The San Francisco Bookstore Where the Revolution Ends up
There is great benefit, these days, in having a name unlike any other: you float to the top of Google searches. Bolerium Books, in San Francisco, knows this well, although it wasn’t a consideration when it first opened, in 1981. Bolerium’s co-owner, John Durham, runs through any number of explanations for the name, depending on whose leg he wants to pull and how hard. “It was an ancient road in Roman times,” he intoned recently, “large, funny, and sluggish,” while another co-owner, Alexander Akin, roundly mouthed, “Not true.” (The word is a Roman one for Land’s End, in Cornwall, England. The bookstore was once a bit closer to the ocean.) Fittingly, there is no other place like Bolerium, not on the Internet nor in the province of the real. Similes come steadily, none of which really seem to fit. Perhaps Durham’s is best. “We’re like a platypus,” he told me recently, “ugly as fuck and all sorts of parts.”
At last count, the store contained 67,385 single titles in stock. Estimates of the time that has elapsed since the last deep cleaning ranged from a jokey “twenty years ago” to a hemming “define ‘clean.’ ” “Nature abhors a vacuum,” Durham quickly noted. A store map gestures at the sheer amount of stuff, with sections labelled as “Reef of Flotsam” or “Onset of Confusion” (right by the entrance), or, in one cramped corner, “Hell.”
The semi-barbed humor protects something serious and deeply essential. Few people walk in (“the door is locked to keep out the unworthy,” Durham wrote in response to a negative Yelp review, though he made sure to mention the password, “swordfish”). Those who do manage to enter find, three floors above one of the Mission District’s busiest intersections, a vast and quiet space populated by seven staff members, thousands of books about and from social movements, densely packed rows of pamphlets and ephemera, and, in the adjacent storage room, great snowbanks of paper. These snowbanks, or “midden heaps,” as Durham calls them, are from attics, basements, personal archives, and libraries across the country. They have all been sold or donated to Bolerium. In them, evidence of the past is to be found, possibly reckoned with, and then, hopefully, sold.
From Bolerium’s snowbanks have come copies of On Our Backs (a lesbian erotic magazine put out in response to the anti-pornography publication Off Our Backs), century-old postcards of pacifist Doukhobors protesting in the nude, intricate Black Panther posters and handbills, an issue of Lumberjack (“with appendix on musical saw”), and the famous inter-commune Kaliflower newsletters from early-nineteen-seventies San Francisco. But with a staff so expert that they can translate a Mongolian treatise on traditional Oirat law using a handmade cheat sheet, classifications like “famous” and “obscure” begin to blur. So do “past” and “present.” Rather than a platypus, maybe the store is more like an estuary: the disparate holdings mingle, rolling in and out according to murky tides. (If you visit the Web site and browse the digital catalog by date, the tides begin to feel more explicable; one week, for example, carries a huge wave of Alan Watts-related material. The next week brings a crush of gay romance novels.) At Bolerium, for better and worse, you can wade around in what Durham calls “the primary source material for history.”
Here is an 1838 publication by the American Anti-Slavery Society and a brochure arguing for the Equal Rights Amendment. A pamphlet from a 1928 speech by Marcus Garvey sits not far from a publication on “incidents in the Life of Eugene V. Debs” written by his brother, Theodore (once, before an important speech, a piece of barbed wire tore “a great rent in [Debs’s] trousers . . . the flap of which hung down like the ear of a Missouri houn’ pup”). Among many other small, sheeny pins is a button from the 1990 AIDS Walk in San Francisco. Here are fliers that passed from hand to hand at protests, meant to convince, assuage, and inflame, and here’s a lump of coal from a miners’ strike in Alabama with tiny chicken-scratch wording: “never forget.” Notably, this year of serious American protest has been the store’s best sales year ever.
Not marked on the map is that other part of American history that has, this year and every other, raged—a section that Durham loosely calls “the White Problem” and keeps behind the locked door of a different room altogether. Accessible to scholars and those who know to ask, the spindly bookcases contain titles like “Gun Control Means People Control” and “Fluoridation & Truth Decay,” as well as several publications by the John Birch Society. “You can’t understand American history without understanding the far right,” Durham told me. “What it’s done, its justifications, its tropes and idiocies.”
It was to the deepest corner of the storeroom that the archivist Lisbet Tellefsen was drawn one afternoon. (Tellefsen visits Bolerium as a “treasure hunter,” and has amassed the largest collection of Angela Davis-related material in the world.) One time, she idly tugged out an issue of The Bayviewer, a magazine that once served the historic black neighborhood that James Baldwin characterized as “the San Francisco America pretends does not exist.” The magazine fell open to a page bearing the face of Tellefsen’s father, whom she had not seen since she was two, in an advertisement for his Oldsmobile dealership. That led to an ongoing saga of tracking down half-siblings and cousins found on Ancestry.com. “There is so much history there,” Tellefsen told me. She visits Bolerium once a month, wary of buying back her own consigned material. “It’s so rich with connections. We have an understanding of history, but places like that hold so much.” Bolerium’s official motto, “Fighting Commodity Fetishism with Commodity Fetishism since 1981,” does not quite distill the feeling of holding some of these discoveries between your fingers, or explain the way that ephemera can work to vivify history, very often through its ordinariness. A bit of light browsing recently unearthed a flier from a class reunion of Florida’s first accredited African-American high school, as well as an Electrolux manual from 1933 listing Pope Pius XI as a famous customer.
But history is ongoing, and the present moment needs its collectors. During the Occupy Movement, the store paid a dollar for each flyer or poster that people brought in, then put together a sweeping collection for the British Library. Holdings from contemporary social movements are fairly small, since so much planning, discussing, and arguing takes place on Facebook and Twitter. “Occupy was the last one to have lots of leaflets,” Akin told me, somewhat sadly. Currently, he is collecting material from what he calls the “shock-and-disbelief period” following the 2016 Presidential election. Only from “marinating in the sauce of time” do these things begin to accrue both value and interest.
Recently, in one snowbank, Akin found a sketch done in creamy pastel of a basalt mountain and drifting clouds. Tiny guard towers dotted the background. It was a drawing of the view from Tule Lake Segregation Center, the largest of the incarceration camps that held Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, and the one which held those people deemed by the government to be “disloyal.” The artist was a man named Tomokazu, surname unknown, who resided for over thirty-five years in Plumas County, California, before being imprisoned at Tule Lake. The piece of paper sat among countless others all bearing dispatches of one kind or another from the past, which is not a foreign country, really, but a place hovering just under our present, and made of paper and ink, buttons, and voices.
via The New Yorker
September 21, 2018 at 03:55PM https://ift.tt/2pvZLQF