Mementos 4: How I Came to Guild Books and What I Found There
[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in November, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]
Before I left Los Angeles, the Midnight Special Bookstore owner, Margie Ghiz, hosted a farewell party. Authors, activists, sales reps for publishers, customers, coworkers and friends showed up. Jock Hayward, who represented books for Hand Associates, was “shocked to see all the people,” pretty much as I was. College professor Michael Vivian warned me that Chicago cops are nothing like L.A. cops. But politically active poet Bill Oandasan, who had lived in Chicago and read his work at Guild, wrote “The Guild is as close to an afterlife as anyone from the Midnight Special will get.” And, as Lorraine Suzuki pointed out, I did leave behind one good thing: “At least there will be one more parking space behind the store”!
We spent many long hours talking, critiquing and working with artist Michael Quant, when we designed the logo for the Midnight Special. The bookstore, like the Guild, came out of the anti-war movement of the 1960s. The name referred to Leadbelly’s famous song, and the bookstore was intended as an instrument to shine a light in the direction of freedom, justice, peace. It was a reaction to the frustration of increasing numbers in the streets in opposition to the war, while the war dragged on. The Guild had come out of the same milieu in Chicago.
Some people maintain that there is no bad time to leave Los Angeles. We picked the worst time.
Wednesday, November 25, 1987. Rush hour on the San Bernardino Freeway, heading east, out of town at 4 pm. The day before Thanksgiving. The Toyota station wagon packed full, the rear view mirror useless, then more added to the carrier rack on top. Lee, her sister Marie, and I squeezed inside, Marie wedged in among packages and clothing in the back.
That morning I said good-byes to our Chinatown neighbors, people we had known for many years. The people in our building still thanked us for fighting the landlord to keep him from doubling the rents in violation of rent-control. By early afternoon, irritation at our delay had reached mountainous proportions. When we finally piled into the car and I started the engine, the irritation began to recede. By the time, 15 minutes later, when we’d entered the freeway off Mission St. and inched our way across four lanes to go toward San Bernardino, we had resigned ourselves to baking in slow moving traffic, millions of Angelenos leaving for the holiday weekend.
80 miles to the east towered the peaks of Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, 10,000 feet above the desert floor. We might be lucky and make it through Banning and into the San Gorgonio Pass in 2 hours. By then, once the sun had set behind us, the drive would be tolerable, even as we entered the desert. Resignation didn’t stop us from blaming each other for the late start, but soon that became old. We listened to music for a while, nothing to seize our attention. As we passed Pomona, we turned on the all news station. “Give us 20 minutes and we’ll give you the world.”
We didn’t need KFWB to give us the traffic report. It was all around us. We weren’t prepared for the world. Sports and weather yielded to the big story of the day. Harold Washington, mayor of my new home, Chicago, had suffered a massive heart attack, or so it was thought. The news confirmed that he was dead. There may have been other news. There probably was. Lee and I stared open mouthed at each other. Marie, who had not known the significance of Washington’s election against the machine, the significance of his program, couldn’t fathom the grief we showed.
I turned the radio louder, expecting to hear more if I turned it up. When the radio refused to divulge new information, we started switching stations, Lee turning the buttons. We needed to be sure that what we had heard was true.
Then, when finally we hit the vivid loneliness of the desert, the news story sunk in, as if in the noise of the horns and the rubber against cement it was impossible to come to grips with the truth. We stopped at a diner in Indio, silently ate burgers for dinner, gassed up the car, and crossed into Arizona. It was late when we reached Phoenix, pulled up in the driveway outside the Yue family house, and, physically and emotionally exhausted, fell into bed.
Thanksgiving came and went, we stayed through the weekend, and then packed up again, saying good-bye to family. It might be my last time in Phoenix, I thought. Marie stayed behind, Lee and I headed to Chicago. We stopped with Lee’s friends in Edmond, Oklahoma; then in Rolla, Missouri we stayed over in a motel. Late afternoon the next day, Thursday, December 3, we drove into Chicago as the somber daylight was fading, temperature in the rainy, nasty, bone-chilling forties and going down. As we came in, thousands had gathered in the University of Illinois pavilion, at a memorial for the mayor the people called “Harold.”
Jo Ann and Mike made us a bed in their living room, a second floor apartment in Humboldt Park. Desperate to get a feel for my new city, we walked in the rain for a couple of blocks, got a bite to eat at the first local dive, and then went back to unpack. We stayed for a few days until I could settle in. As soon as I got my bearings, I moved a mile east to Wicker Park, the front room of the first floor of an old three-flat at 1248 Hoyne. But when you’ve come 2,000 miles east, left the life you’ve known for 27 years, made plans to move your family to a new city, to take up a position for which you have been recruited, you feel obliged, anxious, need to look again, even if you know the surroundings, to see where you will be spending the next section of your life. So that’s what Lee & I did. We went to Lincoln Avenue, went to see Richard Bray, went to Guild Books. A few days later Lee returned to Los Angeles
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Mr. Sourwine, Mr. Feely and Mr. Port are not names from the pages of Dickens novel. They speak from the pages of a transcript of hearings before a subcommittee of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearings, held August 3, 1970, investigated the “Extent of Subversion in the “New Left.” Senator Marlow Cook presided over these hearings. J.G. Sourwine was the chief counsel. The subcommittee met in Washington, D.C. and took the testimony of Hugh Patrick Feely and Harry Port, both board members of the Lincoln park (Chicago) Conservation Association. Feely & Port had conducted “investigations” of revolutionary organizations operating in Lincoln Park in the 2 years prior to the hearings. Early in the testimony Port brought a list of “revolutionary organizations” and organizations supporting them, to the attention of the committee. He mentioned churches, youth gangs (these include the Young Lords and Young Patriots organizations), underground media, a coffehouse, the Student Health Organization, and Guild Books, characterized as a “radical information center.”
Much later in the transcript, p 1096, the following exchange occurs between Mr. Sourwine and Mr. Port:
Mr. Port: The other thing, what I call radical information centers which handle not only the underground newspapers from Chicago but material which is Communist material which is printed in China, and so forth, which are the Guild Book Shop, and the People’s Information Center, located in the Lincoln Park area.
Mr. Sourwine: Tell us a little about each one.
Mr. Port: The Guild Book Shop, as well as acting as a bookshop also is the publisher of the Second City newspaper, which is an underground newspaper purporting to deal in matters of revolutionary activities.
Mr. Sourwine: Is the Guild Book Shop in fact a book shop?
Mr. Port: It acts as a bookshop, yes.
Mr. Sourwine: Where is it located?
Mr. Port: It is located on Halsted Street, 2136 North Halsted . . .
Mr. Sourwine: What is the Guild, so-called, in connection with the Guild Book Store?
Mr. Port: I have no idea.
Mr. Sourwine: Do you know who owns the Guild Book Shop or runs it?
Mr. Port: I do not.
Mr. Sourwine: What goes on there that is subversive, or violent, or contributes to subversion or violence?
Mr. Port: I would say it is the distribution point of most of the radical literature in the area.
Mr. Sourwine: You understand, I am not arguing . . .
Mr. Port: Right. In other words, their ad would read, you know, “Open 7 days a week, Marxist and other radical literature.”
Mr. Sourwine: Are you in fact reading from one of their ads?
Mr. Port: Right . . .
Mr. Sourwine: Should the text of that ad go into this record, in your opinion?
Mr. Port: I would say that, since they mention Marxist and other radical literature, Lenin, Mao, underground press, et cetera.
The testimony hints at what Lincoln Park was like then. During the 2 years prior to these hearings the 1968 Democratic Party convention had taken place in Chicago, with much of the activity and leadership emanating from organizations in Lincoln Park. In between then and October, 1969, according to Mr. Port’s detailed research, the Young Lords Organization initiated many protests and takeovers in Lincoln Park, often with the help of SDS, the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots, and others. Lincoln Park was the foundation and stronghold of the Young Lords, based among Puerto Rican youth. The immediate cause of the investigation was the October 8 to October 11 “Bring the War Home” rally scheduled for Lincoln Park, that turned into what the committee termed a riot. Fred Hampton’s name appears in the records, mainly as a speaker at a number of northside rallies. No one mentions, in the hearings, the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, leaders of the Black Panthers, on December 4, 1969.
Reading this testimony more than 40 years later feels almost prurient, voyeuristic. Of the names mentioned, some continued for many years as key activists in causes for social justice. Among them are people who own businesses today, teach university classes, offer art classes to south side young people. But there it is, the Guild Book Shop, then on Halsted Street, the center of distribution of all this dangerous material that foments violence and subversion. What a wonderful pedigree to inherit, to explore.
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June 23, 1981 Robbye Lee finished 32 page letter to Richard Bray, who had become the Guild Books and Periodicals owner/manager. She and her partner Gil had been among the founders of Guild Books. The stupidity of the Congressional investigators, meeting an informant in a clandestine location (a parking structure), had actually identified the name of the founder as someone named “Guild.” Her letter provides rich detail of how the bookstore started within the early developments of the original rainbow coalition — the Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization, the Appalachian Young Patriots not far away in Uptown, and the Black Panther Party. “Please use this for your own purposes,” she admonished Richard. “I consider the birthday of the Guild to be May 21, 1967 for that is the day we signed the lease and paid the first month’s rent of $60 for the storefront at 2136 North Halsted.” Thirteen years later, June 1980, she and Gil sold the “Guild News Agency,” and Richard became its new owner, the store then located 1118 W Armitage.
In the next two years a furious effort took place to center Guild in the major cultural efforts of social transformation taking place in Chicago and the world, attracting leading writers to present their work at the store. Then, in August, 1981, Richard Bray took a breath, stepped back, took stock, and launched a second anniversary celebration. Guild staged this party at Holsteins – a folk club at 2464 Lincoln Avenue presided over by brothers Fred and Ed Holstein. Fred performed widely within the vibrant Chicago folk scene (he was often called the “Dean” of Chicago folk music). Along with Fred, David Hernandez (the poet laureate of the streets of Chicago) performed with his band Street Sounds. Sparrow and Joanie Pallatto reprised their earlier benefit performance. Holstein’s was just across Montana Ave. from 2456 Lincoln, where Guild was to move nine months later.
The last event at Armitage celebrated the work of Meridel Le Sueur, the best known of the 1930’s proletarian women writers. During the cold war she had been blacklisted perhaps more severely than any of her contemporaries. However in the 60s and 70s, in part due to increased interest in women writers again, her work was rediscovered. Some of her work had been reissued by West End Press, including her best known The Girl. The book party at Guild recognized a new anthology issued by Feminist Press, Ripening: Selected Work 1927-1980.
Born in 1900, Meridel was already 82 when she came to Guild on April 3. “The people are a story that never ends,” she wrote in North Star Country, a story she continued to tell throughout her life. Elaine Hedges’ introduction to Ripening is a thorough description of Meridel’s life and work. Surrounded during her early years by socialists and anarchists (her stepfather was a labor organizer imprisoned during World War I because of his anti-war activity; she was an intimate of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman), she joined the Communist Party in 1924. She found intellectual sustenance in the John Reed Clubs, the cultural wing of the Communist Party. She published actively in the 1930s, read a paper at the American Writers Congress held in New York, and in 1940 published Salute to Spring with International Publishers. In 1939 she finished a manuscript she called The Girl, sent it off the New York publishers, who rejected it because of its sexuality, language (hard swearing)
and a gangster scene they were convinced was unrealistic. The post WWII blacklist consigned her to oblivion for the next 20 years, a time when it was difficult for her to make a living at all.
Friends and supporters helped a revival of her work in the 1970s. Toward the end of the decade, West End Press began a relationship with Meridel. John Crawford had begun West End in order to publish working class writers who had been neglected since the WPA. In an afterword to The Girl written in 1987, Crawford tells of visiting LeSueur in her home in 1977, rummaging through her basement and finding material for several volumes which, over time, published. LeSueur was so taken with Crawford and the other young people who sought to reestablish her reputation that she put these words in a letter she sent to him:
I have to express it feebly, poorly, but it is very important, a miracle . . . This has to do with the reprinting of my literary tracks, pollination out of the primordial mud . . . out of social darkness and struggles and individual annihilations and resurrections [. . .] you all come so sturdily and silently and tenderly to the ruins . . .
John Crawford first published The Girl in 1978, an edition which then went through 6 printings. A revised edition was issued in 1990 and, by 1999, had gone through 4 printings. By 1982, when Meridel appeared at Guild, her reputation was indeed on an upward trajectory: her books were also on demand at Midnight Special in Venice, California, where I worked. And Meridel was traveling and talking with people, young and old people, about the conditions they faced some sixty years after she began writing The Girl.
A suitable end to Guild’s sojourn at Armitage; and exciting beginning for Guild’s new home, beginning in May, 1982.
Guild moved to 2456 N Lincoln and promptly called on the support it had been cultivating the previous 3 years. “Writers to the Rescue” raised funds for Guild, a “mini-marathon” reading which promised the appearance of more than 48 poets on May 5. It was held at Crosscurrents, 3206 N Wilton, from 8 PM to midnight and foreshadowed future benefits and support activities by Chicago writers.
In the spring, 1983, I visited Chicago to participate in a conference of revolutionary work in culture, a meeting of artists, writers, musicians and others involved in what was broadly called cultural work. I came because of my work with Midnight Special Bookstore. Of course I stayed a couple of weeks after the conference to work with Richard at Guild. Here I sat in and observed a meeting that planned an extensive event to celebrate the work of Nelson Algren, on the occasion of the reprint of his classic Chicago, City On the Make.
Of course it was important because of Algren’s connection to Chicago. He’d lived for years in Chicago, had connections with the poetry society of Chicago, wrote his most trenchant novels about working class life in Chicago. Algren never got the appreciation he had hoped for in Chicago and had moved east, where he died in 1981. But his loyal following jumped on the opportunity presented by McGraw-Hill reprinting City on the Make. Richard convened a group that included Brecht scholar Warren Leming, poet Stuart McCarrell, photographer Stephen Deutch and others like Studs Terkel and Mike Royko who lent their support to the program. What much later became the “Algren Committee” had its foundation here. The Committee came together formally in 1989 and dedicated itself to keeping his work in print, celebrating his birthday, and giving an annual award in his name. In some sense the Algren Award countered the Chicago Tribune, which began offering a literary award in his name in 1986. Chicago magazine had actually begun this award for best short story in 1981. Christine Neuman from Chicago magazine formed part of the active committee to put on the Guild event. By 1989 Algren aficionados were embarrassed, no, incensed, by the Tribune claiming to carry on an Algren tradition.
But in 1983 Guild and the committee it formed put on event was less a memorial than a celebration. They called on some of Algren’s long time Chicago friends for an afternoon exhibit and reception for photographer Stephen Deutch, featuring his photographs illustrating Algren’s Chicago. Studs Terkel read parts from City on the Make. Harry Mark Petrakis, Gwendolyn Brooks, Herman Kogan and Mike Royko all offered comments and
reminiscences. Finally Denise deClue staged reading of scenes from Algren’s Neon Wilderness across the street at Holstein’s in the early evening.
A little more than four years later, when I walked into Guild Books to begin work, the first thing I noticed was the table at the front of the store. Two narrow shelves, perhaps two inches deep, built into the side of the table faced the storefront. The side of the table was 6 feet long. Every book jammed on those two shelves faced out, and each one of those books was a copy of City On The Make, in a new edition published by the University of Chicago Press. From before I came to Chicago, and as long as I was at Guild, the store sold hundreds of copies each year of City on the Make. No wonder that Guild and Algren became so intertwined, since Algren writes in City on the Make, quoting Jean Paul Sartre: “Literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.”