Brad Craft, the used book buyer at University Book Store, says he “didn’t grow up in a bookish atmosphere” — he didn’t have access to a good library, and none of his teachers introduced him to the joys of literature. Where did he learn to love books? “Yard sales,” he says. He was especially drawn to a certain type of book: “I’ve read more gothic romance novels than most men my age,” Craft explains. He assumed the bodice-rippers that he bought from his neighbors were classics of literature. “They looked like classics to me,” he says. The women on the covers “were in historical costumes,” after all, just maybe with a little more cleavage than you’d find on the cover of your typical Bronte book. For a long time, Craft says, “I couldn’t tell you the difference between a novelization of Airport ’77 and a Jane Austen novel.”
But he did eventually move on from the smut to the real classics: “I didn’t read Austen until I was in my late thirties, and then she was a revelation.” Now he’s obsessed, calling himself “a big set person.” At his home, he has matching sets of works by Fielding, Kipling, a 24-volume Balzac collection and “four sets of Dickens, I’m afraid.” What’s his favorite Dickens? “David Copperfield is close to my heart. I’ve read that more than all the others, including The Pickwick Papers. And I’m a big fan of The Old Curiosity Shop. I don’t even like allegory, but I think it’s a really exquisitely achieved allegory.” Craft has heard the quote attributed to Oscar Wilde that a reader “would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of [Curiosity Shop’s] little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter,“ but he disagrees: “I actually think it’s beautifully done.”
Craft worked at the late, lamented Stacey’s Books in San Francisco for 12 years. He’s done time at other used bookstores, and he even worked a handful of months in a corporate bookstore — “I had no emotional attachment to the place, but it did give me insights into the sale of things that happened to be books.” He can’t recall exactly how long he’s been at University Book Store — 12 or 13 years, give or take — but he knows that he helped convince management to add used books to the bookstore’s stock about a decade ago. He’s been behind the counter ever since.
Craft has been drawing since even before he could read. “My mother tells me that I drew before I talked. If she wanted me to be quiet and content, she just put a drawing implement in my hand and put me in the corner and I kept myself busy.” He started out copying John R. Neill’s illustrations from the Oz books, and even today he posts his bookish illustrations on his blog, Usedbuyer 2.0. A collection of his illustrations is for sale at University Book Store, and he sells author caricature calendars every December.
With all the talk about classics and used books, some might be surprised to learn that Craft is an avid podcaster. He’s been recording his Breakfast at the Bookstore show with Nick DiMartino for over a year now. “I’m a relatively late adopter of technology,” he admits, “but then I can become very enthusiastic.” Craft got into literary podcasts as a fan, but then he discovered that most of them were “over-specialized,” focusing only on specific subgenres of mystery, say, or certain types of science fiction. Instead, he wanted to do something a little broader, talking about all kinds of book-related topics with all kinds of guests.
Craft also headlines events at University Book Store on a regular basis. He reads Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” every year at the holidays — this last year was his eighth performance — and he’s also celebrated the birthdays of Dickens and Thackeray with readings, as well as a celebration of the poems of William Cowper. (“That was a barn-burner, right there,” he laughs.) “It allows me to serve ham three or four times a year,” Craft says, and it provides a rare opportunity for adults to sit and be read to, which is a pleasure that too many people give up after childhood. “I just think literature is meant to be read aloud,” Craft says. “The greatest literature needs to be put into the air now and again.”
What does Craft love most about University Book Store? “Perhaps its age more than anything else,” he says. “There’s a tradition here of respect both for the customers and the employees. They really want their booksellers to have things like health insurance and a livable wage. The values clearly are from an earlier era in a lot of ways — in a lot of good ways.”