Monday, September 24, 2012

Mary's Bookshop

Sunday Worker delivery, CP Bookstore 1936

My first job in a bookstore paid five dollars a day and got me an FBI file.

It was the summer of 1967 and I’d just finished my sophomore year at Riverside High School in Milwaukee.  I was smitten with radical politics, and had become obsessed with the anti-Vietnam war movement.   The more I studied it, the more I thought the war couldn’t be a one-off mistake on the part of an otherwise benevolent nation.  Nor, I came to learn, did the movement against it arise out of whole cloth.  Both were connected to a complicated historical timeline.   Imperialism had a history, and so did the opposition to it.

The peace and civil rights movements were on fire that summer, and there were already local counterculture institutions sprouting up.  Our local radical bookstore, called Rhubarb, was an ecumenical place that took all comers.  It was a one-stop for periodicals from every conceivable strain of Left activism, from Catholic Worker to Sparticist League.  It was a place to which students gravitated, and I should have too.  But I was seduced by another bookshop.

On a derelict stretch of West Juneau Avenue just north of downtown, a small storefront announced itself with quiet signage: Mary’s Bookshop.   It was a bizarrely innocuous-sounding name given the ambitious inventory.  This was the Communist Party bookstore.

I don’t remember how I discovered the place, but once I did I made regular visits beginning in the spring.  If I skipped gym class it gave me just enough time to bus down at lunch time, pick up a few Workers and whatever else they’d give me.   (I had a paper route but never any money.)  I took a perverse delight in flamboyantly reading the Worker in study hall, though in retrospect I doubt that anyone noticed or cared.
Usually, there were no other customers in the shop so I had the undivided attention of Fred Bassett Blair, the proprietor.  Fred was Wisconsin state chairman of the CP, son of a coal miner and former longshoreman.  He had run for governor and other offices, and been hounded out of jobs all over the Midwest.  He and his wife Mary (yes, that Mary) lived underground using assumed names for three years in the fifties.  That was one of the many addictive stories he told as I got to know him better.

Fifty-something, bald, a slight limp, Fred was a poet (The Ashes of Six Million Jews), a master story-teller but also a sly elicitor of information.  At sixteen, it was flattering to be asked so many questions about my own background and ideas by this veteran political warhorse.  Wearing suspenders and a blue denim work shirt, pockets bulging with pens and index cards, Fred seemed more a clever uncle than threat to national security.  He chewed tobacco compulsively and lobbed gobs of it into a spittoon behind the desk.

This tiny outpost of international communism hardly looked the part.  The lighting was bad, the wooden floors sloped and creaked, and dust covered the plants and books in the front windows.  A nasty sour odor pervaded the place (Mice? Spittoon?)  I sometimes wondered whether this was all a clever front, and that a hidden trap door would reveal a bright, efficient subterranean office staffed with busy communists organizing the revolution.
Yet this ramshackle little business was a magnet for harassment and animosity.  It was denounced in sworn testimony before congressional committees; rocks were heaved through the front windows; a pipe bomb was left in the doorway but didn’t go off.  Mary worried about Fred’s safety.  The idea that someone could walk into the store and shoot him was not far-fetched.  He kept a baseball bat for protection.

There were posted hours but he never kept to them.  On a wall just inside the door, he kept an array of faded taped notes to use when le temporarily left- “Back in 30 Minutes,” “Back in One Hour,” “Back in Ten Minutes.”  These bore no relation to the actual duration he was missing.  He’d walk to the Milwaukee Journal building to pick up the early afternoon edition of the paper, only to be waylaid by a seedy bar on State Street.  Several glasses of Rhine wine later, he’d be back in business.  And his stories would get even more animated.  The time the Nazis had a rally at the downtown Milwaukee auditorium in 1938 and the Communists broke it up and beat them back was a particular favorite, of his and mine.

One day at the end of July, Fred had a proposition for me: he and Mary would be doing their annual visit to "comrades in the north"  for two weeks, and if I’d be interested, they’d pay me to watch the store.  I jumped for joy.  “Playing store” was one of my all-time favorite childhood games.  And the chance to get even closer to the mysterious CPUSA was irresistible.

My mother had been telling me to get off my ass and get a job all summer.  I already had a morning paper route, but she didn’t like me lounging in the backyard all day with my comic books and Workers.  I could not tell my parents that I’d found a gig in the communist bookstore.  But the Wisconsin State Fair was running for the two weeks the Blair’s would be gone, and working in a pancake stand there proved to be a very handy lie.

Though it was my first time working in a bookstore, I was left with no real instructions.  When books came in, just put them on the shelf.  If a customer came in, write down what he bought and put the cash in a cigar box.  Any problems, three numbers to call.  He said there’s no need to be open all day, just a few hours late morning and early afternoon.  Regular hours on my watch, I said to myself.

Opening the door with my key on the first day was thrilling.  I wandered around, tidied up, and moved the spittoon to the back room.  

There were very few customers, a handful each day.  Sometimes people would come in and ask for Fred.  They’d leave ten dollars, or five.  No name, no explanation, “a donation for the movement.”  One day a creepy guy spent a long time browsing and left without saying a word.  Later I found swastika-laden flyers he’d stuck in some of the books.
My low point, customer-service wise, occurred when a neighborhood drunk came in and I couldn’t get him to leave.  He was borderline menacing, and I’d had no experience with managing the inebriated except for those in my own family.  I called the woman in the apartment upstairs to ask what to do- one of my emergency numbers- but she called the police, who came and escorted him out.  They knew him, and chuckled.  I was mortified.  What kind of communist could I hope to be if I called in the cops at the first sign of lumpen proletariat?

I had lots of time to read, and made friends with the books.  Much of the inventory came from the CP publishing houses- International Publishers, Progress, and Imported Publications.  Pamphlets and periodicals were nearly all CP productions.   But there were lots of books from other sources too, especially in history and literature.  With so much time on my hands, it was like having a two week reading holiday.  

I read African-American writers I’d barely heard of- Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston.  I read Communist writers like Mike Gold and John Reed.   I read Herbert Aptheker’s sweeping alternative history of the US, and Labor’s Untold Story, still one of the best celebrations of US worker militancy in print.
The day before the Blair’s were due back, I embarked on one final project.  The bland front window display seemed so out of step with the excitement I felt about the books inside.  It was as if they’d found the dozen least political and least interesting titles in the shop to feature.  As if books about Lincoln and Jefferson in the front window would fool anybody!

This I changed.  Soviet Life magazine, World Marxist Review, the Little Lenin Library- all of these took center stage in my surprise front window display.  Predictably, Fred was not amused, and the dreary old stand-bys quickly returned to share the spotlight with dying cacti.

I was reminded of Mary’s Bookshop this week when I had a conversation with a friend on the perennial subject of when and when not to carry a book.  Though it's not a question of political censorship, independent booksellers are now facing the a decision over whether to stock titles from so-called “Amazon Publishing,” an entity that hopes to drive a final nail in their coffins.  

It would be easier, in some ways, to have a bookshop that only stocks the books you want and of which you approve.  Mary’s Bookshop wouldn’t have wasted a minute agonizing over carrying a book that didn’t advance the cause.  But for general booksellers who aren’t (mainly) interested in changing the world, it’s a tricky decision.

The stubborn power of the ideas in books has also been on my mind as I’ve been immersed in Salman Rushdie’s beautiful memoir about living with the fatwa, Joseph Anton.  Though they weren't sentenced to death for reading and writing, plenty of Communists spent years in jail for thought crimes in the fifties.  How potent and dangerous books were and are.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has a popular exhibit called “the Streets of Old Milwaukee.”  You can stroll past an old butcher shop, a bakery, a drug store.  The re-creations are vivid.  In some ways, even in 1967, Mary’s Bookshop seemed like a cabinet of curiosities.  But in 2012 those books and ideas have been so thoroughly marginalized that I can imagine Mary’s Bookshop on those museum streets, complete with a stuffed Fred and his spittoon.
Contemporary Marxist publishing is alive here and there.  But Mid-twentieth century communist books and periodicals are best found today at institutions like the Tamiment Library and the Wisconsin State Historical Society, which both have excellent collections.  And old comrades and their offspring seem to be selling off their political inheritance for a song on eBay.

But who knows?  If Marx is right- and I still think he was about a lot of things- the laws of history have a way of re-asserting themselves regardless of the prevailing ideology.  And I bet the commie bookstores of the future will be a lot more inviting.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

my college bookstore r.i.p.

The other day I called on my friend Sandi Torkildson at Room of One’s Own Bookstore in Madison.  They’ve just moved into a gorgeous new space, proving that successful independent booksellers still know how to be nimble and to think big.  Sandi and her staff are re-inventing the iconic feminist bookshop as a general new and used trade store serving the downtown community.  (Without, she is quick to add, losing the concentration on feminist books.)

Would that another Madison icon just down the street, the University of Wisconsin Bookstore, could muster a scrap of such imagination.  A decade ago, the entire general trade book department was reduced to a tiny fraction of its former glory and moved to a pathetic corner room on the supplies floor.  The buyer- one of the smartest retail booksellers on the continent- was let go.  And last week I noticed that, like the punch line of a very bad joke, even this tiny book space has been colonized by cards and sidelines and assorted crap and the few remaining books are being crowded out.  Why not just give in and say you're a bookstore in name only?

This sequence of events is playing out in college bookstores across the continent, but the transformation of UW Madison into a zombie store is a personal heartbreak.  I spent a couple years pursuing a journalism grad degree at UW in the seventies.   While I can barely recall some of the classes, and the assigned books come dimly into focus only after some effort, I vividly recall the happy hours spent on the four huge floors of the University Bookstore.

The building was a shrine to knowledge.   The textbook department in the basement was massive, and relatively uninteresting.  The goal was to get out as quickly and cheaply as possible.  But the trade book department on two upper floors was inviting, expansive, and packed with books on every conceivable subject.  The store and the books were there to encourage elective, non-assigned reading.  The hope was that students would voluntarily expose themselves to ideas, and a stellar bookstore was the obvious way to efficiently facilitate this.  When groups of incoming freshmen with their parents in tow toured campus every August, the bookstore was showcased as a key space.  Access to it was part of what coming to university got you.

I spent hours and days in that store.  I stumbled upon books and subjects that have continued to fascinate me years later.  I made trips to the bank for $8 withdrawals from my meager savings account to buy books I couldn’t afford.  That bookstore taught me how to search out ideas in a way that actual classes often didn’t.  (With the exception of Mary Ann Yodelis Smith’s rigorous “Law of Mass Communication” course, which was the intellectual challenge of a lifetime.)  The Bookstore in fact functioned like an academic department in some ways, and was accorded a stature commensurate with that role.  So when I walk into the claustrophobic afterthought that now comprises the trade department, I get a little choked up.  And a little mad.

Why it’s all come to this is a subject too big for my blog and my brain, but it has to do with the shift toward the almighty market model as the sole valid measure of social worth.  The bean counters would surely be quick to point out that my beloved trade books were probably not carrying their weight on P&L statements for many years before space was reduced.  And they were probably not profitable in the seventies when they had miles of inventory.  

But what about mission?   Is it really possible that encouraging students to read outside of assigned texts is no longer a goal at universities?   Can administrators be so foolish as to assume the internet has replaced this resource?

The argument that “we’d like to have big bookstores but they’ve proved unsustainable” is unconvincing. What about all the very high ticket and debt-laden investments in sports?  Universities are big institutions.  Is every department expected to show profitability?  If too few students enroll in Literature courses is the English Department downsized and eliminated because “the market has spoken?”  (Sadly, this probably is sometimes the case.)  Bookstores are a different breed of retail, and college bookstores are even more different.  But it can be done.

Potentially, university bookstores have some exceptional competitive advantages: large spaces with cheap or no rent, access to endlessly desirable inventory, excellent booksellers and buyers, and a guaranteed audience of intellectually sophisticated students and faculty.  There’s a concentration of the greatest working minds in fields like economics and business on many campuses. Is it really impossible to summon the skill and imagination from within the university to make a viable bookstore work?  Mission!

The University of Wisconsin Bookstore may be a lost cause, but students there will have access to books via Room of One’s Own and Rainbow Bookstore Coop.  They can look to their lucky counterparts at University of Minnesota, where a wonderful university bookstore thrives, and south to the University of Chicago, where the one of a kind Seminary Coop Bookstore enters its 51st year in new expanded space.  The question of why such a brilliant model of academic bookselling can survive and thrive in Chicago when so many other powerhouse universities have downsized their bookstores into glorified Seven Eleven's is mystifying.

I’m worried about the heretofore stellar McGill University Bookstore, which seems to be in a general books death spiral.  This was another encyclopedic trade department, a browser’s paradise.  Should it be eliminated the loss would be felt across Quebec, where they are the primary source for English language academic books.  If a store with the caliber of McGill goes down, maybe it’s too late for college bookstores.  The market has spoken and it wants toy and T-shirt shops.

But just when I’m feeling despondent I call on the University of Calgary Bookstore.  It’s a cheerful, well- stocked trade store, a throwback to the way college bookstores used to feel.  Though it has plenty of non-book product, just about every subject taught at the university is represented by a trade book section.  Displays and promotions make me feel like I’m in a real bookstore, with a clever nod to their market- 20% off on all classics in September, a university-supported gesture to get students reading classics recreationally.

I asked the excellent buyer how he manages to maintain a real trade bookstore when so many college stores are collapsing under pressure.  He said that the higher-ups just really support having a strong trade inventory because they think it’s important.  And that the clothes sell so well that they let the books take care of themselves.

This was a revelation.   Clothes and sweatshirts with better margin and faster turn than books is traditionally the rationale used to replace books with more clothes and sweatshirts.  (Or, for that matter, jewelry and souvenirs in museum shops.)  But here the same data were interpreted to cut book sales some slack.

In the admittedly thankless project of finding a way to make college bookselling sustainable, I’m rooting for the Calgary strategy.