Posts Tagged ‘SUSAN SONTAG’

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!…..no, 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.

Rushdie and Me: After the Bombing

November 23, 2009

Last week I wrote about my experience at Cody’s during the Rushdie Affair in 1989.  It didn’t really end the day the bomb went off. The melodrama continued for months, both in my life and in the  book world.

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them that my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso in his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said that because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

 The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against labor unrest, but  I doubt that he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice, my family left our house and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although I wasn’t aware that the Ayatollah had issued a Fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

 The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a guy from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

But I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time”. That is what they told  Dan Rather. That is what they told The New York Times. That is what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that is what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, that it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, dealing with media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with a metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out that it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes. I would usually get a warning call from the information desk saying  that they saw “a sort of sinister, middle eastern looking guy with shifty eyes”. It turns out that there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact that they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know. They also warned me about another suspicious person. It turns out that he was from New Delhi, a Hindu, and a friend from the book business.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me that they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a very raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them that I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during that encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window. As if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..my….lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think that it was more an act of solidarity than an interest in the book. A lot of people told me later that they never read the damn thing.  Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at the convention to talk about my experiences. I told them that I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed that  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. So I went there. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known that there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got there and saw that the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping that at last she would acknowledge that Cody’s did something special. She was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California: Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

More Photographs from the Cody’s Authors Collection

June 28, 2009
Philip Whalen

Philip Whalen

This is another of my very old photographs. It was probably taken in the late 1970’s. Philip Whalen was one of the great Beat Poets. I believe that at the time this reading occurred, he had become a monk at the San Franciso Zen Center

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder

Photograph from the mid 1980’s. A much younger and very handsome image of one of our great poets.

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

This photograph from the early 80’s.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

From the Early 80’s. This picture of Studs captures his earthy charisma.  He was in the back room smoking a cigar. That was before smoking became illegal in California. After he left, we found the cigar butt in the ash tray. Somebody nailed it up to the wall with a sign saying “Studs Terkel’s Cigar”. The cigar remained on the wall for another 10 years.