Being asked to submit a biography is startling in a way. Should I just describe my life as a bookseller? Should I go all the way back and give you my impression’s of my mother’s OBGYN? On the other hand, I have been living a comparatively long time, and maybe nobody will believe me that they had OBGYNs back in the old days, or at least those old days. I turned 72 last September, and I have lived 365 days a year every year of my life except for leap years, when I lived 366 days.
So let me concentrate on my association with books, not only as a bookdealer, but as a booklover.
I remember when I was in grade school, learning to read was the best thing that ever happened to me. As soon as I learned to read it shielded me from the utter boredom of the mediocre teaching to which I was exposed to in the Chicago Public Schools which were then in the hands of teachers who were invariably old, unmarried and Irish. It was sort of like going to parochial school without the blessings of the church.
As a non-Irish child growing up in Chicago in the 30s, I thought that the Irish must have really been blessed by God. The political regime was –and to a remarkable degree even today — run by leaders of Irish descent.The police were all invariably Irish (no longer true today, but still a plus for those who want to get ahead in the Chicago Police Department. The teachers are now more likely to be married with more married, and reflective of the ethnic diversity of Chicago.)
Those times were the heart of the depression, and my dad spent most of his waking hours out of the house trying to bring home enough money for us to survive, and then, when mom felt I was old enough to handle things for myself, about eight years old, she went out to work part-time selling dresses in a shop on Milwaukee Avenue. Saturday was a big selling day, so she left the house and took the streetcars to work about 9 a.m. leaving me a lunch and fifteen cents. I would eat my lunch and take the fifteen cents. Ten cents was for the Saturday matinee, and a nickel was for a candy bar.
I lived between Chicago Avenue and Division Street on the west side of Humboldt Park and the movie was on North Avenue east of the park. The walk was about one mile each way. So I would take my library books to return to the library near the movie theater. I would leave the books at the library, go to the movie house and buy a candy, usually a Baby Ruth, and, on the way home I would pick up some new books from the library, and go home where I would scramble myself some eggs for supper, and wait for mom and dad to get home later that evening.
One Saturday, I returned my books at the library, and I went to the movie, but for some reason I didn’t feel like eating a candy bar. After the movie, I stood in the candy store with the nickel still in my hand, feeling compelled to buy something. That is what the nickel was for, but I just didn’t want a candy bar. Then I spied a Big Little Book. It was Little Orphan Annie. I knew her; I read her everyday in the comics in the Chicago Tribune. I asked how much it was and I was told it was a nickel. I bought my first book.
I stood in the light of the store’s vestibule of the book and read the Big Little Book. I spent my money, read the book, and I still had the book. So I read it again. And yet I still had the book. I was amazed that I could buy a book and use it, i.e., read it and still have it. I was elated. It was the first time I ever bought anything that didn’t get used up. Ice cream, candy, a hot dog, a movie, all those things, you used them by consuming them, and they were gone. These books were really great! They really appealed to this child of the depression, and thus began my love for books, a love-affair that has not ceased until this moment.
Over the years, I had accumulated several thousand books. I have carted a few hundred of them a distance that was probably the equivalent of going around the world. Home became where my books were. I didn’t specialize, because I have always been interested in so many things. In this time of specialization, I am an unabashed generalist. And my books reflect my catholic tastes — and that is with a small “c.” (I like books and I like taking classes. I have used my years in the book business to go to college where I have accumulated a couple of Master’s Degrees, and I am an ABD Ph.D. Since I had no intention of becoming a fulltime member of academia, a Ph. D. would have only served as something to be put on a tombstone where It might be interpreted as “Piled Higher and Deeper.”)
I married quite young, before my 21st birthday, and I am still married to the same lady, a Canadian-born and educated woman. We have had two children, first a daughter and then a son, who are both grown and who have their own families, giving us four grandsons ranging in age from nine to 26. When my wife and I celebrated our 50th anniversary a year-and-a-half ago, we decided to end the trial period and stick it out together.
In 1975, after working for years as a journalist and public relations writer, and never having worked a day of my life as a bookdealer, I opened my book store. I was living in Southern California now, having moved there to prove to my by-then grown children that they couldn’t get rid of me by moving to the end of the continent. Working as a writer, and using books, I had never thought of books as being something other than a receptacle for knowledge and information, a place where the theater of the mind is entertained and educated, a medium to take me to the edges of the universes and to the innermost secretive folds of humans’ souls. I had never thought of books as a means for making a living. To tell the truth, until I came west, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a second-hand bookstore.
My superior and closest associate at this workplace was also a booklover, and he took me around to various antiquarian bookshops, and I was simply delighted to spend that precious
lunch-hour time perusing bookshelves. Naturally, I ended up spending too much money on books, and when my superior left the organization and was replaced by a martinet, my days at this job became numbered, and I quit during the Nixon recession in my late 40s, and I was not going to find a new position too soon, but I just had it working for people I could not respect.
At the same time, I continued buying books. In fact, I spent too much money for the resources I had, and I sometimes believe I went into the business to justify my “addiction” to bookbuying. I sometimes express it this way: my attitude towards buying books is similar to a nymphomaniac’s addiction to sex, and I went pro just as a nympho might to justify all the time she spends on her back with her legs in the air.
Also, I was just so fed up with my uncanny ability to pick idiots for bosses, and when I finally had an individual I could respect, he was replaced by another idiot.
I wanted to work for myself. So I thought: what do I really know that I could do by myself? I didn’t have a lot of money to invest, so I couldn’t go into publishing, etc., which would match what I had been doing. It became apparent to me after reflection that I really knew a lot about books, and even though I carried messages in my head from childhood to avoid going into business (I was told I lacked a “business sense; I had no “killer instinct,” etc.), my love for books was stronger. Someone described me as being able to go over a stack of books and get the vibes through my hands just which books were the good ones; that person is, of course, an idiot. However, I apparently have good taste in books.
I talked to my wife about this. And she agreed that I should open a bookshop. She was working as a medical transcriber, and little did I know that she would not continue at this but decided I was having too much fun for her not to partake of it. She showed up a few weeks after I opened and announced that she was going to work with me in the bookshop. She is a better businessperson than I am anyways, so I should know better than complain.
We didn’t know too much about editions or condition, but we could learn those things. We could buy reference material and use it, like Bookman’s Price Index, American Book Prices Current, and magazines like AB Bookman (of Blessed Memory). So we started out to buy books, and the first places we went to were garage and yard sales. To facilitate our purchases, we bought a retired 1964 telephone van for $600. And when I had a big-enough stack of books sitting in the middle of my garage, I went to look for a place to open a shop, buy shelving, etc., and The BOOKie Joint opened in 1975. That was when my wife joined me.
A shop was closing up because it was in a bad part of town and the woman who worked there was afraid to be there after dark. We bought the shelving and the books, put the books inside the van, and the shelving on top, and carted everything down to Reseda in the San Fernando Valley, where my shop was, and that is how we obtained my first shelving, and a lot of my stock, other than the books I had accumulated in my garage.
One item that I must state to attribute to my ability to make a living for the past quarter of a century in a business whose existence I became aware of comparatively late in life, and where I had never worked. I was advised to never skimp on the purchase of reference materials, like subscriptions to AB Bookman, American Book Prices Current, and other reference and bibliographic material, and I took this advice, spending a minimum of a $1,000 a year on this material. I have seen people go into the business and just mark time and finally close, and I would suggest that the reference material was what made us successful, just as though others failed because they wouldn’t make the necessary investment in learning about what they are doing.
In 1980, we expanded our shop to a double store when shop that shared the building vacated, and we had 2200 square feet of bookstore besides some warehouses on site. Our sales kept increasing from year to year, and we felt that our future was secure. And I could buy books, my greatest joy, to my heart’s content.
In 1994, both our house and our shop were in the center of the so-called Northridge earthquake. Our books were flung around like they had been put in a centrifuge. Books were piled against doors, preventing entry, but for what? The shelves were down, too.
It was at a time we were considering retirement, but we had to give up on that consideration, and it took six months until the shop reopened, and even much longer until much of the confusion was been undone, and some semblance of order restored. The area around our shop still has not come back, and my discovery of the internet as a venue for books has been for me a veritable godsend.
We have reduced the size of my shop back to its original size, and I am concentrating my bookselling efforts on the internet side, while our shop is only open three days a week with my wife attending to the “bricks and mortar” side of the business, which is supplemented by a large inventory of vintage magazines stored there.
This pretty much brings our story up-to-date. We are very well stocked, but the number of our books-on-line is still too small for it to become our sole means of income. We look towards that time, and we hope it will happen quickly.
The BOOKie Joint
7248 Reseda Blvd. P.O.Box 572168
Reseda, CA 91335 Tarzana, CA 91357