Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Bit of Mournful Rustling

Stacey's Bookstore, in San Francisco is soon to be closed. My oldest friends there are there no more, already gone before the doors close. The bookstore's hardworking events staff held their last noontime reading, just today. My old friend, C. wrote a brief history of the events at Stacey's, from her time forward, at The Swivet.

But I am older still, and turning "the leaves of memory" tonight, I am reminded that "in my youth," before the innovation of coordinated events, the bookstore hosted many authors, celebrities and the like; business and technical lectures, as C. noted, but also sports figures, local and national, movie and television stars, past their best days, peddling memoirs, regional authors, cookbook chefs, infamous lawyers and celebrated activists. I remember lighting Audrey Meadows' cigarettes, fetching chair after chair for the many fragile fans of Mickey Rooney, Catfish Hunter signing a caricature I'd drawn -- though I could never draw a proper baseball-cap on him. I remember the astronauts, the politicians, the cartoonists from Disney or Warner Brothers, each book signed with an iconic mouse or rabbit. Al Franken stood on a table to address the unexpectedly huge crowd. Mohamed Ali, having spent weeks carefully signing book-plates in anticipation of his appearance at the store, posed for endless photos and performed card-tricks in my office to entertain the staff because he could no longer speak above a whisper. Alistair Cook, a regular visitor to San Francisco and to Stacey's, affably chatted with me about Charlie Chaplin and H. L. Mencken, both of whom he'd know well. The line for Shirley Temple Black stretched the length of the city block or more. Barry Manilow refused to get out of his limo because of an earlier bomb threat, despite the assurances offered by the San Francisco police and B., the then manager of the store, who crawled into his car to try and fetch him out. So many names come back to me: Eartha Kitt, Bette Midler, John Glenn, Michael York -- an idol of my youth and still so dreamy in middle-age I stand obviously tongue-tied and idiotically beaming in the photo someone snapped of us.

Novelists of national reputation tended to read from their work in the evenings and elsewhere, as befitted their dignity as serious artists, but their walkers often brought them to us first, to sign stock and kill time, many times after a liberally liquored lunch. One particularly stewed star of the post-war literary firmament spent so long in the WC, I was sent in, as the only responsible boy present, to see if he intended ever to come back out. He was none too amused, when I woke him. Other, more amiable writers happily chatted with even the likes of me as they signed away half an hour: the dazzling Richard Ford, A. S. Byatt, Ward Just, William Styron, so many others. Stephen Dixon was shocked to be recognized, unaccompanied and unintroduced, likewise David McCullough and Richard Bausch. Susan Cheever, I remember, was not amused at being asked about an unauthorized collection of her father's stories. Nabokov's biographer, hearing my pronunciation, all but patted my head as he corrected me. So many great writers I met in those moments, just "drop ins" but all the dearer to me for the personal time I got to spend with them.

Book signings and the like were managed, to the extent they were, by the buyers then, and hosted by the buyers or the floor managers or anyone else that happened to be available, clean and presentable enough. Because of Stacey's unique location in the heart of San Francisco's downtown financial district, the store's hours tended to limit most such festivities to the early afternoons. (After six o'clock, the neighborhood emptied into the underground trains, onto the buses and the bridges.) The bookstore was not, as a result, often the first choice for publishers with new books to push, at least when it came to books outside the store's business and technical specialties, and yet working there, I was able to meet an amazing array of talented and accomplished men and women. Just one more thing for which I am grateful to that grand old place.


  1. Gorgeous. I just linked to this over at my post from today as well.

    Man, I can't stop being sad.

  2. Brad-Okay, I'm teary again. I remember how whenever we'd have an astronaut for a signing, all the men of a certain age, just stood staring, reduced to the 10 year old boys they once were. and Muhammad Ali! The man emanated love.

  3. Staff memories-

    I remember Barbara George our activist, big-hearted manager, going over her plans to take part in a protest - and assuring us that she'd be back to work right on schedule after her expected arrest.

    What about that great cartoon you did after that hubbub - I think it was Random House, their publishing head contended that a machine-written copy of an author's signature was just as good as one by the author?

    The dial telephones we had for years - surprisinging our customers who would lean over and watch us dialing in wonderment; the 3 x 5 cards we used to keep track of the inventory; my younger brother generously coming in to divide our three bays of computer books into categories - we hadn't a clue until he helped us.

    The many corporate international customers who would fill carts of books to buy - and would finish up at closing time. It took a long time to type up the pages of the invoice and figure out the shipping!

    The one and only author signing I pushed for and arranged - Scott Adams. It was only his second signing. The crowd was enthusiastic and delighted to honor their champion. The staff was amazed.

    Our baby shower for Jeanine - hardly anyone there was dating much less having kids. What to do? We panicked, looked at books and threw a fine party. The staff decorated paper baby booties and I put them in a book - of course.

    The time you cracked your vocal cords and had the strangest voice for a few much to remember...

  4. The wonderful thing about a working for a business like Stacey's... was that if had a profound impact on you even if you worked there a relatively short period of time. Barging in from a previously closing Stacey's location and feeling somewhat like an intruder, the staff were quick to find your strengths (and weaknesses!) and put you to use.
    Memories? I still tell the story of Gene Hackman trying to shop incognito. The guy never had a chance!
    Autograph parties...Shirly Temple Black, Buzz Aldren, Ali, Allen,& the Cos. They were fun and a little insane, but the real memories I take from Stacey's are the customers who came back again and again, trusting our recommendations, and feeling welcome enough to offer their own.
    I arrived in the middle of the '87 "remodel" and left in '91. Not a lifetime there as some have spent, but qualitatively it was immeasurable.
    Bringing my kids in occasionally while visiting SF; my oldest, now 18, remembers toddling around the kids books section when it was at the bottom of the old mezzanine steps. He even remembers the old mezzanine steps! Probably because they were like a mountain to him.
    Speaking of the mezzanine, Loma Prieta set it swinging like a wrecking ball, and we lost some employees that day; not to injuries, but to fear. I was not surprised to read in an article of the internal structural damage found years later a result of the quake. The basement floor was buckled, and while most buildings sustained facade damage in our area, it felt as though the little 3 story at 581 somehow played a part in holding up the buildings on either side.
    Ahhh memories.
    Thanks for the opportunity.

  5. Sharon! Jeanine! So wonderful of you both to find this and write. Old home week continues here. Encourage others. Get in touch with me again.