Posts Tagged ‘norman mailer’

Remembering Bill Clinton at Cody’s

December 19, 2009

Bill Clinton’s book signing at Cody’s on June 29, 2004  was the biggest event that we ever had, both in attendance and in the number of books sold.

Cody’s had been doing events for a long time. I bought the store in 1977. Even then, events were a fixture at  Cody’s.  During the time I owned the store, we had 6000-8000  author events. Here are just a few  authors in no particular order: Norman Mailer, Barbara Kingsolver, Susan Sontag, Muhammad Ali, Mickey Mantle, Peter O’Toole, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Moore,  Gary Snyder, Steven Pinker, Joseph Brodsky, Buckminster Fuller, Ken Kesey, Margaret Atwood, Judy Collins, Richard Avedon, Salman Rushdie, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Ralph Nader, Hank Aaron,  Joseph Heller, Ray Bradbury, Garrison Keiller, Gilda Radner, Ann Rice, and Michael Chabon.  We even had Buffalo Bob and Beaver Cleaver.  Impressive.

But as I said, the biggest event we had was Clinton. We knew from the start that this was going to be different, but nothing prepared us for  what finally transpired.

We received a visit from the secret service about a month before the event. They scoped out the store. They were happy to see that there were alternative exits  in the event of unpleasantness by  homicidal lunatics or other crackpots, always a possibility in Berkeley. (As an aside, my wife, Leslie, once foiled a cream pie attack on Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State.)  

But I digress.  The Secret Service informed us that customers couldn’t bring bags and other personal belongings into the store. We had experience with this when Jimmy Carter did a signing. We rented a truck, parked it outside and had a team of  people acting as hat check girls.

The Clinton team were good guys but weren’t very helpful with logistics. We were faced with the largest organizational challenge in the store’s history and were not informed how long the president would stay at the store and how many books he would sign. Part of this was probably due to some security concerns. They didn’t want to give too many details regarding  their schedule. Part of it was simply due to flakiness. All they told us was that he would stay at least two hours.   We spent a lot of time speculating on how many books Clinton could and would sign in this period  and trying to parse what “at least two hours” really meant. No matter how you cut it, it was clear that most people weren’t going to get their book signed or even see the president.

So now it’s about 14 days before the big event. I’m up in my office with a sales rep. I remember it well. I was buying Simon and Schuster new titles from Beverly Langer. The phone rang. Normally I’d ignore it and let the guys at the information desk field the calls. But the phone didn’t stop ringing. I started picking it up. Everyone wanted to know about Clinton. Finally I sent Beverly home and decided to go downstairs and help answer the phone. I ended up staying down there on the phone ten hours a day  for two weeks. I tried to estimate how many calls we took during that time. I came up with about 10,000. But most people never reached us. The line was always busy.

Of course, all the questions were the same. And because of the vague and fuzzy information coming from the Clinton team, we were not able to answer those questions. What were they? “Will Clinton have time to sign everyone’s book?”(answer: we don’t know). “How soon should we come to get in line?” (answer: we don’t know.). “How long will Clinton be signing?” (answer: We don’t know. At least 2 hours, maybe, we think).

We also had to deal with logistical puzzles for which there were only bad solutions. The big one that ultimately defeated us (and every other bookseller who hosted Clinton) was how do you set rules for who can enter.  The obvious seat-of-the-pants plan was  only people with books can get in line. This is easy. We give an admission ticket for everyone who buys a book. But what if  the customer buys a book and wants to come in accompanied by his child?  Would we be so heartless as to say: “Only one person per book. Your six-year-old will have to buy his own book in order to get in.” No.  We feel our customers’ pain (even if Clinton did not), and  they would make us feel ours as well if we didn’t allow their kid to come in.  We had enough problems without having to deal with a Donnybrook of angry Clinton fans. So we gave everyone 2 tickets for every book purchased. I had a bad feeling about that, but we will get to that later.

As the big day approached, we sought information from the bookstores throughout the country who were staging similar events. Always we asked, how long did he stay? Did he stay longer than he promised? How many books did he sign? How many books per hour did he sign? Was he a fast signer (Jimmy Carter was the fastest signer on record. He signed 1200 books in 90 minutes.) Sadly, Clinton was a bit of a schmoozer. He liked everyone to feel that they had his undivided attention for 30 seconds or thereabouts. What we heard from our bookselling friends in Denver, Milwaukee, Chicago, and all points east was that the event was a perfect storm. The best they could say was: “We survived”. (Well, actually they also said that they sold a bunch of books).

Melissa Mytinger, who was masterminding the event, had the whole thing planned and mapped out on charts with little arrows running this way and that. A couple of days before the event, we all got together for a meeting. Everyone was given their tasks and stations. As was to be expected, there was a considerable amount of jockeying for “face time.” And the winner was: ta da!…, not me. I’m far too worldly  to be seduced by the cult of  celebrity.  It was…my son…Robert Cole. He got to stand next to Clinton for 4 hours holding the books as the president was signing.  Clinton was impressed by his energy and wide-ranging knowledge of foreign affairs. Maybe Robert’s next job will be Secretary of State. Let’s hope he doesn’t get a pie in his face.

I was happy to leave the logistics in the capable hands of Melissa.  I’m more of an idea man, a “big picture” kind of guy.  I’m really into the “vision thing”.  So I focused on  more strategic concerns like how much money we were going to make. The problem was that we became the victim of our own business acumen. For years we had been discounting best-sellers 30% to stay competitive with the competition (aka Border’s and Barnes and Noble). My staff was much more hard- nosed than me and came up with ideas to make an exception this one time and sell the book at retail. We knew that other stores were implementing  jury-rigged  schemes. Sticking a 20% coupon  in with the book  that expired before anyone would have an opportunity to use it. But I was trapped by my own foolish consistency and insisted on selling the book at 30% off. As a result, we lost money on the event. That still didn’t stop particularly shameless customers from arguing with us that it  they could get the book 10% cheaper at Wal-Mart. (Great. Do it, Bub. And go on down to Wal-Mart and wait for Clinton to sign your book.)

A few days before the event, I got a call from the Chief of the Berkeley Police Department. He was pissed off about the whole thing. By law, the local police must do what needs to be done to provide security for public officials. Of course, this was going to cost a bundle of overtime for an agency that was always strapped. He told me as much and suggested that Cody’s pay for the City’s  extra costs. I told him I’d think about it. I didn’t.

About 36 hours before liftoff, people started lining up outside. This was  pretty amazing to me. I spoke to the people on the sidewalk to try to understand why this was so important. Most of these early comers were women. I had an impression that a lot of this had to do with sexual attraction. And they remained cheerful throughout. When the person who was first in line got her 30 seconds with Clinton, I asked her if it was worth it. She said it was and then some.

And then the morning came on the great day. We were still getting phone calls. My favorite was from a person who was scheduled to give birth that day. She asked if she could go to the front of the line as a “disabled” person. I told her she probably should go to the hospital instead.

We had organized a signing station downstairs for disabled people. Clinton would go there first. Then come upstairs and sign everyone else’s books. The line snaked through the neighborhood for about 5 blocks.  

Clinton arrived through the back door. I was standing there waiting to greet him. I had  been rehearsing this moment for weeks. Of course, it would be  one of the great experiences of my life that I would tell my grandchildren about.. As he walked in the door, the security guard that we had hired elbowed me out-of-the-way and asked Clinton if he could sign two books. Clinton graciously did so and swept by me into the store. Boy, was I pissed.

Clinton went straight to the disabled signing station. The next thing that happened will always go down in bookstore history. But the adjective, “apocryphal” would probably precede the story. I’m serious. This really happened. The first person in the line was an old African-American woman in a wheel chair. When Clinton arrived, she said: “I think will stand up for my president.” Clinton was  always  able to fathom a dramatic moment. He spread his arms and said: ” You can do it. Stand up! Stand up!”  She responded, “Yes. I WILL stand up for my president”. She began pulling herself up slowly and shakily and fell into Clinton’s arms. Hallelujah!.  That episode, alone, made it all worthwhile.

After finishing with the disabled customers, Clinton finally came upstairs and began the real work of the day. It was about noon.  We were still trying to figure out how long he intended to stay, and the Clinton team were still no help.  We were still going up and down the line telling people we didn’t know anything about how long he would sign. At last the team gave us some advice on where to cut off the line.  But it still  wasn’t clear that people who didn’t make the cut-off   might yet have a chance to get in.

I was standing about six feet away from the signing station, so I had a pretty good view of how things were going. Unfortunately    reports  from the other stores throughout the country were correct that Clinton liked to schmooze and was keen in making sure that the people had quality face time. I also had a chance to observe the famous Clinton charisma. It was impressive, to be sure. But it also became very clear that it was artful and well-polished. Nothing natural about it. He did have an uncanny ability to appear calm in the face of all the chaos. It must have taken huge discipline. I’ve tried to use the same techniques in my own public speaking experiences. It works. The women tear me apart.

After 4 hours we cut off the line. Remember that we gave everybody 2 entry passes for every book signed. At a certain point, people were selling and bartering  their  extra passes. When others  saw this going on, there was a lot of yelling and screaming. I think it even turned to fisticuffs.

My wife, Leslie, agreed to go outside to inform people that Clinton was no longer signing. Fifteen minutes later she ran back into the building, rattled,  her eyes turned to stone from the trauma. She said nobody could ever make her go back out there.  She feared bodily harm. The people in the line had gone crazy.

At the end of the event, we tallied up the box scores. Clinton had  signed about 1400 books in 4 hours. We actually sold about 2800 copies leading up to the event, and surprisingly we got very few returns.

Clinton  graciously stayed around after the line was cut off  and surrounded himself with the staff for photographs. I got to sit on the floor next to him. As the camera was being set up, he looked down at me and said, “nice tie”. This was the only comment made to me by the leader of the free world.

At this point, his handlers were getting antsy. He was due for an event at the Barnes and Noble in San Jose in 2 hours. Clinton looked out the window and saw that there was still a huge crowd outside the door waiting for him to come out.  Probably 5000 people. Clinton told the handlers, “I can’t leave yet. I have to go out there. They’re waiting for me.” And he did. What a mensch!

He walked out the front door with that remarkable practiced composure. The crowd surged forward. I was pretty sure that I was going to get trampled. But the police threw up a blockade just in time. For the next 45 minutes, Clinton worked the line shaking thousands of hands and making sure that all those other people who couldn’t get in got their own moment of face time. They left happy.

Leslie and I took Melissa to Café Rouge after the event. We ordered up 2 dozen oysters and some 18-year-old scotch. We thanked Melissa. She deserved it. We all did.


Remembering the Rushdie Affair

November 18, 2009

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.”