Mementos 6: A Tale of Four Bookstores, Following Dreams, Remembering Charlie Clements and Eduardo Galeano
[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]
At 71 my father quit working and decided to follow his dream. George and my mother, Anna, moved to Los Angeles to be with Greta’s family and with me. The year was 1961. I left to go to college at USC the year before. Uprooted from connections to the Rosenbaum
family and friends in New Haven devastated him. Selling the house and packing our belongings exacted a corresponding physical toll. The person who walked off the plane and into my arms in Los Angeles was not the father I’d left behind.
There was his dream though. The 15 years of employment at Mayer Rogol’s clothing store in Seymour had been steady work, but the wages were meager and George chafed at working for Anna’s family. At home we were surrounded by books, most of which had come from what my father saved from his Corner Bookstore, part of a legendary used book section in New York. They rested comfortably in oak bookcases I remember him building in the 1940s. The only power tool he had was a drill; he fashioned them with hand tools alone. He came west hoping to use the proceeds from the sales of
the house to purchase a bookstore again. To do something he thought was really useful, to do something that gave him satisfaction.
We visited used bookstores around the city together – Partridge had just opened on Hollywood Blvd, right next to Pickwick’s emporium of books; we looked at Yesterday’s Books crammed into a dusty, corner space on Alvarado. And after just a few looks we realized that the dream was a fantasy: there was nothing that even the entire $20,000 could purchase. The light disappeared from his eyes, the walk slowed, and George settled into 5 years of disappointment and Parkinson’s syndrome before he died in a nursing home, debilitated with a stroke.
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Maybe my love of books came from watching my father’s hands craft those bookcases and wonder about the magic that they held. I adored one of the books on the shelves: Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The story of Buck resonated with me — early on it was Buck, the hero, who captured my imagination, but I think as I grew older I identified with the Thornton character and his relationship with Buck — and I read it over and over again.
That earned great praise from Anna (another reason for me to care so much for the book). Soon I started scouring used bookstores to find treasures. From somewhere I knew that used books contained special value, though I did not know what it was. By then I had begun reading philosophy, and especially Bertrand Russell, whose penetrating criticisms of organized religion were eye-opening. And then came my passion for Shaw, his prefaces as much as his plays. Visiting Greta in Los Angeles during summers in the 1950s, I made a habit of visiting the Goodwill Store in the downtown area as often as possible, where I’d pick up used editions for a buck or less. I’d proudly show my acquisitions to my father, who dismissed them and therefore my ability to recognize what was good (valuable). And then, for high school graduation, Greta gave me a complete set of Shaw plays.
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I was in my second year of medical school when my father died, and two years later I quit school. In the mid 1970s I settled in at the Midnight Special Bookstore. We moved the store from its tiny Venice location to the third street mall in Santa Monica, vastly improving both its visibility and its size. We immediately began planning to take advantage of the new space we had, with author events and readings and special programming around social issues. The first opportunity we had came in the spring of 1984. By then, the Midnight Special was renowned for its selection of Latin American literature and history, especially for its concentration on Central America, then in the throes of conflagration.
Our store best sellers included any new book on El Salvador. Photographer Susan Meiselas published a book of her work, Nicaragua June, 1978- July, 1979, (Pantheon, 1981) which followed the revolution to the overthrow of Somoza and the triumph of the Sandinistas. She followed this up with a book on El Salvador, the work of 30 photographers. Grove Press documented the struggles in the countries of Central America with a series of books that quickly rose to the level of our best sellers. In 1984, then, it only made sense for Gayle Browning, who represented Bantam Books, to talk with us about hosting an event with
Charlie Clements. Bantam, mainly a mass market publisher, had just published in hard cover Clements’ Witness to War, the account of his journey from the US Air Force pilot in Vietnam to serving as a non-combatant medic with the rebels in El Salvador. After leaving El Salvador, he testified before Congress and traveled across the country talking about the brutality of US foreign policy in El Salvador.
Born in 1946, Clements had graduated from the Air Force Academy and spent a few months in 1967 at UCLA. There he saw the campus vigils about the war escalating in Vietnam, perhaps even the same demonstrations on Wilshire Boulevard that I had seen and taken part in. Perhaps seeds of his future disillusionment were planted here, but at the time he looked at the protesters as misguided, and he went on assignment to Vietnam. After about 9 months and 50 missions, he had grown to recognize the immorality of the war effort, especially because of government lies about military operations in Laos and Cambodia. He refused to fly any more missions, was returned to the U.S., confined to a psychiatric ward and discharged with a 10% mental disability. He became a physician and, in 1980, while treating undocumented immigrant farm workers in California’s central valley, he heard from his patients about the growing U.S. involvement in the war in El Salvador. He feared another Vietnam was developing there. He volunteered his medical assistance in the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) controlled territory, and entered the Guazapo front in El Salvador in March 1982.
During the civil war in El Salvador, Charlie Clements worked as a physician in rural villages that were bombed, rocketed, or strafed daily by their own government. One day a peasant asked, “Why don’t you carry a weapon like the other doctors?” Clements explained that when he returned from the Vietnam War he became a Quaker and that Quakers believe in non-violence. The peasant shook his head in disdain saying, “You gringos are always concerned about violence done with machetes or machine guns. I used to work on the hacienda,” he said, pointing into the distance. “I fed the dogs there [in the hacienda] bowls of meat and milk even when my own children were hungry. If the dogs were ill, I took them to a veterinarian, but my children died without ever seeing a doctor. You will never understand violence or non-violence until you understand the violence to the spirit from watching helplessly as your children suffer.”
“Activists in the US [Clements wrote] . . . have always had to jump in front of the ship of state to keep it on a self-correcting course. Whether the issue was slavery, labor rights, women’s suffrage, civil rights, Vietnam, Central America, or Iraq, it is the determined protests of those who will settle for nothing less than justice or peace that have altered the course of history. The moral arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice by gravity.”
http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portraits/charlie-clements (supplementary information from an interview with Charlie Clements https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYCge-l-GRU)
Of course we jumped at the chance to host this book party. Who else had the ties to communities as well as universities to bring an audience for an author like this? And then we realized what we had done. We had never had a publication for a hard cover book (most of our customers were paperback readers). We’d never done a signing with a major publisher. We had never done cooperative advertising with a publisher before. No matter our vision for what we would like to be, inseparably connected to the cultural life of the Los Angeles basin, our insularity as a political bookstore limited our possible outreach. The day of the signing I paced the length of the store in high anxiety, prowled the front of the store to monitor that we actually had customers coming to hear from Charlie Clements,
and then when the youthful looking physician, four years my junior, walked in the door and we seated him at the folding table piled high with his Witness to War, when he began to talk about his experiences — the 50 some people listened in rapt attention. Then people lined up, around the wooden table shaped, we thought, like an amoeba to have their books signed.
I stood to the side, watching the flow, when one person stepped out of line to talk with me. Diane Glinos was a student at UCLA and a committed participant of the Nicaragua solidarity work. She had taken flyers about the event to her school and to the organizations in which she was active. She had an earnest expression on her face, her dark, intense eyes told me she had something important to tell me, when she whispered, “Lew, you should offer to introduce Jackson Browne to Charlie Clements.” My quizzical look as I looked around convinced her to tell me that he was standing in line. No one in line wore a placard saying “I am Jackson Browne” and I had no idea what he looked like, so I suggested that she might want to do that herself.
Diane thanked me for the offer, but thought it would be more appropriate for a representative from the bookstore to do this. She was gracious enough to point him out to me (without making me feel any more stupid than I already felt). I asked Jackson if he would like me to introduce him to Dr. Clements, but he told me he already knew Clements and would wait his turn in line to say hello. But, he said, “I’d like to see if you can get a book for me. It’s a book of photos about Nicaragua. . .” and before he could get any further I told him we had the book in stock and how many would he like, and would he prefer hard or soft cover. On his request I brought two copies of Susan Meiselas’ book to him. On that day, he may not have bought anything other than these and copies of Charlie Clements’ book. But after this, Jackson Browne made many visits to the Midnight Special to find the reading material he needed, to find out the information he could not find elsewhere. Of course now I had to listen to Jackson’s music, so a bought his new release, Lives in the Balance. The music just reverberated within my brain, “There are lives in the balance, there are people under fire, there are children at the cannon,” and then the magical pipes, the Latin phrasing of the the instruments. So when Jackson called one day to ask about some books, I had to tell him what I thought about the album. This precipitated one of the most influential conversations I’ve had. I admit that until then I hadn’t much considered the artistry of rock and roll. Jackson forced me to think of the seriousness with which rock and roll musicians pursue their craft. And I’ve thought about that afternoon often ever since.
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Eduardo Galeano sat at my dining room table in my Chicago apartment on Lill Street one block away from Guild Books, pen poised and a stack of books to be signed at his side. Breakfast consumed, he had reluctantly agreed to sign some books in advance of his appearance at the bookstore later that Saturday, 1988. He was anxious, it seemed, and we had been warned that his health was mending after some heart issues. We didn’t press him to sign books, but were delighted when he agreed with our suggestion that some folks might just want to purchase a signed copy without talking with him.
I sat mesmerized with the tremendous accomplishment of getting Galeano to Guild; even more amazed by the good fortune of giving up my bedroom to him and my relocating to the living room couch. How did that happen?
Three years earlier, in 1985, I’d been a bookseller at Midnight Special Books in Santa Monica, California. I had done many things at the bookstore, but in 1985 I was mostly the person in charge of ordering books. While the consolidation in book selling and publishing had been well underway, it was still a few years before the tremendous expansion of super stores. It was still important for sales representatives to call on booksellers for book orders.
Doug Hodges, who later became a national sales manager for Random House, s0ld the Random House catalogue to me then. He always came to see me early in the season. He told me I prepared more thoroughly than any of his accounts for our meetings, and, even with the smaller number of imprints under the Random House rubric than I would later have to deal with, meeting with Doug could be an all day event. Start at 9 AM, break at noon for lunch, then come back to wrap up from 1 to 3. All independent bookstores relied heavily on Vintage paperbacks, Pantheon literary and political titles. Less important for us were the books in the venerable Knopf imprint, the Random House titles and Crown and Villard were least important. Nevertheless I always combed through each of those catalogs to find the gems, which was one reason Doug came early to see me. He said he learned a lot about the importance of some of the books that no one else knew about. This day in 1985 was going to be one of those days.
In the Pantheon catalog I found Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis, “the extraordinary first volume of a great and ambitious project” reads the flap of the book jacket. This is probably part of the catalog copy that leaped out at me. And the first thing I said to Doug as we sat down to the Pantheon list was: “We want Galeano in our store when he tours for the book. He has GOT to come here. No place else in Los Angeles area would know what to do to promote this book or who has the connections to get people to hear him.”
Hodges sat dumbfounded. “Who is he?” Doug asked.
I told him about how a generation of Mexican and South American intellectuals had cut their critical thinking eye-teeth on Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (two decades later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would choose to present a copy to recently elected President Barack Obama); how that was the most consistent best selling book on Latin
American history in that section of the store; how the most important Latin American studies departments/teachers in the Los Angeles area from UCLA to UC Irvine to Cal State Los Angeles relied on that book, all of whom we knew and to whose students we therefore had a direct line. And when I got through Doug reiterated that was why he came to the Midnight Special first. He had never heard of Galeano, he now had something to tell other booksellers when he showed the catalog.
But Random House was not planning on touring him, it was not in their plans at all, he was too unknown in the US, Random House could not afford to bring him from Uruguay where he lived. Excuse after excuse met my rants and raves and criticism of their short sightedness.
Random House did not bring Galeano to the US in 1985.
The situation repeated itself, complete with rants and raves and refusals from Random House in 1987, when the second volume, Faces and Masks, was published. This time, however, Doug knew who Eduardo Galeano was and thought he would pre-empt my tantrum by telling me in advance that Galeano was not coming to the United States.
At the end of 1987 I packed my Toyota Station Wagon with its rebuilt engine and its 200,000 miles and drove to Chicago to join the Guild Books staff. One of the first sales representatives I met was Random House’s Mary McCarthy. While poring over the Pantheon catalog I saw that Galeano’s third and concluding volume of the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Century of the Wind, would be published that season (1988). I guess the cumulative brow beating Random House reps had gotten from the likes of Richard Bray at Guild and me at Midnight Special must have taken its toll on the Random House touring brass.
This time Galeano would come to the US. Richard had come to know Eduardo Galeano’s agent in New York, Susan Bergholz, who insisted that Galeano needed peace and quiet while he was here, recuperating from his illness. Some place away from what she anticipated would be a flurry of activists tiring him out and keeping him from getting the rest that he needed on what looked like a very strenuous tour. He hid out in my bedroom.
So there he was, in my dining room, at the table at which he had just finished breakfast, signing books, including all three volumes of the trilogy, Open Veins, Days and Nights of Love and War, and a copy of each signed to me, all signed “gratefully, mil mil abrazos,” and more importantly with the caricature of the pig with the flower in his mouth, a trademark he said he reserved for special autographs.
But, he said, “I will not read.” OK, we thought, we don’t want to press him on this, make him angry or more anxious. Yes bookstore patrons, our bookstore patrons, want the author to give them a taste of what is in the book and talk about it. But here is a man who is clearly nervous about the upcoming event. So we backed off, and Eduardo went for a walk, returning directly to the bookstore an hour or so before the event was to start, declaring himself willing to sign more books in advance if we wished. And yes, we wished.
As he signed, the people began to arrive for the book signing. He was seated in the back room, but heard the commotion beginning to build, glanced into the store area, and said, “I think I will read. But I left my book with my notations in your apartment.” I ran to the building, ran up to the third floor apartment (yes, we had cleared with his agent that walking up 3 flights would not be too strenuous for Eduardo), found his book and ran back with it in time to start the program.
The crowd hung on his words, as he read in English but also in Spanish, and then answered questions, altogether about an hour and a half, and then began signing books, as the line snaked throughout the store. He talked with each person as much as the person wanted; he took pictures with the customers and their children. I stood at his side doing the task that all booksellers do in this situation: open the books to the pages preferred for the signature. And about 45 minutes into the signing ritual Eduardo turned to me with a broad but incredulous smile: “They like me. They really like me!”
Before he left, Eduardo toured the 3,000 square feet of the book store and spent some time
looking at the political and labor posters we had for sale, on display in a rack. He fingered the display, took some notes, and left. The next morning friends of ours recorded an interview with him on video and took him in search of Haymarket Square, a search that proved unsuccessful.
Four years would pass before Eduardo would return to Guild. In May, 1992 my divorce from my first wife was finally becoming a reality, my marriage to my second wife a month away, and the book Eduardo would be signing would be The Book of Embraces. The existence of the bookstore itself was tenuous as both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders had opened in the neighborhood and as the neighborhood became less affordable for our regulars. Our core clientele were moving away. We had to close one third of the bookstore and the Guild Complex, the not-for-profit literary organization we had spawned to take up the promotion of literary events, had to move (they occupied a performance space in the South Loop called The Edge of the Lookingglass. This is where Eduardo was going to read.
This time Eduardo stayed in a hotel off Michigan Avenue. We agreed to meet in the lobby of his hotel. There were some items he had to buy while he was on tour, and we could talk while I accompanied him on his rounds. We went to one of the “Magnificent Mile’s” most appealing shopping attractions, the Water Tower Place, where Eduardo wanted to pick up some CDs for his daughter and where I knew there was a small CD store. He picked up a couple of classical CDs and a jazz CD, off the sale rack at the front of the store, but then was stymied in finding the CD his daughter wanted.
Eduardo walked to the checkout counter and asked the sales clerk, in faltering but carefully pronounced words, “Do you have anything by the [clearly and slowly enunciated] Butt Hole Surfers”? A quizzical and sheepish look spread over his face as he said it, almost apologetic. But the clerk was the one who apologized, saying that he wished the store would carry them, but probably the best place to try would be Wax Trax Records (which was right across from the Guild Book Store!).
That evening at the Guild Complex at the Edge of the Lookingglass, Eduardo Galeano read to an even larger crowd than he had the first time in Chicago. And among the things he read was this tribute to Guild Bookstore, the “largest bookstore in Chicago” in this anecdote:
Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world’s tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.
Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.
‘It must be around here,’ they tell me. But nobody knows where.
No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.
May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and all religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.
After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.
In 1995 Guild Books had been closed for two years, but the Guild Complex hosted Eduardo for his newest book, Walking Words. Diana and I drove him to the reading location, a settlement house in the Wicker Park area, and on the way crossed the Chicago River. Walking Words is a book of myths, some modern, some older, many of water spirits and animals, in a collaborative with Jose Francisco Borges, whose woodcuts illustrate the stories. Diana told Eduardo stories about the Chicago River, whose history included years of being set on fire from the materials polluting the waters, years of being unsafe to drink for the animals that populated the river, years of being attacked by the manufacturers who degraded the water supply and the people who lived on its banks. Eduardo listened, intent, with evident pain in his face. “But wait,” Diana said, “the river had its revenge. Last year the river refused to be contained by the man made barricades, burst through into the tunnel through which the subways run and up into the streets of the city, causing millions and millions of dollars of damage.”
“The earth has memory,” Eduardo said. “That is important. Memory is important. I want to know more about memory.”
We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket
martyrs were arrested and imprisoned and executed. In 2006 Henry Holt published Eduardo’s Voices of Time, continuing the epigrammatic form he has worked with, this time “stories that I lived or heard.” At the Guild Complex we convinced Susan Bergholz to take Eduardo’s strenuous tour through Chicago once more. He read for us at the Museum of Contemporary Art to a packed audience. For many, this was the culmination of what Guild Books had been about. For us, it was an opportunity of bringing memory, forgetting, and not knowing at all together, these themes that strike at the heart of Galeano’s work and of the revolutionary process.
May Day, 2006, just weeks earlier, I walked among almost a million Chicagoans along a route from Union Park to Randolph into the Loop and Grant Park. The steel, concrete and glass canyons resounded with the chants of marchers, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” reverberated from the walls of those buildings, the marchers swelling into the streets in a mass farther than anyone could see.
But before coming to the loop, just a few blocks out of Union Park, we came to Randolph and Des Plaines. I stepped to the sidewalk, stood in the shadow of the corner building and looked north as the throng walked by me. The contingent from one union, also looking north, paused briefly and saluted the sculpture across the way – a recreation of the platform from which the speakers addressed their audience that May, 1886. Most marchers seemed unaware of the historic place through which they were walking, although well aware of the historic day on which they were marching.
How could we bring this reality of American consciousness to the reading that Eduardo was going to do? We made sure that some of those union leaders representing the marchers and their consciousness of May Day introduce Eduardo. And so they did, and we had the chance to talk about the sculpture, the march, and that although many marchers did not know where Haymarket square was, the fact that their march reclaimed not only the memory of the martyrs but the reality of the struggle which continues.
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My life after Guild Books led me to become an assistant manager in Barnes & Noble.On the day I received my pin for 10 years service and loyalty, 3 years away from my being able to retire with full social security, Barnes & Noble fired me for not pushing the employees to work harder. For the first time in 30 years I didn’t manage a bookstore, didn’t have to worry about meeting payroll in my own store or maintaining a sane workplace in a store I didn’t own. I sighed with relief. At some point after I had been forced into “retirement” I was talking with Nelson Peery, who had been instrumental in my coming to Chicago in the first place. Don’t worry, he said, you’ll get a bookstore again, I’m sure of it. I didn’t tell him that in the economic environment of superstores that was the last thing on my mind. I thought about my father’s own disappointment in 1962, and instead of bookstores I thought of what new chapter would open in my life, now that I would have the opportunity to follow my dreams of revolutionary activity. Fundamentally this story is about literature and revolution; It is about history and lions and how, by recovering memory, by making known what is unknown, the lions begin to write their own history.