The Best Lines Spoken at North Atlantic Books

by Richard Grossinger on March 14, 2010

Chapter Twenty-Two
The Best Lines Spoken at North Atlantic Books

I am sure I have forgotten many times the number of great and funny lines that I remember, though I believe I still hold some of the best ones simply because they were unforgettable.  They mostly fall into the 1990s.  Whereas earlier ones are hard to remember, maybe things have gotten more professional in recent years, so the sorts of wacky situations that produce great lines don’t occur as much anymore, or at least don’t get reported to me.

The oldest lines that I can remember far predate any of the others and arose only marginally in a publishing context:

On Robert Kelly’s trip to Michigan in 1967 during which he gave us his “Alchemical Journal” to publish, Lindy and I went out to lunch with him.  We were twenty-two years old at the time.

Robert was a massive being then, over six feet and well over three hundred pounds, with long hair and a fiery red beard.  (He’s still of course tall, but he lost the weight, I believe it was in the late seventies through what he called at the time, “a spiritual fast.”)

At his Detroit hotel, some suited guests began staring at him as we entered the elevator and they were still staring as the door began to close.  Robert suddenly raised his left hand, pointed it at them and, scowling, lowered it slowly like a great axe from about 120 degrees to ninety straight-on while wiggling his fingers.

“What’s that?” I asked.  I had never seen anything like it

“Just another poor devil who won’t sleep tonight.”

It was a Sunday, later in our visit, that we were en route to a Howard Johnsons, an acceptable dining choice of the sort that we didn’t think to interrogate in those years, and I turned the car radio to a local Detroit station on which a preacher at an African American church was hitting increasingly ecstatic notes while an excited audience shouted choruses.  Robert said, “Turn it off; it makes me feel so profane.”

Then short after that at lunch, he pointed to a well-dressed white-haired man at a nearby table.  “I know that gentleman,” he declared.

As Lindy and I stared back and forth in bewilderment, he added, “I’ve seen him in every Howard Johnsons in the country.”

This reminds of an incident a couple of years earlier when Lindy and I, still college students, spent the summer in Aspen, Colorado.  One of my jobs was cleaning a restaurant, bar, and club at which I was the only busboy.  It was named Sunnie’s Rendez Vous after the proprietor, a classic saloon-dyed blonde out of the Beatle’s “Rocky Raccoon” (“…who called herself Lil…”).  She was having a showy affair with Ralph Sutton, a jazz pianist who left his wife and kid for her recently.  This was the early days of their tryst (I read in his obituary a year or so ago that it didn’t last very long).

Ralph played nightly in the club, and Sunnie hooked up a speaker to the street so that his records could be played to lure in customers and, I suppose, show off her catch.  But she didn’t do all that much restaurant business anyway.  We were all laid off eventually.

My job was to mop, dust, pick up, empty the garbage, and count the empty bottles of liquor and beer for reordering.  I was allowed to play either her or my records on her victrola (1965 technology).

Unknown to me, she had not unhooked the speaker, and early one morning I chose T. S. Elliott in his somber British accent reading “The Quartets,” a bittersweet philosophical sequence of poems dealing with mysteries of existence and human mortality.

The street outside the restaurant began filling with people curious about what was happening.  My full attention must have been on my job and the poetry because I didn’t notice the crowd.  Apparently Sunnie got word of it, perhaps from the gendarmes, and she came to investigate.  As she burst into her cave, she shouted, “Turn off the sermon, boy; it ain’t Sunday.”

Less a line, more an episode, this remarkable incident occurred in 1980 or so when our publishing was in its infancy and the books were kept in our garage in Richmond.  It is actually a story of one of the first times that I tried out the idea of telling people to pay whatever they wanted for books.  And it was one of only two instances when it didn’t quite work out.

Knowing how to give away books has always been a work in progress for me.  At first, as a young man, I used to insist on charging everyone, even relatives and friends, but that didn’t feel right.  Then I swung to the opposite extreme (in reaction to my miserliness), giving away books to whomever I fancied.

But that didn’t feel right either.  As the years progressed, I gifted far too many for the underlying economics to sustain and I also gave people books that they didn’t want.

A year before this incidentr, in a burst of naïve childlike enthusiasm, I had handed a copy of my book The Night Sky to a backup New York Jets quarterback who was visiting my father’s hotel.  He left it on a couch in the lobby not far from where he received it, and it was collected by a custodian the next morning and returned to me.

So I came up with the compromise of asking people to pay whatever they could afford or whatever they felt comfortable with, and that has worked like a charm for almost thirty years, as people are generally honest and fair.  Indigent visitors or acquaintances have paid only a dollar or two or spare change, and I felt good about that.  People who could afford the cover price always paid it, or close to it, and that was nice.

Almost always people paid at least half the cover price, more than we got from PGW, and the method eliminated any haggling, awkwardness, or forced gifts.  I found that, this way, I could pass on unlimited numbers of books to friends and strangers without feeling like either Scrooge or Santa, and without giving away so many of a print run that we couldn’t break even on the rest.  Of course, I still gave away many books, but this was the way I handled the many ambivalent situations.

The only time that I can remember it creating an awkward scene was around 2004, more than twenty years after I started it and after hundreds of successful episodes.  When I ran into an old film-maker buddy in Vermont after not seeing him for decades, he wanted ten or so of my books and must have assumed they would be free despite my clearly stated offer of “I’ll send them all, take a few for free, and then pay what you want for the rest.”  In fact, we discussed it at length, as he asked for clarification.  I’m sure I said something well-rehearsed like: “Whatever you can afford or whatever they’re worth to you.  If there are some you end up not wanting or that are worthless to you, give them away to a friend or a library, and don’t pay for those ones.”

When I got back to California, I shipped him a carton with a note reminding him, “Whatever feels comfortable.”

He returned all the books with a nasty card asking me if I was like one of those stamp companies of his childhood whose “free stamp offer” he fell for and ended up later with a bill that his parents had to negotiate.

He, me, my brother, and my son, and probably three-quarters of the kids in America too….  But he seemed to miss the point.  He could have kept them all and given them to a library and just said he couldn’t afford them, or he didn’t want them, they weren’t what he imagined, whatever.  I guess he was offended that I didn’t just give them to him.

Very few retail customers came to our house in Richmond in the late seventies and early eighties, but one of them was a woman with a British accent who called from San Francisco to say that she was in the States briefly and looking for our most recent Alchemy anthology to use for her Ph.D. thesis.  Because she was in town for only two days, she wanted to come over immediately to buy it.

I gave her instructions for the BART, and she said she would take a cab from the El Norte El Cerrito station.  I had assumed she would be by herself, and I also had a kind of professorial image of her.  But she arrived a few hours later in a cab with a guy, evidently her boyfriend.  They looked a little fancy in a grungy, purple-velvet way for what I expected, and she had some sequins on her face.  After I handed her Alchemy: Pre-Egyptian Legacy, Millennial Promise, she wanted to look at our other books, so I led them to the garage.

She talked a blue streak about her studies while her boyfriend, hands in his pockets, bored visage, said nothing—absolutely nothing, not even hello.  After going through the entirety of the garage, she picked out four more books, and then we all stood in the living room.  Reaching into his pocket, the boyfriend finally spoke, “How much damage did the lady do?”

“Pay whatever you can afford.”

However, it turned out that the poor guy had only a quarter and a few pennies, and she had nada.  I don’t remember if they carried credit cards, but I had no facility to run one back then.

In fact, they didn’t even have money for a cab back to the BART; they had only their return tickets, so I accepted the quarter and then offered a ride back to the BART.

He got in the front seat; she sat in back.  As we pulled onto the street, I asked him what he did.

“Got me a rock band.”

“What’s it called?”

“The Kinks.”

It was Ray Davies.  All I could manage at first was: “I’ve heard of you.”

Once I recovered, I blathered on.  When I told him that one of the books that his girlfriend had selected (my Martian Homecoming at the All-American Revival Church) had a piece on David Bowie, he deadpanned, “David Bowie? Who’s he?  Not any good, that’s what he is.  Everything he got he copied from me.”

We were silent from there to the station.

(Later that night I told my son Robin and he said, “No way!”)

I could go on for hours about Harvey Bialy, the precocious “nasty boy” who first connected us to Robert Kelly and then contributed heavily to our Western occult publishing.   He, like Chuck Stein, was an original mentor of the press.  A lookalike of Woody Allen or actor Arnold Stang, he had a quite opposite personality, more like Mick Jagger with whom he actually acted in a Kenneth Anger movie of the seventies (Invocation of My Demon Brother).  Harvey fancied himself a Crowleyite magician, and he was also a manager of jazz musicians, a drug dealer, a world-class biochemist (with a Berkeley Ph.D. in microbiology), and a poet.  Having gotten in trouble with his first wife over a cocaine deal, he fled the U.S. for Nigeria where he taught at the University of Ile-Ife for a while and then returned with a Nigerian wife.

It was Harvey Bialy who launched our AIDs contrarian list from his long-standing connection with Peter Duesberg, a colleague of his in graduate school.

In any case, a few years after the Robert Kelly “Howard Johnsons” incident we were having lunch at Harvey’s house in Denver (where he lived briefly) with him, a friend of his, and his Nigerian wife, Margaret.

Now Harvey was an avid lady’s man who spoke all too often publicly of his romantic conquests, even with his wife present, whichever wife.  (Decades later, with his third, Cuban wife present, in their dining room in Cuernavaca, he began talking to us about a beautiful Somalian lover whom he had met through a Goddard student of mine, and she snapped, “Shut up already about your women already, Harvey, especially in company.  It’s in bad taste and humiliating to me.”  He kept right on going as if she had said nothing, in childish defiance [see “2003 Mexico Trip”on this website].)

The TV was on in the background in Denver, and there came a sequence on the news involving the Queen of England (unknown to us, Harvey had apparently had an affair back in Nigeria with his wife’s cousin who was also named Elizabeth).  Suddenly Margaret said primly, “Harvey knows Queen Elizabeth, don’t you Harvey?”

He had to admit that he did, with a look at her that defies description.

Harvey also told me once about a fistfight he allegedly had with Bob Dylan (before the former Mr. Zimmerman changed his name and became famous).  It was right after Zimmerman arrived in New York the first time.  Harvey was leaving a public library as this hippie kid with a guitar was racing up the massive stone stairs.  His strapped and suspended case bumped Mr. Bialy.  The two got to jivin’ and calling out their stuff, and Harvey did what he did so often—insulted someone just for the sake of friction.  One this occasion he apparently said, “Woody Guthrie’s a total fraud, a bum.”

According to Harvey—and I take it that this as gospel because Harvey does a lot of shit but he don’t lie—Zimmerman began shoving him and they wrestled and punched each other there on the steps.

That’s not the line.  The line is: I told this story to our current staffperson Phllip Smith, a man who knew Harvey from his rare-book-dealing days before joining NAB.  Philip’s comment: “Wow, that must have been pathetic.”

Philip’s dry sense of humor is also evident in this email sent after an altercation between himself and a staff member’s boyfriend at the 2008 staff Christmas party.  The boyfriend, a professor at UCBerkeley, actually went bonkers and had to be restrained twice, the second time after going to a walk to cool off:

“Yes, it was a little awkward, but I was actually reasonably sober at that point, and contained, and I didn’t react in kind or escalate things, so I felt proud of myself on that account.  So there are no hurt feelings or anything.  Plus it was late in the evening and not many people were around.  I just think he was a bit wound up about Hegel and didn’t want to hear an outsider perspective, which I am capable of conveying mercilessly at times, hovering as I do at the margins of academe.”

Nice to know that when people at our staff parties come to fisticuffs that it is about something important.  The lesson: let’s cut down on the Hegel at future Christmas parties.

In my opinion two of the best lines ever uttered at North Atlantic (or, in this case, North Atlantic/Frog) came from Andrew Harvey and were spoken (or faxed) during our spat with him over the rights to his books.

Remember (see Chapters Fifteen and Seventeen), his initial renaissance with us lasted only a couple of years before Harper enticed him with an offer for a purchase of the rights to The Way of Passion and The Return of the Mother.  Although he had a hefty advance in his pocket from us as well as a three-book contract, he somehow construed matters such that he could finesse all that and sell his books a second time for another adance.

Earlier in our relationship, during the honeymoon period, he had performed a sham street tantrum en route to lunch on Fourth Street, as I was treating him and his husband Eryk.  The tantrum had nothing to do with me; it was merely his spontaneous demonstration of how you compel unwilling people to do what you want.  He rolled on the sidewalk, howling bizarrely and making animal noises such that people stared.  Then he hopped to his feet as Eryk applauded.  “They’ll do anything you want,” Andrew announced, “just to get you to stop.”

So I had an example of both his acumen at theater and the standing force of his will.

When our dispute was still young, I assumed the best, imagining that fairness and rationality would prevail.   In that hope and spirit I faxed Andrew a very carefully documented chronology of our relationship from its beginning when he and I met at his lecture in San Francisco through his request to have us publish him, the large advance, the creation of his books by our editors, his praise of our press and staff, etc.  I then asked him to critique my version and point out its errors, to show where I was wrong in my point of view.  I reminded him too that the staff at North Atlantic were his friends and supporters, and I wondered why he would want to betray and harm them.

He responded with a single-sentence fax: “You are not the Mother Teresa of publishers, and I am not a whore.”

Meaning, ‘I guess you’ve got me there, but I don’t intend to lose this one and, as long as you’re not a nunnery or homeless shelter, I’ll do whatever I fucking want to.’

Subsequently he proposed a “holy parley” between him and me at his house in San Francisco.  He suggested that we each choose a spiritual witness as our second.  I brought along our editor Anastasia McGhee, an advanced Buddhist practitioner as well as Andrew’s favorite staff member.  Anastasia specialized in applying mindfulness and compassion to the workplace, and I assumed that Andrew respected both her sincerity and practice.

He of course chose Eryk.

We arrived from Berkeley to find that the couple had prepared their house in advance for us: a darkened dining room, a table filled with candles.  As directed by Andrew, the four of us held hands in a séance-like circle while he intoned a lengthy prayer, melding Latin, Sanskrit, and English for “the successful outcome of this meeting.”

Then he proposed a protocol:  He and I would each speak at length, giving our respective points of view.  Neither would interrupt the other, no matter the provocation or circumstance.  Then Anastasia and Eryk would serve as jury, giving their “objective” analyses.

I accepted.

First, Andrew opened with what turned out to be an hour-long exegesis, the gist of which was that no publisher had the right to impede an author’s career and, more importantly, this author was the single spiritual warrior on the planet with the capacity to avert global catastrophe.  Who were we to prevent him from reaching the largest possible audience at this critical time in human history?

When he finally brought his sermon to a close with a flourish, wine was served as a break.  Then I began my response.  I hadn’t finished my first sentence when Andrew broke in.

“But, Andrew,” an astonished Anastasia cried out, “it’s his turn.”

He turned to her with about the bitchiest snarl I have ever seen, the classic “other eye” of Brando’s “one-eyed jack,” and barked: “None of your Buddhist bromides, baby.”

Almost ten years later, Anastasia and I still produced that line at appropriate occasions, recalling the room glowing with the candles and: “None of your Buddhist bromides, baby.”

It meant, subtly and elegantly perhaps: “Forget past pieties and mantras; there’s money to be made, boys and girls, and the rules…have…changed….”

It was the unmasking of a dark side of the New Age, and it was also a reminder that, whatever is shining, however brightly, it is also casting a shadow somewhere.  The spiritual realm forever contains invisibly within it the anti-spiritual, the lie, and the profane.

Andrew is a luminous poetic writer and a passionate holyman (nowadays he teaches “spiritual activism,” leading groups in workshops and taking them to shrines), but his persona of the mid nineties, before his transformation, was best described by one word: hypocrite.

Needless to say, the parley in San Francisco went nowhere, and we eventually sold the rights to our entire Harvey logos to J. P. Tarcher, Inc.

But, as recounted in Chapter Seventeen, Andrew had an awakening over a decade later and expressed regret for his behavior of years ago.  I accepted his apology but also told him that he was brilliant at the time and had spoken two of my top five lines in our company’s history.

“You’re being kind,” he said.

“Brilliance should still be acknowledged, even in the service of a wrong idea.”

“What did I say?”

I told him.

“How horrible!  That’s how I was when I was with Eryk.  We were so bitchy to everyone.”

Authors are perpetually begging us to get their books into particular stores, but it is usually the case that, in instances where we actually try, booksellers turn us down.  As noted in Chapter Sixteen, we have no special power to get a bookstore to take a title.

During the early eighties, just as the publishing industry was beginning to turn toward independent presses, it was still difficult to get our books into many major stores, especially in New York City, the heartland of traditional commercial publishing.  It is hard to believe, given today’s open marketplace, that if you didn’t have a brand back then, you were excluded by mainline stores with a vengeance.

In 1984 we published a funny yet profound novel by Gerald Rosen, a friend of ours.  We had not issued much in the way of conventional fiction to that point, but Gerry had had a huge success with his first novel, The Carmen Miranda Memorial Flagpole published by, of all houses, Presidio, a military press.  He considered the “Bronx book” his major work to date, though he couldn’t find a publisher for it.  So he jumped at the opportunity to copublish it with us as soon as he realized that we did that kind of thing.

A few weeks after Bronx came out it received a spectacular review in the Sunday New York Times book section, such that people were rushing to stores to seek copies.  But it was sparsely distributed, especially where the most customers were seeking it, in midtown Manhattan.

Growing up Bronx may have been stocked at Phoenix, Gotham, and the 8th Street Bookstore downtown, but shops like Womrath’s, the Madison Avenue Bookstore, Doubleday, and Barnes & Noble didn’t carry it and wouldn’t respond to our attempts to get it in, even after the review.

The following Tuesday we got a phone order from a customer in New York who, in the process of trying unsuccessfully to purchase the book, told us that he thought we might like to hear the response of a bookstore clerk on Fifth Avenue: “Goddamnit, you’re the twelfth person to come in here today asking for that book.  We don’t carry it!”

That pretty much sums up the attitude of booksellers toward the independents before the great market transformation, and it even remains the attitude of some independents today, despite their collective demise.  They stubbornly hold to some unelected role as the guardians of taste and imprint elitism in the publishing world.

Long after Random House was no longer Random House (in the old sense, that is, and became our distributor), our books were still turned down by snooty store owners who said in effect, “North Atlantic what?  Over my dead body!”

It’s been true to a degree for years with Book Passage and Black Oak in our local Bay Area and likewise with Port in the Storm, our neighborhood store on the back side of Mount Desert Island.[1] The proprietor of the latter, until she went out of businss shunned our titles about Mount Desert itself, even when they are now come from Random House.  Sort of like: ‘You’re the fiftieth person to come in here this year asking for books from that press!  We don’t carry them!’

Only in the book business.  No wonder online stores have taken over the territory; they just sell the damn books.

When our publishing was still in the house on Woolsey Street and Jason Kaneko (see Chapter Twelve) handled the warehouse and phone, one day he got an order from a bookstore in Missouri called Noah’s Ark.  He was trying his best to take it down but was obviously encountering some major static.  He finally put his hand over the receiver and told me, “They’re weirdos.  And they’re only ordering Monuments of Mars.”

Poor guy.  On his second or third day of work, a local fanatic who assisted Richard Hoagland on his organization showed up at our door; he looked quite alien himself and also a bit military.  When Jason answered, he saluted and announced, “I’m from the Mars Mission.”

In this particular phone call, the person doing the ordering must have kept changing his mind because Jason had crossed out and reworked the order several times.  Finally he shook his head and said, “Ma’am, I can’t do this anymore.  You better talk to my boss.”

When I got on the phone, I found myself in conversation with a woman who was arguing with someone in the background while trying to place her order.  A male voice was shouting hers down, though I couldn’t quite make out the words.  She was exerting plenty of her own energy, yelling back at him.

Then there was a pause, a scuffle, and the male broke in, “Take your ass elsewhere, lady.”  Next, to me: “I’m starting from scratch.  She’s a dyspeptic old bitch and doesn’t know her cunt from her asshole.”

He gave a much smaller order than any of those that Jason had been taking, and then he declined to provide a formal address, preferring his own series of instructions for the UPS driver to be used in lieu of a street or number; it featured such items as “past the house with the barking dog, left at the dead tree by the pond, etc.” (It must have worked because UPS didn’t complain, and the bill got paid.)

Our designer Paula showed up with galleys to be proofed not long after this incident and, when I told her what just happened, she glossed, “It sounds as though Noah and Mrs. Noah have been on the ark too long.”

Richard Hoagland himself figures in one of my favorite lines that I spoke myself.  Soon after we published Monuments of Mars and during the brief period when he still lived in Berkeley after his jail term, he used to drop by our house periodically, mainly to check how his book was doing.  He never believed me that there weren’t more sales—and there were plenty as it was.

Remember, some authors are that way.  If you sell a thousand books, they want to know why you aren’t selling ten thousand.  If you sell a hundred thousand, they don’t even thank or acknowledge you; without missing a beat they blame you for it not being million.  Or, more commonly (as noted in Chapter Seventeen), they decide that you really sold the books and are not paying them for them and that there is secret accounting somewhere.

Hoagland felt that way.  He considered himself a scientist of the ilk of Newton or Einstein, hence he always thought that he was way underappreciated given the discoveries he had made.  These included a source of free energy in the universe based on his measurements of the geography of the Martian pyramids and the Jovian red spot.  His trifecta —Martian discoveries, having survived prison, and being interviewed as a space authority in the media—made him insufferable.  He paraded around our Blake Street quarters like a living myth in his own time.

One day when he was visiting, I dropped into the kitchen for a few minutes to prepare tea for us and came back into the living room to discover that Dick had figured out which was the sales drawer in the file cabinet.  He was poring over PGW sheets, hunting for line items of his book.  As I arrived, he covered his embarrassment by immediately declaring, “Just as I thought, you’ve been cheating me.”  Apparently, he was confusing the cover price with the discounted price and doing on-the-spot multiplication.

I was always incipiently furious at him, and this pushed me over the edge: “Who gave you the right to go into that file? You can’t just come in here and open drawers.  That’s not your prerogative.”

He started to argue, but I said, “Just go, okay.  Leave the house.”

“Do you know who you’re talking to?” he demanded.

“Yeah,” I said, “King Shit!”

He turned, swished out the door, and didn’t talk to me for two years.

I also once told Dick that I knew whose face it really was on Mars.

“Yeah,” he retorted, while I smiled, daring me to speak it.

“Yours.”

When we first joined PGW, we encountered their constant efforts at price management, meaning an unremitting “lower price” rap and pressure.  It was pretty their house jingle: “Your cover price is too high.”

The managers and reps at PGW wanted to sell books, so they always urged presses to use the lowest cover price bearable and, at their three-times-a-year marketing meetings with each company, in almost knee-jerk fashion, they tried to talk publishers down at least a dollar or two (or three) on pretty much any title.

At North Atlantic we tended to use higher prices to reflect the actual unit costs of our books (smaller print runs = higher unit costs).  During the transitional period when we were still effectively a small noncommercial press and did not even think about making a splash in trade publishing, we ignored all PGW recommendations about lower prices such that our cavalier attitude toward pricing (and book design too) became an active item of culture clash.

Herman Graf, one of the shareholders and founders of PGW, was its most visible sales rep and also the co-head of its most commercial press, Carroll and Graf.  He operated out of the East Coast hub.  I knew back then that our publishing company frustrated him with its pricing in his role as super-rep.  He didn’t understand why we weren’t playing by the rules, and he had been in the business so long that he obeyed them himself by second nature./

A veteran Bronx New Yorker, Herman showed up frequently at PGW West Coast functions, his Grove Press/friendly-pornographer background revealed in his strutting presence and somewhat baggy suited attire, which had a bit of Jewish mafia to it (he could have walked off a Sopranos set a decade later as a colleague of Hesh).

Herman was a bit intimidating to me in the manner of authoritarian uncles when I was a child, adults who would embarrass me by wanting discourse on things I was shy about and addressing me so loud that other people turned to listen.  “Speak up,” they would say.  “Aren’t you Richard the Lion-Hearted?”  Or “Open the door, Richard,” a line from a song popular then.

Every so often Herman would honor me with conversation at a PGW party, and I was flattered when he paid me such attention.

But there was always a catch.  One time, he conveyed his objections to our pricing methodology in what was, for him, a subtle approach:

“You know what book-buyers think about the fact that you do small print runs of your precious little noncommercial books and have to charge more money?”

“What?” I asked innocently.

“They don’t give a shit.”

A different use of that approximate line occurred a few years later when we were visited at our Woolsey swimming-pool warehouse by Elaine Gill, the founder, then still publisher of Crossing Press, one of the three book companies that I know of which started as NEA-funded literary presses and survived by morphing into trade publishers, North Atlantic and Station Hill being the other two.

Crossing Press, the most commercial and ambitious of the three economically, was later sold to Ten Speed.

Before her cash-out and retirement, Elaine, a powerful virago woman and former professor of Shakespeare at Ithaca College, wandered among cartons of our titles, admiring individual books.  She was a true old-fashioned connoisseur who understood literary publishing to a tee.  “What’s your annual volume on this stuff?” she finally asked.

I told her.

“You should be ashamed of yourself.  With this product line I can sell three times that many.  But you don’t give a shit, do you?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t.”

During Mark Ouimet’s earlier years at PGW he had a string of assistants, most of them male.  Since he had a high-energy, magnetic personality, he tended to inspire these guys to operate at high dudgeon.  One of them was Don, a gay man who later went to work in sex-and-gender publishing, and he had a great deal of natural flounce.  He fussed around after Mark, a heavy-duty jock and a man’s man who sometimes roller-bladed or biked from Oakland to work.  Don was like an attentive wife and, though this situation might have had a slightly awkward ambiance to it, Mark’s cheer and extraverted good humor innately overrode or preempted any potential nuances or embarrassing jokes.  Then someone threw a graceful and hilarious punchline right at the heart of this odd couple.

During a sales presentation of ours one year, Mark was called out of the office, and I said, “Maybe we should hold off on that one till he gets back.”

Elise, another longtime PGW marketing executive, replied, “It’s okay.  Don’s here, and he and Mark have Vulcan Mind Meld.”

Jeanne Rose, the herbalist, joined us around then as a copublisher, and almost from the beginning she was cranky, complaining fervidly about any mistake or delay on our part as if operating on a permanent squeaky-wheel principle.  She wouldn’t ever let go.  She seemed to crave opportunities to yell, lecture, or be sarcastic.

Many generations of staff hated hearing Jeanne’s voice begin a conversation on the other end of a phone line because it usually meant a scolding.

I, on the other hand, thought Jeanne was charming in a retro, camp way.  One time she surprised me by apologizing out of the blue for her behavior to our staff.

“That’s okay, Jeannie,” I said.  “You’re not one of our most difficult authors.”

“What!  I’m not?”

On the other hand, there was Stan Tennen, the physicist cum rabbi writing on the origins of alphabets and the origin of the universe on each other’s terms.  We tried for over a decade to get his books out, and he sequentially alienated every staff person assigned to him in any capacity with his gruff, dismissive manner.  He also was an exploder and yeller without restraint.

When we started up again with Stan in the mid 2000s, I took the risk of suggesting to him that he might treat our people better this time.

“Richard,” he said, “don’t give me a sensitive editor.  I’m not a nice man.”

During the time when Jason worked for us in the Woolsey house, we hired our son Robin’s former high-school girlfriend Ching-Ching part-time to do odd jobs.  As she was relatively newly arrived from Mainland China, English was not her first language, so she had delightful quirks of speech.  One time as I was setting her up to type a mailing list, I said, “Just tell me when you’re o.d.ed on this.”

“O.d.ed?” she asked.  “What is o.d.ed?”

“Oh, it’s overdose.  Too much.  Tired of doing it.”

An hour or so later I heard a loud clamor from the office: “O.D., O.D., O.D., O.D., O.D….”

Paul Pitchford was always a great zen teacher for me, and I have told many tales of interactions and escapades with him in Out of Babylon, both volumes of Planet Medicine, and The Unfinished Business of Doctor Hermes. One of my favorites is the time when I was sitting in the grass with him after we had done t’ai chi together, sometime in the late seventies.  A bee stung my middle left-hand finger.

“Just on the acupuncture point where you needed treatment,” he offered, as I reacted with an ouch and shook it..

In the late eighties Paul returned to Berkeley from Idaho for a number of months, while he worked on those endless scrolls of computer paper that were to become Healing with Whole Foods (see Chapter Eight). He actually lived in our home office for six weeks before he moved to Heartwood Institute to begin running the clinic there.

During his sojourn with us, he sought quietly to educate Lindy and me on dietary and kitchen matters, topics, of course, central to his book.   Lindy was the more stubborn and resistant student.

One afternoon she arrived home from her teaching job, and Paul informed her with a provocative smile, “I did you a favor today.”

She looked quizzically, knowing this was going to be more a koan than a favor.

“I threw out all your aluminum cookware.  I knew you’d be too attached to it, so I did it for you.  I chose the day of the garbage pick-up so that you wouldn’t be tempted to go out and get it.”

Lindy response: she said absolutely nothing.

In lieu of a comment by her that day, I am reminded of a favorite Lindy line our daughter Miranda used to quote: “Why can’t things just be normal around here?”

“I knew,” Miranda remarked, “from the time I was very young that they would never be.  It wasn’t a possibility.”

Those were the years of our Thai cookbooks.  The first one came to us from the Siam Cuisine restaurant after the author brought it to PGW before the advent of Avalon, and Charlie surprisingly recommended us, amateurs though we were.  We had never attempted a project like that with color plates, but Paula was eager to test her prowess.

Two years later another local independent publisher, Roger Williams of Snow Lion Graphics (SLG Books), a former teenage preacher from West Virginia, got friendly with the owner of Cha’am Restaurant on Shattuck Avenue and together they launched a spectacular full-color, high-design Thai cookbook that way overshadowed ours.

But at that point SLG had no significant distribution, so we were the conduit for its sales through PGW for a while.

With these two under our wing and while also selling the Ten Speed  cookbook from Keo’s restaurant that was given us as a substitute for our lost pallets in their warehouse (see Chapter Twelve), I began looking for a variation on the genre, a healthy Thai cookbook, more like Healing with Whole Foods in a Thai context.

I regularly discussed such a project with the proprietor of our favorite Thai restaurant, which was mainly vegetarian.  He claimed, with no small amount of indignation, that the owners of Cha’am, Keo’s, and Siam were only merchants back in Thailand and had no tradition of cooking in their families, whereas his lineage had been in the restaurant business for six generations.

For almost a decade we ate at his establishment while trying to coax him into putting together his healthy cookbook.  He liked to bring us special dishes not on the menu recipes that he was planning to write up in the book, and then he would sit at our table while we ate and spin creative ideas together—but nothing ever developed beyond conversation and fantasies.

Then one lunchtime Lindy and I went there to dine only to discover that our friend was in Thailand, and his wife was running things.  The meal was a disaster.  The food was poorly prepared; one dish was ice cold in the center.  When several customers, ourselves included, began to complain about frozen dishes, she shouted back insults.

We didn’t return for almost a year.

“Where have you been?” our proprietor friend asked with a hurt look.

We told him what happened.

“Ah,” he said, “that was old wife.  Old wife very bad for business.  Go Thailand, get new wife.”

And then he paraded a pretty girl about a third his age out of the kitchen.

In the mid nineties a staff crisis was arose when a female employee whom I will call Abigal had a romantic fling with a younger male staff member whom I will call Jim.  Intellectually and psychospiritually quite a bit more sophisticated than Jim, Abigal was his supervisor and maybe ten years older, so the romance was, to say the least, imbalanced.  She was also bisexual, so you could say that she had options he didn’t.   In other words, she spun circles around the boy, making an uncomfortable daily situation to observe, as he was smitten with her.

Although the love affair seemed cheerful if incongruous at the start, you know that these things never work out.  As it began to deteriorate, tensions coalesced in the office.  Other people’s attitudes about power, sexual orientation, and public flirting were soon invoked.  It wasn’t long before we presided over a major dysfunction, especially after Abigal unceremoniously ended the affair and dumped Jim.

No big surprise—staff members took opposing sides in this matter.   Jim and some of the other women in the office began sniping at each other.  Anger and sarcasm grew, especially from the spurned lover, as he changed, almost overnight, from a mild-mannered, subservient young man to a rebellious and disruptive miscreant who got more daring by the day.

Meanwhile a small number of employees, maybe three, took his side; they included a vocal moralistic lesbian, weirded out by the event, who wanted Lindy and me to fire Abigal for her indiscretion.

The workplace had become an armed camp.

Jim continued to imagine that those women allied with his former lover were talking behind his back and mocking him—so he began snapping at them whenever opportunities presented themselves, even when he was not provoked directly.  About three weeks after the end of the relationship he threatened our company with a lawsuit for sexual harassment.  “I was seduced,” he said, “by my supervisor.”

This was in the years before we had a lawyer, so I attempted to handle it myself, meeting with Jim privately and trying to be a thoughtful listener.  Every few days, as tensions built anew, he and I would sit on old ties alongside the railroad tracks behind our Fourth-and-Jones office, the closest space with privacy.  Though I had a far closer relationship with Abigal, a long-time employee, than with him, I was empathic with his issues and well understood his sense of humiliation and pain.  She was a “crazy wisdom” girl and in many ways a heartless and flippant one too.

After a month or two of such discussions he and I concluded that the only resolution for him to move on (with a couple of weeks severance pay to make the decision easier).

On Jim’s last day at North Atlantic, he and I met one more time by the tracks to discus his exit strategy.  We were interrupted by the longest train in history, as it seemed as though the whole city of Oakland had been broken down and emptied out into coal cars.  Visually and musically it was the right finale for the movie.  After the train passed and we shook hands, Jim was supposed to go back in, collect his things, and say goodbye.

“Show them your dignity.  Prove to them that you can rise above pettiness,” I advised.  “They’ll remember you for that.  You might even go around say goodbye decently to each person, especially those you feuded with.”

“I’ll try.”

After he gathered his personal items, Jim stood in the center of the office for a moment, holding his box, pondering his possibilities.  Then he suddenly broke for the door and turned only to shout over his shoulder as he departed for good, “This is a coven of witches!”

After we began copublishing with the Upledger Institute, they graciously comped me into their courses, so I took Craniosacral Therapy 1 in San Francisco in early 1991 and then signed up for Craniosacral 2 the following fall.  It was held in San Diego, and I flew down there and stayed with an old high-school friend.  The course lasted three days, and at the end of the morning sessions each participating student was paired with a fellow student in order to practice the technique just taught.

On the second day my partner was a Hawaiian named Randy and, after we finished our work, we decided to head out to lunch together.

On the street he asked what I did, assuming it was some mode of bodywork.  I told him I was a writer and publisher.

“Wow,” he acclaimed, “My lucky day.  You’re just the man I wanted to meet.”

It turned out that he was a leading teacher of an osteopathic technique called Strain Counterstrain and had written a very successful textbook on the system, in fact the key one used in courses.  Its publisher was one of those medical academic companies that put out a lot of the chiropractic and osteopathic texts, a place like Churchill Livingstone or Williams & Wilkens—I don’t quite remember which.  Notoriously they pay low royalties because they can get away with it.  Randy’s contract had an approaching termination date and needed to be renewed, or not.  He was considering whether he should re-sign or publish the book himself.  He wanted my advice on the matter.

Margin and profit in publishing can be a real mystery, even to an insider but especially to an outsider.  Despite the relatively low margins and infinite returnability of all books, the publisher makes a decent share which, multiplied over many titles, is able to pay rent and staff and even produce a profit.  But that is presuming that the company gets past the magical tipping point where there are enough sales of backlist to maintain the daily operation (see Chapters Four and Five).  Many publishers don’t; then they make bad choices and fall back past escape velocity.

Academic publishing is different, and it guarded one of the more protected trade monopolies for years before Amazon crashed the party.

In the old days, academic books were usually nonreturnable and rarely got returned in any case.  Plus the margin was not only larger than that in trade publishing but obscene.  Taking advantage of their captive audience, an academic publisher might put a price of $40, $75, or even $125 on a book that would normally sell for $20 or less as a trade book.

In osteopathy and chiropractic the situation was even worse than with mainstream medical publishers.  These manual-medicine executives pushed their prices to the absolute max that the traffic would bear.  They also offered significantly lower discounts to stores, 10% or 20% instead of the regular 40%-45%.  Of course, this was 1991, and soon enough Amazon, as noted, would take over the commodities market and set the price of books in the way that those of other commodities were set.

Randy and I selected a restaurant, and I soon began collecting data from him and doing math on a napkin.  I asked how many of his book were sold in an average year—and it was a really large number, something like 25,000.  Then I asked him the cover price of his book and his royalty percentage.  It was maybe $100 and 2%, respectively.  That meant he got $50,000 a year—not bad.  He beamed as I remarked what a haul that was.

Then I asked him how much of a discount he would extend to his class if he self-published.

He didn’t want to give a discount.

I asked about his sales to stores and other teachers; he agreed only to the standard 20% academic discount.

I asked how many he would sell himself through his institute, and he said, ”About half.”

The book was about 150 pages in hardcover, so I figured $5 a book unit cost.  I calculated that he would spend about $125,000 on printing and take in—I scribbled numbers, moving toward the napkin’s corner.

“I think,” I finally concluded, “you’d make about two million two hundred thousand dollars a year more, after expenses.”

There may have been other factors I wasn’t informed about—overhead, additional design and permission costs, etc.—but my basic math for the scale of his profit was right on.

He looked at me; he looked at the napkin; he turned it around to face his direction.  He read it carefully, mouthing the numbers silently.   Then he looked up and, with gleeful eyes and a huge grin, brought his flat palm down so hard on the table that the salt and pepper shakers jumped.

“Goddamn it,” he said, “this lunch is on me.”

Speaking of osteopathic meals and tabs, I remember the first time that I went to dinner with John Upledger.  It was in San Francisco and, though I tried to pay the bill as his publisher—and also because it was my home turf—he grabbed it and said, “You get the next one.”

The next one was on his home turf in Florida a few years later, so I reached for the check, and he snatched it out of my hands, saying, “We’re in my town, you’re my guest.”

The next time was almost five years later, back in San Francisco with John Matthew, his son, and Lindy, and, when I started to pay, Dr. John said, “I’m handling this.”

“But you handled the last one here and the one in Florida.  I should take this one.”

“Who’s counting?” he growled

A couple years after that, back in Florida when Lindy and I ate out with him and his wife Lisa and he wanted to pay again, I told him the whole story, along with his punch line.

He said that, as a kid growing up dirt poor in Detroit, he always looked forward to the day when he could take his friends out to dinner.  “What else am I going to use my money for?” he added.  “I’m not a possessions sort of guy.”

Quite generous and nice, wouldn’t you say?

I met Bob Frissell as a rebirther in Oakland in 1992.  He had placed a listing in the local Common Ground list of alternative practitioners, and I took note of him because rebirthing was something I wanted to explore.

While visiting with him in his living room after our first grueling breathwork session, I discovered that he was deeply involved in the whole cosmology around Hoagland’s “Monuments of Mars” but from a radical esoteric more than a scientific perspective.  He saw the monuments as the vestiges of a failed civilization that had gotten trapped in the Luciferian Rebellion, an apostate technology on Mars and Earth, using only machines in place of our innate divine powers (see Chapter Eight).

Through rebirthing and a method known as the Flower of Life, Bob had developed his own technique of transformation through breath cycles with a series of affirmations (for instance, “The universe has been working from the beginning to create me and bring me to this moment, and everything I am experiencing now is perfect, just what I need”).  One silently ponders the affirmation while inhaling and exhaling ten times without a break between breaths, and then ten more times, and so on until it is an unbroken sequence.

Through this same method Bob was also teaching the fabrication of subtle astral bodies (merkabas) for transit through the cosmos.  He had an apocalyptic world-view centered around 2012 as the pivot point at which the Earth would shed its physical dimension and move into a higher overtone or dimension, whatever that upgrade would mean for the fishes and trees and beasties like us.

In our chitchat he had a repertoire of tales and paradigms around time displacement and hyperspace travel, for instance the Philadelphia Experiment, Indigo children, walk-ins (spirits taking over bodies in present use, merging with their habitants), and multi-tiered combinations of sacred geometries out of the Flower of Life.

On a visit to our office one day after I got the book project going, Bob entertained our generally-unclued-in-staff by informing them that the Earth was presently undergoing a sort of transformation and awakening that was previously unknown anywhere in the cosmos:

“Everyone from elsewhere wants to be here and see it live,” he crowed.  “Spacecraft from all over the cosmos are arriving at the Earth, parking, but in other dimensions.  This place is becoming so crowded with visitors that the fourth and fifth dimensions are already full.  New arrivals are having to park in second and third overtones of the sixth dimension and even higher.  It’s the biggest tailgate party of all time.”

His book, as formerly noted, was initially entitled Internal and External Merkabas. It was mainly a dictation that his girlfriend transcribed and then Kathy Glass and I rewrote into something resembling a book.  It was a ramshackle, thrown-together project, and I didn’t expect too much from it.  We got a pleasant surprise.

To repeat the story of the renaming of Bob’s manuscript: One afternoon I took our daughter Miranda, then a freshman at UC/Santa Cruz, to Bob’s house to meet him and hear about his things.  Over tea and cookies, he gave her the entire rap, sparing none of the spooky trimmings.

As we left, I asked her what she thought of his stuff.

“Nothing he said is true,” she pronounced, “but it’s exactly how things are.”

That was how the book got a better title, and Bob, to my delight, accepted it: Nothing in This Book Is True, But It’s Exactly How Things Are. With that title it sold in the hundreds of thousands.

Bob’s sense of humor, however, sometimes got a bit tattered, and he occasionally went retro on us, reverting from New Age guru to the old-fashioned North Dakota high-school teacher he once was.

When the book came out, it had a typo on the back cover; instead of Sacred Geometry for its bookstore category, it said Scared Geometry.

Bob called North Atlantic and began bellowing at some poor staff person, “What the fuck is ‘scared geometry?’”

The phone was passed to me.  “Bob, cool out,” I said.  “Typos happen; it will be corrected the next print run.”

“I just want to know what the fuck is scared geometry.”

“It sounds to me like you need to take ten connected breaths.”

“Don’t you tell me what to do!”

Most of my “best lines” are humorous or wry.  This next one isn’t.

The parapsychologist and psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud, was working on his second book for us as a very old man.  He was in understandable despair and hopelessness after his closest friends and wife died, and he didn’t even really care to complete the book (it was done posthumously).

“I’m finished,” he told me, “with everything.  This unit just needs to be shut off.”

Gabe Watts was a legendary sales rep for printers in the Bay Area.  He was operating in the territory long before Lindy and I arrived in Berkeley in the late seventies, as he unerringly sniffed out new publishers and quickly showed up on their doorstep.  It was many years before we were receptive to Gabe’s blandishments, as we used a number of other printers (see Chapter Fourteen).  But when we finally switched to Malloy, the Ann Arbor printer that Gabe represented, in 1989, he became a regular visitor to our house and then our offices.

He liked to take us to lunch at fancy Berkeley restaurants on the Malloy Brothers’ dime, and he even bought us a very expensive new fax machine in 1990 so that we could communicate with his bosses directly.  At the time, when it was a new technology, it seemed an unprecedentedly generous gift.

Gabe was born wearing the Malloy blazer and colors.  He preached about the Malloy Brothers as the greatest people in printing if not on the whole Earth.  He used to proclaim that Malloy was uniquely suited for our kind of book.  “You can underbid all you want for jobs,” he would explain, “and a lot of my competitors do; they run books initially at a loss—but eventually you’re going to have to get your money back.  In the end the equipment wins out, always.  Somebody will lowball Malloy in the initial run, knowing that once they have your book and your negs they can overcharge for reprints and you won’t ever know.”  He warned us to be on the lookout for this bait-and-switch technique and, though it sounded like a sales pitch at the time, he turned out to be right.

Then suddenly one day around 1997 Gabe was calling on us as the representative for Data Reproductions, a printer closer to Detroit.  He had been fired from Malloy for unspoken indiscretions—neither he nor they would reveal them.

Overnight, Malloy had not kept its machines up, and everyone in the business knew, Gabe declared cheerfully, that Data was the most forward-thinking printer in the country.  In fact, their equipment was even better than Malloy’s for us.

As he had clients throughout the Bay Area, Gabe went around methodically converting them to Data.

A classic salesman with his Hollywood toupée and sophisticated banter, Gabe loved San Francisco life, and he was seasoned in his territory by decades of learning just about everything there was to know about the printing business as well as the topics published by presses in his service group.  A magician who knew how to make a little bit of knowledge go a very long way, he also knew how to change hats and voices, client by client, and to rap at the level at the appropriate level of each one while spreading publishing the juiciest gossip he could cull.

One of the most visible figures in the Bay Area book scene, Gabe matriculated gradually into a somewhat imperious, comical figure, a California yuppie qua old-time salesman.  As a shameless talebearer and rumormonger, he always arrived with far-out stories about other presses—and those always came first, before business.  He was the one who broke the news to Lindy and me about our publishing friend who kept a mistress in the South Bay.  Gabe may have had a little extra incentive to blow the whistle on this guy because he also happened to be the one who launched the scam of running up as many bills as he could at one printer before switching to another.

“That was until we printers caught up with him and joined forces,” Gabe declared.  “He’s the reason why everyone’s credit is limited.  He used Malloy and then Edwards Brothers and Thomson-Shore, and then he went out-of-state.  It was a successful hustle for a while.  He figured he’d get what he could from each printer, and he had no intention of ever paying.”

Gabe was a real character, the generic backslapping rep.  At our office, his mere name evoked smiles and titters.  Laugh as you will, the man knew the angles, little hidden tricks to save money, and he made himself invaluable, even when he was not flamboyantly getting his bosses to lower bids and rush jobs through.  Never judge a book by its cover, right?  Gabe was a genius at what he did.

After he left his natal press, we split our jobs between both printers, Malloy and Data.  When Lindy and I set off on our first trip to England in the spring of 1998 we had a particularly sensitive job at Malloy; it was our first collection of graphic comics by the local comix star Phoebe Gloeckner.  Phoebe, as noted in Chapter Nine, was an edgy, radical artist, and the book of hers that we were doing, A Child’s Life, represented sexual activity in a particularly graphic way.  Her barely fictionalized account of childhood abuse by one of her mother’s boyfriends had one picture in particular of an adult male, his pants pulled down to show a giant penis waved in the teary face of a little girl.  It was a show-stopper.

We were somewhat concerned about getting the book printed but, since plenty of out-and-out porn was being run by independent presses at PGW, we naively figured it wouldn’t be a problem.  After all, Phoebe’s book was actually an exposé of sexual abuse of children by adults, and we thought it would be understood as such and thus be fine.

What we hadn’t taken into account was the fact that A Child’s Life’s “Little Lulu” appearance and the artist’s winsome style packaged its strong adult message in a girlish cartoon framework that, in short, freaked people out.  It was supposed to.  That was the point.

But this was hardly on our minds, as Lindy and I worked our way in a rented car up through the Lake District and Peebles, Scotland, to Edinborough and then the countryside above it.

While we were at Hawkshead Hill in Ambleside, A Child’s Life and Other Stories was deemed too risqué by the workers at Malloy; they simply out-and-out refused to work on it.  So we had it moved to Data where Gabe guaranteed it would print.

Finally we landed at the northern terminus of our journey, the home—actually it turned out to be the family estate—of David Lorimer, a prominent British countercultural editor who published a journal on matters of science, parapsychology, and religion.  We were to stay overnight with him and his wife Jane and three-year-old Charlotte.

That evening David had an old Eton buddy over for a lively dinner.

Charlotte wouldn’t go to bed.  No matter how many times she was put down, she reappeared downstairs with her blanket, saying nary a word, just hoping to pass.

Long after dinner the five adults were all in the study/library with a fire roaring, and I believe our host and his guest were describing the origins of golf as a game played in the villages of the Netherlands in the open landscape without a formal course.

I bet you are wondering by now how the two threads of this story come together….

Well, Charlotte had been put back to bed for the umpteenth time with quite a struggle, as Lindy had come to the aid of Jane by reading her yet another story.

The little girl was completely out of mind when, after midnight, she trailed down the long staircase, peeked in the door to the library and, holding out the portable phone, announced in a lovely British accent: “It’s Gabe Watts”—and she wasn’t even really much of a talker.

“Gabe Watts?” I thought crazily.  “How does she know him?”

It was as though she had channeled a joke across the planet from our office and was providing its punchline in order to buy her freedom.

It turned out, more mundanely, that Gabe had gotten our present locale and number from a staff member and was calling just to say the book was running at Data later that night in America.

A brief sequel:

Months later, Publisher Weekly did an article about the controversy, discussing both the Malloy and Data positions and quoting me as saying that Malloy was protecting the abusers by treating the victim at the same level as the perpetrator.  That shamed a Malloy executive into a phone call and an apology.

As irony would have it, Phoebe was vaulted into fame by the book and several years later, was hired as an art professor at where else?, the University of Michigan.  She found herself at a faculty party being held at Malloy and phoned me from there to ask, “Is this the one who printed my book or the one who refused to?”

For years the head honcho at Walsworth, our last pre-Malloy printer, was Dave Schattgen.  He often flew to Berkeley to drum up business, more from industrial and academic presses than trade publishers like us—I believe we were pretty much his only countercultural customer, perhaps his only Bay Area independent press.

From our mutual enjoyment of baseball, Dave usually took me out to lunch, even before we became a customer of his, in fact even when were pledged to his main competitor, Inter-Collegiate Press, across the Missouri state line in K.C., Kansas.  A giant, sweet-smelling, cologned Midwestern man in a dark suit—a lookalike of Cubs’ announcer Harry Carey—Dave was a full-fledged couch potato; his sometimes cohort was a charming, wiry athletic guy, a part-time soybean farmer.  On other occasions he traveled with a nattily-dressed female blonde bombshell from the office.  No matter who Dave traveled with, he kept a characteristic big zone around himself; everything else was neutral and he was the show.

On one trip he brought me a Louisville Slugger baseball bat with my name engraved on it.

Dave was definitely out of context in the Bay Area.  There was a day, as we were promenading with the soybean farmer toward a restaurant on Telegraph Avenue, ground zero for Beserkley weirdness, that we passed alongside rows of street people against the walls and storefronts, some doing what-might-be-called dances, one yelling “fuck you” at everyone who passed.  Dave and the farmer looked fascinated and terrified.

Then suddenly a shirtless person, chest and back streaked with charcoal, jumped into our path, pointed to Dave, and shouted to his cohorts lying on blankets and sleeping bags, “Let’s eat him!”

A few months later, as I was starting on a totally noncommercial project, a book without an evident market, I was trying to garner every advantage I could.  I looked for a grant, a guaranteed sale, and last of all a low rate from Walsworth.

Dave indulged my long, overwrought description of this book, as I recounted its worthiness for charity, its philosophy, and the history behind it, presuming all along that he was listening.  As I waxed philanthropic and lyrical and was building up a crescendo to my actual request, he interrupted, “You know, Richard, I’m an old sentimentalist.  I just love the bottom line.”

From then on, I referred to Dave as “the old sentimentalist”—to his colleagues at Walsworth as well (after telling them the story).  So “the old sentimentalist” became his house nickname.

In the mid-nineties North Atlantic Books copublished the title Rowdy Richard by one-time New York Giant infielder Dick Bartell as told to Norman Macht, a baseball historian who ghost-wrote it with the ex-player.  This full-fledged biography had the subtitle: A Firsthand Account of the National League Baseball Wars of the 1930s and the Men Who Fought Them.

Dick defined the word “scrappy”; he was still going strong in his eighties when the book came out, attending autograph shows, visiting retirement homes and country clubs, signing and selling the souvenir by the dozens everywhere he could find oldtimers.  He came by our warehouse on Woolsey Street regularly to get more stock, and we always loaded cartons into his white Cadillac, right next to his golf clubs.

One day he and I both grabbed for the same carton of books, him probably to prove he could still carry the weight and me out of deference to his age.  There were some sheets of plastic foam on top, and we simultaneously nicked and popped them up in the air.  We looked at each other and said the exact same words at the exact same moment: “We blew the doubleplay!”

In the late nineties, about the time of our “coven of witches” incident, we had an heirloom intern from Amherst College, the first in over a decade.  Herschel Farbman would have preferred to be working on movies out at Lucas Farm, as he told us often, and eventually he got himself there.  But for a while, though, he was a North Atlantic “go-fer” who did inputting on a computer much of every day.  A hard worker, Herschel was also a wise guy and a joker.

During those years we turned over most of our chainstore orders, as required by contract, to PGW down the block, but we did fill many STOP (Single Title Order Plan) ones because they tended to get lost in the PGW system when we gave them to them, and the customers never received their books.  We sometimes knew because an order from the same store for the same title would come again a month or two later.  Often STOP orders were for old and obscure titles that PGW couldn’t find in the chaos of their warehouse.

Over the years one chainstore placed regular STOP orders with us for old titles, never paying the bills, and thus built up receivable red ink of around $500.  No letters or phone calls to their office got a productive result (this is why small independent presses need distributors).  Then one day we received a check from their accounting department for over $25,000, obviously an error.  The question was: what to do with it?  Should we return it, deposit it, take out the $500 or so and mail them a check for the balance, or take out the $500 and issue them a credit memo, leaving them in the same position in which they trapped us for so many years?

We took up the discussion at a staff meeting that day.  Speakers weighed ethics against opportunism, and one person actually said he’d vote for keeping it as long as we divided up the difference among the employees.

At the end of the discussion we held a vote.  It came out to a tie, half of the staff electing to keep the money, half wanting to do the right thing and return it.  Since Herschel was keyboarding nearby and obviously eavesdropping, I called out, “Cast the deciding vote, Herschel.”

“Don’t ask me,” he demurred, his head not even turning up from the computer.  “I’m a kleptomaniac.”

Around the same rough time, we did a number of projects with our two favorite graphic artists, friends of each other but totally different in style and personality.

The legendary Spain Rodriguez, originally from Buffalo, New York, and creator of the underground superhero Trashman, had a Hell’s Angels biker look, though he was a totally gentle guy who melded left-wing politics, cosmic conspiracy theories, and pop irony.

Harry Robins, originally from Phoenix and creator of the performance character Doctor Hal, was not as well known as Spain as a comix artist but widely recognized as a multimedia artist and science popularizer in a genre blending Classics Illustrated and Mad Magazine.  Hal dressed in Victorian clothes with ornate handkerchiefs, and a bowler chapeau or top hat like Wimpy in “Popeye.” Looking if headed to a black-tie dinner, he appeared totally anomalous alongside a hirsute leathery biker. Both men were big presences, large and rotund.

Together this odd couple drew a comic for us in 2001, Alien Apocalypse 2006, a story of UFOs, marijuana farms in Humboldt County, and government conspiracy written mostly by our editor Kathy Glass.  It was, almost from the beginning, a failed project, doomed to giveaway in Humboldt co-ops and ultimately the pulper, but early on we all valiantly tried to create a sensation and then salvage the shortfall.

One day Spain and Hal ballooned into our office together to use one of the computers to “colorize” the back-cover image that Hal had drawn, an intricate collage of E. T. bestiary.  Having commandeered someone’s desk to put the final colors in, they made such a ruckus in the process that the whole office was distracted and amused.  Their shouts and one-liners to each other replicated a throwback Cheech and Chong movie.

After an hour they declared the colorizing done.  Pleased as punch, they were departing together, just as bumptiously.

Spur of the moment, all I could think of was—and I don’t know what caused me to utter it—an imaginary line out of some comic of my childhood, perhaps a non sequitur: “Okay, boys, let’s go wreck some other establishment!”

They turned around, baffled and bemused.

“It’s your caption,” I added, “the blurb over your heads as you decamp the premises.”

A funny line, though not connected to any book, was Bill Kotzwinkle’s email to me about his first visit to Las Vegas: “It’s quite a business, getting people to put their money in a machine and receive nothing back.  If you put your money in a Coke machine and didn’t get a drink, you’d be unhappy and kick it.”

We were usually not invited to the full PGW sales meetings each season (only to their pre-sales marketing meetings), as the account executives preferred to present our books themselves to their reps and spin them internally.  Only big presses like Grove, Taunton, and New World Library got to portray their own titles to the group.  However, every so often we were extended a courtesy invitation, and the advice then was to be provocative, brief, and interesting.

We also always got a lousy slot.  The reps were likely to be half-asleep by the time our turn came—they had listened to a whole day’s worth of tedious presentations.

The first time we were invited, we brought along Bruce Kumar Frantzis, author of Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body, our best-selling chi-gung book.  Kumar is large like Popeye’s Blutto and, despite years of studying Taoism with a lineage-holder in China, refined during months meditating in a cave in India, he still has the outward personality of a New York City cab driver.

The son of Greek freedom fighters, Kumar was raised in Manhattan and is a dangerous martial artist in a true sense, a man with the capacity to kill with a single blow, not the case with many of our more internal martial authors.

Because his book was so successful following his Donahue television appearance (see Chapter Sixteen), PGW requested him, so we brought Kumar along to a sales meeting and told him to be interesting because the reps might be dozing.

Midway through his presentation he abruptly stopped talking and made a leap over a row of doddering reps, swinging his right leg so low that three of them had to duck, then landing with a graceful, room-shaking thump.  He looked like a feather but sounded like an earthquake.  You have to say that he woke up the room

Years later Charlie was still introducing me to people with, “This is the publisher whose author almost took off the heads of my three best reps.”

Of course, Kumar’s action spoke louder than any words.

Over a decade later when invited to another sales conference, we brought along a new author, hiphopper Renay Jackson.  An avid public rapper, Renay was a great performer, riveting and totally poised.  Renay’s appearance at the conference was for a forthcoming season in which we were announcing the first of four books that he had been selling in his own funky editions.  Their topics were, of course, drug dealing, sex, and gang wars and, when one of the reps asked if there was a continuity of characters from book to book, Renay didn’t miss a beat: “The line of work they in, my characters don’t usually live that long.”

When Renay chose us over his agent’s preferred New York house (Kensington), she went ballistic—Renay forwarded us her startlingly immoderate curse-filled email.  He appended this note to it: “Da bitch thinks I’m crazy to go with you, she said you don’t have the dough to compete, but she’d best be looking ’cause we gonna blow up.”

Would that we could have justified his faith.

Back when we signed the contract, Renay came to our offices to discuss terms (see also Chapter Nineteen for the other half of this story).  We were in the Haws building then, our second Fourth Street office, formerly the world headquarters for the manufacturer of top-line water fountains, and my space was the master office, the former den of the CEO of Haws.  It was a very large room with massive cabinets and closets and a gigantic safe with a combination lock that looked as though it needed two people just to turn it.

We had tried to get the safe removed, but no one at Haws could figure out how it had gotten into the room in the first place since it didn’t fit through either the windows or the door.  [There was also a dead rat in the wall beside it when we first moved in, but that’s another story (see below).]

It probably would have taken Douglas Adams and a character from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to figure out the puzzle of the safe and then time-traveling to extract it.

Sitting there with Renay, Susan Bumps and I went through the contract, paragraph by paragraph.  That’s when Renay generously insisted on giving us a portion of the movie rights plus half of all the foreign rights.

When we were done with the last page, I asked him if he had any questions.

“About what?”

“About anything at all.”

He thought for a moment, put a finger to his lips, then placed a second one, and finally said.  “Yeah.”

We waited.

He turned his head two different ways as if to check if anyone was listening; then asked, “What’s in the safe?’

One other contract note vis a vis Susan Bumps: When she began corresponding with our author Alights-on-a-Cloud True Blue Indigo in 2009, he took to sending her back emails in stylistic keeping with his book about the nobility of the soul.

In one such communication he confided that he was taking her in spirit with him into the desert on a long vision hike and he hoped that she wouldn’t drink too much of his water and empty his canteen.

Now the rats.  Not long after we moved into the Haws, my office began to smell.  It was a cloying sweet smell of the sort you instinctively don’t want to know the source of.  The landlord’s nephew, the property manager, thought it was probably just the heat coming on, but it got worse and, after two weeks of occasionally imagining it was gone when it wasn’t, I took to working less and less in my office.  Then the smell began creeping down the hall, and other people were grossed out.

Finally the landlord had his nephew and helper cut into the wall by the safe where the smell was strongest.  As they kept enlarging their cut, I would periodically check back on their work until, after two hours, they had laid on the floor a rather small rat.  The most disturbing thing was how intact it looked.  I mean, if it hadn’t been pulled out of the wall just then, we were looking at a long half-life of decay.

The bigger problem was in the warehouse where the rats chewed books: little shreds of confetti and origami all around the floor as well as interrupted texts, mostly among the collected Theodore Sturgeon hardcovers.  Neither the landlord nor leasor would do anything about it because each considered the other responsible (see Chapter Twelve), so we had to hire an exterminator, as little as I like the term or Tom DeLay’s menial concept.

This was a strange guy.  He hung around the warehouse, talking to the guys there about the minutiae of his job (he explained that rats liked the glue in the cloth bindings which is why they preferred Sturgeon).  He set traps all over and came back a week or two later to find them empty.  He bitched mightily and then, looking slightly deranged, hiked around with arsenals of nets and paddles, looking for creatures to whack.

Joshi, who later tried to write a book on our warehouse rat (see Chapter Eighteen), decided that he wasn’t actually an exterminator but a performance artist, doing a piece about an exterminator.  But we never knew for whom, never saw the video camera, and he never sent us a bill.

It reminded me of a time about eight years prior when Lindy and I hired a housecleaner from an ad in the East Bay Express and then came home to find him dressed in a tutu, naked otherwise, going around with a feather duster, barely grazing surfaces while flicking his utensil.  As he fled for the front door, he called back, “I only tried to give you my personal best.

This exterminator did finally nab a few small rats in his traps.  The warehouse guys complimented him, tongue in cheek, and he rejoined, “Those aren’t rats, fellas.  When we get rats, I’ll show you a rat.”

By then he had concluded that the rats had abandoned the Sturgeon cache because they discovered the more tasty sushi restaurant next door bordering on the south side of the warehouse.  That was enough information to cause Lindy and me to stop eating lunch there.

Then one day—I wasn’t there but I heard the account—someone was backing up the forklift as the exterminator was wandering.  Suddenly he let out a screech followed by a cheerleading routine, jumping in place like Rumpelstiltskin.  He came running up to the forklift and, where it had just passed, pulled up a gigantic smushed rat, dripping entrails.  Holding it by the tail and guffawing, he chased around individual staff members as in a game of tag, calling out: “You want to see a rat?  Well, here’s a rat, boys!  Here’s a rat for you.  Here’s a goddamn rat!  Here’s a bejeebers bona fide ass-kicking, fucking rat!”

Ah, the human race on this planet!  What a trip!

Lindy can be a bit of a control freak.  She’s likes to enforce protocols and she worries if rules aren’t being followed.

When Mark Ouimet came to work for us, his most useful function in a sense may have been mediating between the two of us because we equally admired, respected, and trusted him.  However, once he got going on anything he was a ball of energy that did not hanker being deterred or having anyone or anything get in his way.

The first time he and Lindy clashed was the last—after that she gave him a goodly berth.  I forget the actual topic, but it was something about Mark instructing project editors to change a process in a direction that he thought was more efficient.

Lindy went running up to warn him of possible consequences, and he turned and snapped: “Jesus Christ, Lindy, at least let me fuck up first before you get on my case.  We’re not doing brain surgery here.  We’re publishing books.  No one’s going to die.”

In a 2008 episode our editor Philip Smith was stuck with editing and putting together a history of farting prepared by Don Nibbelunk, the fartmeister in his nineties who, sadly, died before we could get his book out (see Chapter Eight).  Many people at North Atlantic had worked on the project, and Philip inherited it late, unhappily, and by default.  Considering the book a burden and an embarrassment, he had nothing good ever to say about it.  Plus it was generating no advance sales.

Then suddenly for a couple of weeks it went crazy, racking up a startling number of orders, visible to everyone reading the daily interactive report from Random House.  Walking by Philip’s office, I was about to comment on the changed situation when, just from the look on my face, he intuited the topic and beat me to the punch:

“I know, you can’t keep a good man down.”

Stephen Arroyo, astrologer and publisher of CRCS, was an early colleague at Bookpeople and PGW and the founder a small astrological distribution company that carried some of our titles during the eighties.  He commuted into the Bay Area from the northern countryside for many years, and we occasionally had lunch or met to discuss projects, but over time I saw less and less of him, as he cut back on his business and pretty much vanished into retirement.  In 2005 he contacted me and asked if we would publish his new book, Person-to-Person Astrology, something he would have done himself a decade or two earlier.  As we went out to lunch for the first time in twenty years at Café Gratitude, I asked him about his life and his family.  His son had grown up and was helping with the business, and he himself was divorced and remarried.

“Wow, it has been a long time,” I saw.  “How long were you married to your first wife?”

He sighed and said, with slight astrological drama, “A hundred years.”

In the early 1980s I met two of the students of the late spiritual teacher then named Bubba Free John, later Da Free John, and later yet Adi Da.  In an insistent if gentle way they proselytized.  But joining a guru, especially an authoritarian and dogmatic one, was not something I would ever do.  I don’t have the appropriate combination of patience and lack of skepticism, though I do find the late Da Free John’s writings uniquely powerful and profound and I ended up supplying blurbs for the back covers of a couple of his books as well as the preface to his monumental work Easy Death (see “A Primary Reading List” elsewhere on this website).

In the early nineties I was invited to Daist center by Clear Lake in Lake County, and Lindy and I made the relatively short drive for the weekend.  We were given a meditation cabin to share with the New Age composer Ray Lynch, a long-time devotee of Adi Da.

During that visit we got a tour of facilities, including the museum, which had relics and reconstructions of the master’s life.  Per chance, or synchronicity, the master turned out to have been born on the same calendar day as I was, November 3rd, six years earlier.

I found it bizarre to see my birthday suddenly acquire the status of Christmas or Lindy’s birthday (July 4th), its icon appearing throughout the museum.

One room featured a reconstruction of Da Free John’s high-school football career.  Marqueed as something like “Playing Football with God,” it had a locker, his uniform, shoulder pads, action and team photographs, plus smaller, incidental accoutrements.  It struck me as particularly compelling because it raised the irony of how God, or someone who was to become God, could have had a stint as a guard or tackle.

Gabriel Cousens, our nutrition and raw-food author, was also a football player, back when I was his buddy at Amherst College, though he elected not to talk about it thereafter.  It apparently represented youthful dalliance and unfortunate indoctrination to him.  With his radical diet protocols, he had transmogrified his entire body from that of a lineman to that of a ballet dancer, solid but light.

A few years ago he was laying out for me various plans for future books and, while telling of his forthcoming spiritual autobiography, he surprised me by indicating that he was going to include his football career in it.

Like Adi Da, Gabriel had not only played on the gridiron but studied with Muktananda.  Plus, more and more he was practicing and teaching as a guru rather than just an M.D. or nutritionist, training overall lifestyle and mindset in concert with diet.

I also knew that Gabriel didn’t think that much of Adi Da, though I myself believed the guru was probably the real deal.

Though Adi Da provoked controversy with his many wives and huge ashram on the island that he purchased from Raymond Burr in Fiji, he actually pulled off the role of being God-manifest-in-Human-Body about as well as it could be pulled off.  His career, though, was far too exotic for Gabriel, a regular American guy with professional and literary ambitions, and a conventional householder mentality.  He would never think to attempt such drama and pomp.  I heard that Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa once remarked to Adi Da, “It must be exhausting to invent your own religion.”

in any case, Adi Da was someone whom Gabriel viewed competitively and with suspicion from his own understanding of not only Muktananda but the Zohar and the biological prerequisites for health and personal evolution, a favorite topic of the former Bubba Free John under the title The Eating Gorilla Comes in Peace.

Gabriel also looked upon Adi Da as a nutritional amateur and a cult boss.

When the old Amherst star told me about his own book, I asked him if he knew that Adi Da was, like himself, a football player.  “There’s a room commemorating his career at their center in Clear Lake.”

“Yeah, but he only played high-school ball.  Did he ever captain an undefeated team?  Was he ever All-New-England?”

I guess on matters of football prowess gurus can still be pretty frank about their rivalry in a way they wouldn’t compete for, say, the posthumous blessings of Muktananda.  What a line!  Adi Da.  Was he ever All-New-England?

My all-time favorite line at North Atlantic involves my martial-arts teacher Ron Sieh (see also the entries on “Friends” and “My Teachers” on this website).  In the early nineties, after meeting Ron at Peter Ralston’s dojo, I began training with him on my own.  Ron didn’t have a dojo or a coterie of students (or for that matter, most of the time, any student but me).  I paid him for twice-a-week privates.

Acutally I didn’t get along with him when I first met him, I guess because he was a mixture of a tease and a show-off.  At a Saturday open house at Peter’s, he declined to correct me on moves.  After I politely asked him for advice, he refused, declaring, “I’m too advanced for you.”  Then he jumped in the air and did a big kung-fu kick with a kiai roar.

There was that playful element to Ron.  We soon became friends and, when I saw that he could use employment, I offered to pay him for instruction.

Ron was a creative and delightful, though challenging martial-arts teacher. As one example, he liked to whirl a hand in space as in a Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny cartoon and then, when I turned to watch it, bop me with the other.  He would gloat and goad when he knocked me over, waving a teasing finger.  He had great lines like: “Your body’s fine.  It’s your mind that’s all fucked up.”  And  “I’m trying to teach you to be the best you can, but you obviously have some other agenda.”[2]

Ten years younger than me, Ron didn’t have much formal education, having joined the Army instead, but he was self-educated.  Truly a lifelong martial-arts practitioner, he was always in search of a day job, taking all sorts odd work along the way: mowing lawns at cemeteries, cleaning playgrounds, draining swimming pools, etc. (see Chapter Ten).

Eventually (1999) he moved back to his hometown of Minneapolis and got hired the Park department there, but for many years before that, when he was still in Berkeley, he constantly needed subsistence work.  After we opened the warehouse on Eighth Street in 1992, I hired him to assist Jason with order fulfillment.

Ron remained an incorrigible trickster and provocateur.  It was in his blood.  If he messed up an important order, books for a conference that arrived late for instance, or if he sent the wrong book, he would be anything but apologetic; he might say, “Too bad.  Better luck next time.”  Or “Want perfection, hire robots.”

He was also occasionally rude to customers, especially to arrogant and insistent ones, giving back what he got.  Finally, after he had major confrontation with an important customer, I headed toward him with a dour look.  Sensing what was coming, he said belligerently, “You’re not firing me, are you?”

“Ron,” I said, adapting a line he knew well from the Clint Eastwood movie Bird, “I owe you everything, but not a job.”

“Gosh,” he declared with a look of bemused pique, “it’s a sad day when the burghers take over from the samurai.”

Addendum: North Atlantic Books Grants 2007 | Table of Contents

Footnotes

[1]
It went out of business between drafts of this chapter.
[2]
See Out of Babylon, pp. 533-537.

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Driving the Labyrinth from Berkeley, California, to Maine: June/July 2014
July 4, 2014 at 6:48 pm

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