are going to be excluded. We are going to require very simple, very straightforward return policies and if you want to charge a $50 reshelving fee for a book somebody wants to return that you didn’t describe right, you’re gone. We’re going to push in advertising that you can get quality books from quality booksellers. If people don’t treat their customers right, they’re not going to be on the database.

The second thing is we’re going to be a little bit smarter about advertising. From the first draft of our budget on, we put more in advertising than anything else. That’s fairly unique except for Alibris and Amazon. We’re also going to advertise where the book buyers are. I can’t talk too much about this because it would give away trade secrets. I’m thinking things like library journals, which is so obvious I don’t mind leaking it.

From the moment I started my business, I thought if you wanted to sell books on the web (and you mentioned this earlier in the interview when you talked about doing a Google search for me and founds lots of hits), the most reasonable place to advertise is on the web. I see a www dot on the back of a bus and think what a waste! I really applaud ABE’s recent move to advertise but it seems to me that 21 North Main proved that NPR is not the greatest place to advertise. It seems to me that you ought to be advertising web businesses on the web, so we’re going to be putting a lot of money into that.

Barbara: Any other comments on the new database?

Lynn: We’re developing it from scratch. It’s going to be Linux-based, which I think is the trend of the future. I just saw in the paper that somebody big went to Linux, IBM, wasn’t it? It’s so silly that it’s not the trend.

The servers are right next door to the phone company. The pipe goes through a common wall so there won’t be any chipmunk problems. [Laughter]

Bibliophile Books, Inc. will be the place you can trust to buy books inexpensively.

The database is registered in the state of Kansas. I am named president because Kansas doesn’t allow for Grand Pooh-Bahs

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website