How I Became a Bookseller

Me in Cotati circa 1975

I became a bookseller because I had a passion for books. This is not a particularly good reason to make a life career choice.   But  my decision (if one could call it that) to enter the book business was disorderly. The critical path was filled with loop-de-loops.   I’ve never told this story before, but it goes like this. In 1971 I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I was on a Ph.D track studying German cultural and intellectual history.  Most of the people with whom I associated outside of the History Department were hippies or some variation thereof. I suppose I was too, although spending one’s waking hours reading Kant and Kierkegaard created some real cognitive dissonance in my countercultural consciousness and lifestyle. I cut a kind of ridiculous figure with my non-academic friends. But people were more tolerant back then.

 I was pretty focused  on  becoming a scholar and I was pretty good at it too.  I  had even  been admitted to Ph.D programs at some snooty universities.  I was writing a masters thesis on the social thought of Kierkegaard.  In my other life outside of the university, there was a lot of talk among my friends about freedom, spontaneity, communal living, feminism, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,  psychedelic drugs, astrology, free love, vegetarianism, gestalt therapy, natural childbirth and that sort of thing. Marxism was very popular too. But the Marxism being bandied about was what we  superior intellectuals in the  History Department would call “vulgar Marxism”, by which we meant people who actually wanted to change the world, not just pontificate about it. Among the vulgar Marxists, there was a lot of waving of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Bookand  some vicious disputes over matters that were of no consequence to anyone other than the vulgar Marxists.  Oh, yes. There was a war going on, and Kierkegaard didn’t have much to say about that. (One could argue that Kant did, if you could actually understand what he was talking about.)

   It  also rained a lot in Oregon. And there was a girl. There always is, isn’t there?  Things weren’t going too well with us, as is often the case.  One day she walked out on me and joined a free love commune called “Earth’s Rising Family.”  I kept going out there trying to get her back. The Communards were pretty nice people. They graciously put me up  in the teepee down the hill from the privy while they were up in the farmhouse having orgies (or so I imagined).  Kant and  Kierkegaard  didn’t have much say about that either.

 Somehow all this led me to the decision to leave academics and  start a bookstore.  As I said, I had a passion for books. I don’t remember much about what kind of thought  went into the decision.  Not very much at all, I believe. Maybe 5 minutes of thought. Maybe it happened in my sleep. Maybe it happened in the teepee.  It was  dumb luck, but it probably set me in the right direction for  the next 40 years and counting.

 At first I talked to the guy who owned the countercultural bookstore in Eugene. I had heard that he wanted to sell it.  If my mind doesn’t fail me, I believe it was called “Koobdooga Books.” It means “a good book” backwards.  He told me that he conceived of the name on an acid trip. I thought about buying it.  But I was tired of the rain and depressed about rushing back and forth to and from the teepee at Earth’s Rising Commune.  So I moved down to the San Francisco Bay Area.

 I found a  bookshop for sale in Cotati, a small college town in Sonoma County about 50 miles north of San Francisco. There was a lot of hippies there too, kind of like Eugene  but with more sunshine. It was a very modest store, Eeyore Books.   It was started by a couple of local women a few years before. The entire space was 600 square feet, about as big as my living room where I’m writing this. The store wasn’t worth much money, because it didn’t have many books and did even less business.  But I still managed to  drive  a very bad bargain. It is a flaw that I  fortunately overcame before becoming a literary agent.  I paid them $15,000. And  the store  was mine.

 I put in some new shelves, ordered up some books and opened for business a week later. It was 1972.  On my first day of business  I did $32 in sales. It was pretty discouraging. Later I learned that was the same amount of sales that  Cody’s had done on its  first day of business in 1956. The old Cody’s shop  on the north side of campus  was about  the same size too. 600 square feet.

 The second day I was open, I met my first publisher’s sales rep, Maggie Castanon of Random House. Until her retirement some 30 years later, she was always my favorite person in publishing. She was a great sales person, filled with a passion for books and totally without pretension. I always felt good when I was around her. After she retired, she even came to work for  Cody’s at our Fourth Street store.   For booksellers, Random House always held a special place in our hearts. It wasn’t the largest publisher back then. That was Doubleday. But Random House had the best titles for a bookstore such as ours. A visit by a Random House rep was an event to be anticipated. This special relationship between Random House and booksellers continues to this day. Doubleday is now an imprint of Random House. And Random House is the largest book publisher in the world.

 The second sales rep I met was Joyce Cole who sold books for Avon, a mass market publisher. I think she was Maggie’s best friend. Joyce was striking in appearance, sophisticated, and had a kind of  charisma that was difficult to define. I had a feeling that there was something interesting inside. But she seemed cool and aloof. I didn’t expect that we would ever be friends.  I was wrong about that.  Joyce and I  were married in 1986.

 A lot of people say that the quality of books has gone downhill in the last 30 years, that literary values have been  replaced by commercial values and that American reading  has been seduced by the dark forces of  a hegemonic mass media with a fetish for  celebrity. Actually most people in the book business don’t talk that way, except maybe me, and then only at pretentious  literary cocktail parties. Nowadays  when I argue the point (and I still do 40 years later),  I like to recite the great line from Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  And most people agree. (Although there are some who are not familiar with that poem and have to slouch off toward Wikipedia to find  the  reference). 

 But looking back on the bestsellers of 1972, it would  be hard to characterize that year as a literary golden age.

 The ten fiction hardback best sellers were:

 

1. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

2. August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

3. The Odessa File, Frederick Forsyth

4. The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth

5. The Word, Irving Wallace

6. The Winds of War, Herman Wouk

7. Captains and Kings, Taylor Caldwell

8. Two From Galilee, Marjorie Holmes

9. My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok

10 Semi-Tough, Dan Jenkins

 

The non-fiction best sellers were:

 

1. The Living Bible, Kenneth Taylor

2. I’m O.K., You’re O.K., Thomas Harris

3. Open Marriage, Nena and George O’Neill

4. Harry S. Truman, Margaret Truman

5. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, Robert Atkins

6. Better Homes and Gardens Menu Cook Book

7. The Peter Prescription, Lawrence Peter

8. A World Beyond, Ruth Montgomery

9. Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Castaneda

10. Better Homes and Gardens Low-Calerie Desserts

  Still, as I look at this list now, I’m struck by the fact that it isn’t all that bad, certainly a good balance of fine literary titles along with the usual commercial mediocrity. A number of these books I don’t remember selling at all. They probably did  much better in the chain stores. Yes, there were chains, even then.

 The other big venue for book sales was department stores. They all had book departments then. The department store  book buyers  were  towering figures in the book business with immense prestige and influence and were accordingly treated with deference and obsequiousness by the publishers.  Those department store book sections are all gone now, replaced with ladies’ accessories and cosmetics. I don’t think it was any great loss either. The department stores had very conventional taste in books that appealed primarily to rich old ladies. You’d walk into these departments and you knew that nobody there  really had a passion for books.

 Book publishing was different back  then too.   As I mentioned the world wasn’t really focused on bestsellers the way it is now. At least that was true outside of the big chains. My store still had its counterculture feel. We sold a lot of books, mostly paperbacks,  on humanistic psychology,  eastern mysticism and other things spiritual. Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, The Urantia Book,  and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism were some of my best sellers in the mid seventies at Eeyore’s. I made a lot of money on the I Ching (Princeton University Press edition). And, of course, all things having to do with  the ever mysterious, Carlos Castañeda.

  Fiction, too, was conditioned by countercultural enthusiasms: Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings, Childhood’s End by Arthur Clark, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Siddhartha and Demian  by Hermann Hesse, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There was the usual stuff by self-styled “visionaries” like Future Shock by Alvin Toffler and The Greening of America by Charles Reich. These books have not stood the test of time.  There were some other books that, though dated, I still think of  with admiration. I wouldn’t mind rereading The Last Whole Earth Catalogue.

 But I couldn’t give up on my ponderous German philosophy.  We also sold the works of Karl Marx, One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, and anything by and about Friedrich Nietzsche. As you can tell from all these titles, things were different back then. People were interested in understanding life’s big questions. What is truth? How do we lead a just life? How do we make a better world? How to we find happiness and contentment.? I don’t believe we are asking these questions so much now, but maybe I am just blinded by nostalgia.

 Eeyore’s was a one person operation. We did grow over the years. By the time I left Cotati, I think it had become a two person operation. I had moved the store to another space. It was about four times as large as the original location. I’m still pretty proud of that store. I think it had a kind of perfection, just right for its time and place.

If you want to read some more about my like in bookselling, check out these links:

How I Came to Own Cody’s Part 1

Cody’s as It Was in 1977

How the Computer Came to Cody’s

Bookselling in the 80s at Cody’s Part 1

Bookselling at Cody’s in the 80s Part 2

Remembering the Rushdie Affair Part 1

Remembering the Rushdie Affair Part 2

Fighting Against History Part 1

Fighting Against History Part 2

The End of Cody’s

 

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11 Responses to “How I Became a Bookseller”

  1. Robin K. Blum Says:

    I think we’re about the same age and I remember the early seventies as you described it; thanks for the memories. Thank you too for your devotion to books and book people over the years; Cody’s and many other wonderful indies are truly missed. However I do see new little shops continue to sprout around the country…let’s hope the 20teens see a resurgence in indie bookselling.

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  3. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Lovely post and great photo! In 1975, I was graduating from high school in New York. Nearby there was a neighborhood bookstore on the Upper East Side that I barely went into — in retrospect, I suspect it was a lovely full-service independent bookstore. The place my friends and I went was the BARNES & NOBLE SALES ANNEX.

    This was before B&N became a chain. It was a huge two- or three-story warehouse-feeling space in an old office building across the street from their main store. (I’ve read somewhere that B&N modeled their big-box store on the sales annex. Might be apocrypha, though.)

    EVERYTHING WAS ON SALE! They had huge selections of all the hip social science, counterculture type books — everything marked down to a dollar or two. I remember buying Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and Summerhill, and Fanshen, One Dimensional Man and a ton of books about kibbutz and Jewish History.

    Then, just a few blocks away was the Communist Chinese book store. (I forget what it was called. China Books, maybe?) I discovered this a year or two later on vacations home from college. You could get these little tan-covered pocket editions of Marx and Lenin for a dollar or two. They also sold those colorful prints of happy workers waving banners in the duckponds and fields of the Cultural Revolution. I’m sure you saw one or two of those in your Oregon college-town days. 🙂

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Ilana. Thanks for the memories. I was in the B&N annex and it was a pretty impressive store at its time. Not a lot of character though. (Some things never change). I knew the China Books people well. They organized a trip to China in 1979 before it was common. The Gang of Four had just fallen and the Little Red Book had become an embarrassment and gone out of print.

  4. Ted Says:

    Gee, I didn’t think that ’72 list was so bad, either. Let’s see, here’s what I’ve read of the bunch…

    1. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach
    : same genre as the Little Prince; read both in a religious studies class

    2. August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn: god almighty boring

    4. The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth: I keep getting the movie and the book confused

    9. My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok: read this and The Chosen, nothing else of his since

    2. I’m O.K., You’re O.K., Thomas Harris: transactional analysis anyone?

    9. Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Castaneda: I misplaced the book at a place of power.

  5. broadsideblog Says:

    It’s interesting to hear a bookseller’s perspective.

    I have my second NF book coming out April 14, 2011 from Penguin/Portfolio, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, and one of the most challenging things about being commercially published is the total loss of control over the pricing and placement of my own material. I love my cover and title (both given to me by the publisher) but hate how utterly dependent — as all writers are — I now am on reviews, word of mouth, book reps and booksellers. Oh and, yes, readers!

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  7. michele Says:

    What a great story, Andy. I knew some of this, of course, but not all of it. And I still miss Eeyore’s.

  8. Suzy Staubach Says:

    What a lovely essay. Brings back memories of my early bookselling days. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Andrea Goldman Says:

    So enjoyed your essay. It made me think a lot about Glenn and how he came to found Book Soup and his life as a bookseller, the only “job” he ever had. Thanks for the memories, and for taking the time to share.

  10. andyrossagency Says:

    Thanks Andrea and Suzy and Michele. It really was a different time back then, wasn’t it?

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