Remembering the Rushdie Affair

On February 28, 1989, Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me that a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store putting out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM. I waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We assumed that the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although it was never learned exactly who was responsible for the incident. But I assumed that it probably wasn’t a disgruntled ex-girlfriend of mine.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Moslem history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a Fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Moslem world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!”. Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!”.

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains: B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating about people’s willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From the vantage point of street level, this was not such an easy decision.

I had made a second career out of attacking the chain stores in any manner I could find. But when they became the underdog in this melodrama, for the first and last time in my career I took their side. It was a very contrarian position that won me few friends. I’m sure that had Cody’s not been bombed the following week, and had I not become the martyr de jour, I would have taken some heat for this.

I articulated the reasons for this and the reasons that my own feelings had become quite conflicted in a letter I wrote to Susan Sontag on February 19, 10 days before the Cody’s bombing. I’ll quote the letter at some length here.

“I was distressed to read a quote by you in the media… in which you seemed to draw an analogy between the behavior of members of the literary community to the silence of Germans during the 30′s….

“The events of the past week have forced me to make difficult decisions; decisions in which I have had to choose between my most valued ideals of freedom of expression and the need to protect the lives and safety of my employees. Both of these values are absolute and yet, in this case, inconsistent. We are on the horns of a dilemma. To aggressively affirm our commitment to freedom of speech, we risk inflaming further the anger of fanatics. At best we compromise and find a middle ground. We agonize endlessly over whether we should carry the book at all; if so, do we sell it under the counter or display it; if we display it, do we feature it prominently or discretely.…..

“And so we make our decisions without any assurance of their wisdom. Our actions will be judged either cowardly or prudent only in hindsight and only as a result of consequences which are out of our control….

“… Although I personally disagree with the chains’ actions, I find it difficult to pass judgment on them in this instance. Booksellers are the front line shock troops in this struggle as in most censorship issues….We can’t go into hiding, and so we are uniquely vulnerable….It may be that in some situations, caution is required. If, as a result of such caution, lives are saved; then a store’s actions could be deemed not cowardly but prudent. If, as a result of another store’s decision to carry the book, people are harmed; then such actions could be deemed not courageous but foolhardy….”

Susan Sontag never responded to this letter.

The following week,  Cody’s was bombed. I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to move. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking that this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this.   It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians and movie stars. We were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues, —-and others get holes.”

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10 Responses to “Remembering the Rushdie Affair”

  1. Fathermocker Says:

    Wow. Amazing article! Should be published somewhere :)

  2. HTMLGIANT Says:

    [...] A story about people willing to be blown up to sell a book. Tags: booksellers, cody's, rushdie [...]

  3. M. Atwood Says:

    Phenomenal. Great writing, and truth. Thank you.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thank you. It was a long time ago but still a day to remember. I think it says a lot about the people who worked at Cody’s. But also about independent bookstores nationwide. Every one of them could tell the same story.

      • daylily77 Says:

        Just the fact that you say “Every one of them could tell the same story” makes me want to write even more. It is so inspiring to hear about people standing up for what they believe in. You tell it well. Thank you.

  4. Lucy Says:

    REALLY INTERESTING AND INFORMATIVE
    -Lucy

  5. Andrew Fraser Says:

    The publication of “Joseph Anton” reminded me of the winter of 1989. I was in Portland then. I bought a copy of “The Satanic Verses” at Powell’s, read it and put it visibly but not prominently on my university office shelf. I remember that many bookstores took the book off their shelves. At the time, I made a mental note to patronize those that continued to carry it. This week, I couldn’t remember which stores continued to sell the book. I found that “The Satanic Verses controversy” entry in Wikipedia does not list the stores or mention the attack on Cody’s. Further searching brought me to this story. Reading it, brought me a few tears. Congratulations on “the proudest day of my life.”

  6. andyrossagency Says:

    Thanks Andrew. Hearing stories like yours always makes me feel pretty good. Most independent bookstores continued to carry Satanic Verses and Rushdie has been very generous in his gratitude. I remember that it wasn’t such an easy decision to make. If we had carried the book and someone had been hurt, I don’t know that I would be giving myself a pat on the back. But the Cody’s staff were very courageous. And I am proud of them

  7. http://tinyurl.com/free-8154319078 Says:

    “Remembering the Rushdie Affair Ask the Agent” was
    indeed really pleasurable and helpful! In todays society that’s really hard to accomplish.
    With thanks, Shayne

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