Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part III

“Every now and then, a person will have a good idea for an invention, but the concept rarely goes beyond idle speculation and cocktail party chatter. Richard Kirschman is not one of those people.”

So wrote a reporter for the Marin Independent Journal about 20 years ago, and no, Richard Kirschman has never been a person to hide his ideas behind “idle speculation.”

A Bolinas fire fighter for 20 years

For half a century he’s been known in West Marin as the everywhere-at-once First Responder, activist, inventor, farmer, letter-writer, real estate developer (the good kind), philanthropist, self-publisher and all-around Great Idea guy.

It’s the inventor with a sense of humor I’d like to follow here, the guy who looks at society’s complexity and notices something so obvious that everybody’s missed it. Typically he can’t stop thinking about it until a solution appears in his mind, and then he’s filled with excitement, and off and running he goes.

That was the case with the $3 Coin Project and Ten Thousand Words You Already Know in Spanish, as we have seen in previous posts. But the range of ingenuity and good humor in Richard’s many inventions will always astound. Here are a few examples:

The ‘Rickshaw Ring’ Project

I bet every Westerner who’s traveled to India has had this thought: How do they do it? That is, how do rickshaw drivers do the back-breaking work of peddling tourists around on soft (not paved) roads? All day, every day, and then, when a hill approaches, they have to get out and pull the rickshaw, with you and the kids and the luggage sitting there, adding weight. And they charge you the equivalent of U.S. pennies for the service. (more…)

Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part II

It may not seem that a $4.95 paperback with nothing but word lists could make a difference to an industry — maybe to the world — but that was the potential I saw in Richard Kirschman’s self-published book 25 years ago.

Richard Kirschman

In those days I was on the lookout for self-published gems outside the New York book trade. I believed a connection existed between the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s and Northern California’s small-press revolution more than a century later. True, not many of the 300,000 people who came West made money from the Gold Rush. But they all believed that anything was possible when they got to California.

This idea, that breaking away from institutions in the East can make people more personally creative and adventurous in the West, seemed to thrive from one generation to the next, especially in the Bay Area. The legendary Whole Earth Catalog (1968) started out as a self-published list of tools, for example. Hundreds of author-produced books, including my favorite, A History of Doorknobs in the United States, followed that same path: The inspiration to self-publish, which so rarely occurred to writers in New York, very often felt like the only way to go, 3000 miles away, in Berkeley or San Francisco.

Richard had experienced traditional success in 1961 when Doubleday published his New York on the House, a guidebook listing free exhibits and events. But just as connections to the mainstream often fade as authors leave the hub of publishing in New York, so does that anything-is-possible belief flow more mightily from within. (more…)

Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part I

A modern-day Gold Rush has been mining its way through the hills of West Marin, thanks to the oddball brilliance of one very smart iconoclast named Richard Kirschman.

I mention the Gold Rush because the key to Kirschman’s unique project is a gorgeous $3 coin that looks like gold, has the heft of a silver dollar and bears the knockout design of wildlife artist Keith Hansen.

 

West Marin’s $3 coin: A lot of money raised … without investment?

An Experiment Hits the Jackpot

Kirschman introduced the coin in 2010 when he asked retailers and restaurant owners to include it in the change they gave to customers. The coin is so stunning that most people asked about it, as they do today.

“They’re told it’s both a collector’s item and real money you can spend in West Marin,” Kirschman says. “We love it when they keep the coin as a souvenir, because that simple act of removing it from circulation will transfer its value of $2 (over cost) to local nonprofits.

Three bucks seems like a paltry amount, but Kirschman notes that 2.5 million tourists visit West Marin every year, and many do take it home — tens of thousands, in fact.

And no wonder: Etched into the brass are long-admired symbols of West Marin — the famous Point Reyes lighthouse, tule elk, California poppy, osprey, sand dollar, dairy cow, and more of the sightings one discovers along the famous rolling California hills.

From Zero to $50,000

From the beginning, Kirschman and his wife, editor Doris Ober, rarely kept an exact running count of the total donated. Too many coins were in circulation at any one time, and they wanted to keep administration simple anyway.

But this year, as a new member joins the board, Kirschman, 85, realized this astounding fact: Over the course of eight years, without anyone spending a dime, the $3 coin project has raised upwards of $50,000. And it’s all gone to good causes.

That’s not even the kicker to this story. Kirschman and Ober never really promoted the project to retailers in the ten communities. So now, with more active engagement, the coin’s true potential may be realized.

Names of the 10 communities right on the coin!

“It could earn twice, maybe five times as much, and in a shorter time frame,” Kirschman says. “Who knows? The coin’s motto after all is Strength in Community.”

He gets out his notepad to show what he means: “There are 2.5 million visitors coming through West Marin every year. If one out of ten took one coin home, it would leave $500,000 for local charities-every year.” So with a little effort, the total really could be stunning.

It Works and It Baffles

The only thing not in agreement about the $3-coin project, at least with non-economists like me, is exactly how it works.

First, it’s important to note: Kirschman’s coins are not a version of Bitcoin or other “cryptocurrency.” They are not “zero coins” or supermarket tokens or part of a speculative bubble or pyramid block chain or altcoins. They are, rather, an agreed-upon currency that brings together ten coastal communities whose merchants want to help local non-profits.

So if you find one of these coins in your change after paying a grocery store or restaurant in, say, Stinson Beach or Point Reyes or Tomales Bay, you can: 1) keep it as a joyous art piece or commemorative collector’s item or absolutely terrific stocking stuffer (kids love them); or 2) use it in payment for other purchases throughout West Marin.

And if you keep it, simply by taking $3 out of circulation, you’re making a donation to local nonprofits. Frankly, that’s the puzzler for me: How can it be that if you simply do nothing with actual money or spend it as local currency, you’re contributing to good causes?

Richard Kirschman displays the coin at the annual West Marin Weekend parade

How It Started

Kirschman got the idea in the 1990s when he realized that nonprofit groups in West Marin were seeking donations from a very small population. With only 2,300 households in the entire area, “everybody was fishing from the same pool,” he says.

At the same time, the more than two and a half million tourists coming through West Marin each year represented an untapped bounty of cash. They loved exploring famous natural landscapes along Highway 1, from Muir Woods through the Point Reyes National Seashore to Tomales Bay, and they spent a lot of money doing it.

Kirschman knew that most of these visitors wouldn’t be interested in donating to small nonprofits they’d never see again, like local libraries, museums, preschools, Little League, senior centers, summer camps and the like. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the way tourism stimulated the local economy.

So he created a nonprofit (technically a 501(c)3, which took six months of state forms to fill out and regulations to pass and a Board of Directors to create), now known as the Coastal Marin Fund. He took out an account at Wells Fargo in Point Reyes Station to process the flow of money. And when he contacted wildlife artist Hanson, he wanted the look and feel of the coins to be so classy and timeless that visitors and residents would want to keep them forever.

Signs explain coins to visitors

Kirschman then asked merchants along Highway 1 to integrate the $3 coins with real money, and to explain to customers why using the coins was 1) a fun idea and 2) not costing anybody a penny.

“For every coin that drops out of local circulation,” Kirschman stated probably hundreds of times, “two dollars becomes available for a local charity or other community nonprofit.” (That’s two dollars rather than three because the coin costs a dollar to mint).

It took another six months of going from store to store, restaurant to restaurant and service to service across the wide expanse of West Marin. Over time, enough merchants got it — you didn’t have to understand the premise to make a real contribution — that soon a real presence of the coins began making a lasting impression.

Signs began to appear — “$3 Coins Accepted Here” signs! “Ask for one in change” signs! — in many of the ten West Marin towns whose names proudly ring the circumference of the coin: Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Dogtown, Olema, Inverness, Point Reyes, Inverness Park, Marshall and Tomales.

So Simple It’s Hard to Believe

Want to know how the project works in more detail?

Let’s say you’re a participating grocer who’d like to support a local nonprofit like the West Marin Little League:

  1. You buy a box of 25 coins from the Coastal Marin Fund at $3 each, paying a total of $75. (Of course you don’t really buy them; you exchange $75 in real money for $75 in gold coins.)

    The box of coins

  2. Now the gold coins are real money as far as you’re concerned. You offer them as change for your customers, who take them home as keepsakes (they’re so beautiful!) or spend them elsewhere in West Marin.
  3. Because the coins cost the Coastal Marin Fund only $1 each to manufacture, here’s what happens to the $75: a) $25 goes to replace 25 coins, leaving $50; b) $10 goes to the Coastal Marin Fund for operating expenses, leaving $40; c) that remaining $40 goes to a designated charity or nonprofit.
  4. So when the box is empty, it’s now worth that $40. You simply hand the box over to the Little League of West Marin (or any nonprofit in West Marin; here’s a selected list).
  5. The Little League then turns the empty box over to the Coastal Marin Fund, which gives the group $40 cash. The group can wait until more empty boxes pile up from other merchants, which is usually the case. Twenty-five boxes worth $40 each, after all, equals $1,000, and that’s a lot of baseballs.

But wait, says the person who nearly failed algebra but now insists there must be a straightforward answer: How does the fact that the customer takes the gold coin home — the equivalent of Kirschman’s vision of the coin that “drops out of circulation” — result in more money for nonprofits?

Even a chintzy casino token has value

“The same way,” says Kirschman, “as when a casino patron takes home a $5 chip as a memento — a chip that probably cost the casino a nickle to produce — leaving the casino with a profit of $4.95. Since in our case the $3 gold coin costs about $1 to make, whenever one coin drops out of circulation, it leaves $2 behind for West Marin.”

The Hidden Joy of It All

I think what I love most about the coin project is that it’s both realistic and hopeful, practical and idealistic. Like so many of Kirschman’s ideas, it says: If we all believe in each other, the value of free-enterprise in a democracy is not to make the 1 percent of the population rich. It’s to spread the power of wealth around for everybody.

Further, built into the Coastal Marin Fund is a “Direct Granting” system that allows the merchants themselves to choose the nonprofit they like and hand over the grant, literally, in the form of an empty coin box. There are no deadlines, applications for grants, judging committees or other bureaucratic procedures (Richard hates bureaucracy) standing in the way of good causes receiving money.

What a lovely accessory

And let’s say you’re not a participating merchant or town — you’re just a good-hearted citizen who’d like to assist without spending your own money. This too is simple: You just buy a box for $75, spend the 25 coins inside that are worth $3 each, and give the empty box to a nonprofit. (You can ask somebody local to do it, or the CMF.)

And thank you! say the grateful West Marin folks: You too haven’t spent a penny, and yet you’ve just contributed $40!

“By the way,” Kirschman likes to say to kids especially, holding the coin up so they can view the rim closely: “Do you ever wonder why this (and any coin of value) has these lines etched around the outside?” Few kids or adults know. “The lines are called ‘reeding.’ This was an invention of Isaac Newton’s to prevent people from filing slivers off their gold coins, which they could then exchange for cash.”

Why are lines etched on the rims of coins?

The irony of the project is that Kirschman sees himself as a skeptic and a realist and an atheist and a doubter. You wouldn’t think he’d pour his heart and soul (he does have them) into a coin project for good causes — or a unique first-aid cream for dogs, a hospital for babies with AIDS in Romania, a back-saving gear for rickshaw drivers in India, a drought-reducing device that collects water from fog — and on and on, as his great ideas go, which we will see in upcoming posts.

All that’s just for starters. I met Kirschman years ago when he wrote two self-published books that stand today as a testament to the keen observer in all of us.

Then I discovered that Kirschman is the guy who, after he served as a juror, sued Marin Country for its “rubber stamping” Grand Jury; donated land for a medical clinic to Point Reyes; gave the Boy Scouts of America an A for Atheist badge (why won’t they thank him?); created a prototype hospital for babies with AIDS in Romania; raised near-extinct farm animals on his own property to help the breeds stay alive.

The Boy Scout badge

And he’s still tinkering with: a fog-to-water device for the next drought; a gear for rickshaws in India that could save millions of drivers from back-breaking passenger loads; ideas for humane treatment of deer, bees, dogs, turkeys and cattle; help for prison inmates and seniors getting it on in communes.

That barely dents the list of Great Ideas he’s come up with, so I just kept writing and writing — five more posts, in fact — to see what makes a guy like this tick. Many of his projects haven’t succeeded, but he’s as proud of them as any others, because commercial achievement has never been his goal. Serving the creative impulse, following one’s passion, more deeply exploring “Strength through Community” (his own motto for West Marin!) — all of these seem to shed light on an astounding drive underneath. Yet none of them comes close.

And by the way, if the name of Richard Kirschman sounds familiar, he is the brother of police psychologist and mystery writer Ellen Kirschman, whose books I’ve discussed in previous posts. Ellen K’s name rang a distant bell when I saw her first novel in a bookstore.

Gromyko’s desk plaque from early United Nations

Now I think, gee, what a family: Going back a half-century, one discovers that their mother became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt in the early days of the United Nations. Richard was 13 at the time and happened to “borrow” the hand-made desk plaque of USSR ambassador Andrei Gromyko as a memento … ah, but why go on (see Part V).

These are the kind of offbeat facts that I hope will explain so much about an offbeat iconoclast who really does change his world, one idea at a time.

 

 

 

 

Let Glide Be Glide

Recent decisions by a conservative Methodist bishop are causing an uproar among the many followers of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco.

A few weeks ago, the bishop, Minerva Carcaño, abruptly removed two pastors and launched a task force to assess the finances of Glide, the powerful Glide Foundation, and the “lack of an appropriate governance structure.”

It’s hard not to smile at that last one. Has the bishop never set foot in the place? A feeling of happy chaos pervades so that everyone will feel welcome, but look more closely: A strong organizational structure of some 90-plus free programs confront life-and-death issues every day.

These programs succeed where others do not because Glide has carved out a unique identity in one of the worst slums in America. Worrying about “appropriate governance structure” with the mother church probably isn’t a priority when you’re providing free meals to 700,000 people annually.

Learning from History

What’s at stake keeps reminding me of an explosive event in the 1960s, when a shoot-out nearly occurred between the Black Panther Party and San Francisco police.

The Black Panther motto: “armed self-defense”

The incident began when the Panthers opened a San Francisco branch, much to the horror of a very white SFPD. The Panthers’ cramped office was located in the Western Addition/Fillmore District, a low-income, largely African American section of the city.

The police insisted that a bomb scare required an official “visit” to the Panther branch to keep the neighborhood safe. The Panthers accused the SFPD of inventing the bomb scare to conduct a search for illegal weapons. The police prepared to advance in force that very night. The Panthers brought in sand bags, plywood to cover windows and enough ammunition to withstand a full-scale SWAT attack.

So things escalated pretty fast, and it was a very scary time anyway. Lethal firefights between police and Black Panthers were breaking out in other cities, Oakland especially. The FBI branded the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the security of the country.” As is true today, tensions between law enforcement and people of color skyrocketed throughout the country.

The Issue of Trust

Neighbors in the Western Addition/Fillmore, many of them members of Glide, asked the church’s pastor, Cecil Williams, to step in. He had worked with the SFPD before — sometimes even against them — and was able to set up a meeting that afternoon.

With a delegation of Panthers and residents at his side, Williams suggested that the chief postpone the police “visit” until things cooled down and the Panthers invited them to come in.

Cecil Williams and the SFPD

The chief conferred with several captains and surprised the delegation by agreeing. “We’ll wait,” he said, “until you’re ready for us to come out there.” He then stood up as if to say the meeting was over.

“I sat there thinking this sounded too easy,” Williams remembers. As is so often true today, the fundamental issue was trust. “This was the problem of taking the word of the chief, I had learned. There was never any guarantee to the black community that police wouldn’t rush in for any reason.”

Williams then made the following announcement: “On our end, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have 400 or 500 of our people surround the Panther office tonight, and tomorrow night, and however many nights it takes until the Panthers feel comfortable.”

The chief looked stunned. Hundreds of poor people willing to stand between outraged combatants with loaded guns? No way.

Cecil himself had no illusions. “It went without question that these people would not be armed, would not fight the police in any way, and would not move from their positions. If a bomb had really been planted and exploded in the night, many of them would be killed. If the police decided to invade the Panther headquarters, they’d have to arrest all 500 people first.”

It was a brilliant move in its Gandhian way. The chief again agreed to postpone, this time aware of potential consequences.

The Black Panther office in San Francisco

The All-Night Stand

Minutes after the meeting, Glide worker (later president) Janice Mirikitani initiated the church’s “telephone tree” (no cell phones then). One by one, volunteers arrived at the Panther office. Then dozens, then hundreds. “The crowds swelled into the streets,” Williams remembers. “Soon you couldn’t see the Panther office for the mass of people getting deeper and thicker. Still more people came; the police would have needed a tank to wedge through.”

The volunteers stood packed together that way all night. Even in the wee hours when a siren screamed by, no one panicked, even the Panthers. (It turned out to be a fire engine). The next night, the volunteers returned, and the next. They kept coming until the SFPD and Panthers found a way to reconcile. (That peace would be temporary.)

This was one of the many times that Cecil Williams interceded in a crisis. He has been successful, people believe, because Glide is both a church and a community force. Its commitment to unconditional love means “the church is there for the people, not the other way around.”

Indeed, Williams’ voice of 50 years ago sounds very much like activist pastors in the Black Lives Matter movement today.

“People want to know how I as a minister who’s devoted to nonviolence could have supported the Black Panthers and their use of guns,” he says. “I answer that it’s easy to get stuck on the issue of weapons when the larger picture — a world of racism and violence — is not being addressed at all. I am committed to unconditional love, which means I respect the reality of others. In a world where African Americans are more likely than whites to be profiled as violent, and more likely to be killed, my focus is the preservation of life.”

At Glide in the 1960s: The church as a community force

This is the point that Bishop Carcaño keeps missing, I think. Williams isn’t saying he supports people having guns. He’s saying he accepts the reality that people have guns, and he ministers to them without judgment.

That legacy has continued with all the pastors who followed. Glide “accepts the reality” of anybody who walks in the door — not only the poor and homeless but the mentally ill, the addicted, the paroled, the PTSD vets, the warring gangs and others. Many are camped outside Glide’s doors, and they are welcome to come in, too, because the love of this church has no conditions.

Then We’ll Love You

So back to Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who oversees 370 churches and says nice things like this: “As United Methodists we respect all faiths (and) love all people … All of our churches minister to the poor and marginalized.” That’s true as far as it goes.

But Carcaño’s idea of love does have conditions. “Glide Memorial United Methodist Church must remain true to the mission of the United Methodist Church,” she says, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Oh, dear. This sounds like the old Skid Road barter: Come in and have some soup, says the Christian church to the lost and homeless. But before you go, embrace Jesus Christ as your savior. Then we’ll love you.

Minerva Caraño

At no point in Glide’s 55-year history has anyone been directed to become a “disciple of Jesus Christ.” All the people, whether sitting in pews or donating millions or drunk and screaming at passers-by outside are encouraged to find their own truth, their own identity. God is not a punitive god, according to Glide — nor a judgmental god, not a shaming god. God is a freeing god to all the people, especially those who’ve been cast out.

As Cecil points out, the earliest followers of Jesus Christ were “the nobodies, the outcasts, the poor and homeless.” They built the church because Jesus spoke to all, without judgment, and brought love to all, without condition.

The Controversy Today
Let Glide Be Glide

But let’s look at Carcaño’s accusation of a “lack of financial transparency” at Glide. This is hard to figure since Carcaño sits on the board of the Glide Foundation and has been privy to every budget, audit and account that Glide sends out to all board members and donors. Like fellow board members she has signed off on statements that prove Glide’s financial transparency. And she has probably sat back in awe at the number of donors who contribute to the annual budget of $16 million.

One of the largest donors, financier Warren Buffett, describes his long involvement with Glide here. “Nobody who’s ever given to Glide has ever felt shortchanged.” he says, referring to the transformations he’s seen among the people whom Glide calls its “clients.”

Cecil Williams, Warren Buffett, Janice Mirikitani

True, Buffett’s method of giving is unusual — he auctions off a chance to have lunch with him each year, and the highest bid usually tops $3 million — but that’s because Glide is Glide. It’s not just the homeless whom God encourages to make their own choices their own way. Rich philanthropists get to do it, too. And by the way, donors who contribute to Glide, Buffett says, “always get their money’s worth.” So what is Carcaño’s beef.

Of course so often it’s Williams and Mirikitani who draw people like Buffett — and Oprah, and Bono, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, and so many others who bring the spotlight to Glide. Carcaño has said she reassigned the two pastors because her top-level choices have been subverted by Williams and Mirikitani. They seem to be running things from behind the scenes, she believes.

If that’s true, given their ages — 77 and 89 respectively — it is astonishing in our youth-crazy culture that these two have so much power. The bishops who oversaw Glide before Carcaño embraced Williams and Mirikitani as a gift to the ongoing legacy. Perhaps it says a lot about Carcaño that she alone can’t work with them to mutual benefit.

The ‘Land Grab’ Theory

Carcaño’s critics say the real problem boils down to nothing less than an attempted land grab.

Jones Memorial Methodist Church today

Glide Memorial Methodist Church today

Glide as it happens is one of two United Methodist Churches in the city serving African American populations and pastored by African American lead ministers. The other, Jones Memorial, is located a dozen blocks away in the Western Addition. Both have developed nearby buildings for affordable housing, and the property values of both have soared with the entrance of Silicon Valley interests during the so-called “tech revolution.”

Meanwhile, say these same critics, the pension and healthcare fund of the United Methodist Church (UMC) has become so underfunded that it’s in need of massive influx of funds. The sale of the two church properties could bring in a windfall of $40-50 million, it’s been said, and solve a lot of problems.

It’s hard to believe that this kind of backroom scheming, if it exists, would be supported by someone with the activist credentials of Minerva Carcaño. She may be a rules-conscious conservative about UMC “governance,” but she’s also backed pro-immigration, LGBTQ and other progressive issues where it counts — at protests, at the border and during her own arrests.

Nevertheless, there’s another thing Carcaño misses. The two pastors at Glide didn’t just talk a good game about being “radically inclusive.” They, like Glide leaders before them all the way back to Williams and Mirikitani in the 1960s, made it a point to express unconditional love through concrete acts, such as feeding the hungry, offering shelter, providing healthcare and standing up for the humanity (read: civil rights) of all.

After retirement, Williams and Mirikitani returned as part-time employees of the Glide Foundation to support new leadership and to continue Glide’s legacy

You can see the results at Sunday Celebrations when kids and adults get onstage to tell the congregation what happens to them in Glide’s programs. These are people America once dismissed as the dregs of society. “Everybody had given up on them except you,” Buffett says to Williams and Mirikitani. Transformation really can happen when people feel deeply, authentically, unconditionally loved. Usually, week after week there’s not a dry eye in the church. It’s unfortunate that Bishop Carcano has said of Glide’s services, “Sunday Celebrations are uplifting concerts, but they lack the fundamentals of Christian worship.”

If a central concern for the modern pastor is to “respect the reality of others,” surely a central concern for Bishop Carcaño is to respect the reality of her own pastors, to let them let Glide be Glide.

Instead, it appears her approach is to eviscerate Glide, one of the most successful churches in the Methodist domain, and return to the 1950s conservatism that nearly killed it in the first place.

Note: I worked with Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani in the writing of their memoir, Beyond the Possible (HarperCollins, 2013). Most of the quotes and several photos in this post are taken from that book.

Remembering Peter Mayer

Reading about the death of legendary Penguin publisher Peter Mayer at 82 reminded me of an episode in the late 1970s that demonstrated the makings of that dear man as one of the book industry’s most charismatic leaders.

Peter Mayer: at Penguin in 1979

It happened after book publishers in the United States and England signed a consent decree in the mid-1970s that released English-language reprint rights to competitive bidding among different houses throughout the world.

The consent decree was created to level the playing field by weakening the dominance of London- and New York-based houses. So Peter Mayer — having climbed the ranks at Avon and Pocket Books to run Penguin’s international operation as CEO — traveled to Australia, New Zealand (often referred to in shorthand as ANZ, never as “down under”) and other countries to buck up the Penguin troops, as it were.

I was traveling through Australia and New Zealand at the same time, reporting for Publishers Weekly on the effect of the consent decree. This was a wondrous, in-between period for any reporter in ANZ because remnants of UK colonialism were in the midst of fading away — though too slowly for some. Many people still referred to England as “home,” and guests still sang “God Save the Queen” at ceremonial dinners. But a new belief in home-based institutions had begun to take over.

The famous Penguin logo

In book publishing, it was hoped, the consent decree would also help to diminish the particular colonialist notion that ANZ authors had to be published abroad before they were taken seriously at home. This had been true of Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds) and Thomas Keneally (soon to write Schindler’s List). But with the bidding process for acquiring books now open to local houses, it was hoped that dependency on the “parent” company or country would lose its hold.

So Penguin interviews figured mightily in my travels. Since its founding in 1935, Penguin’s series of color-coded paperbacks had become recognized and trusted the world over, giving ANZ branch offices a leg up in launching unknown local authors to international markets. Now, though, a belief spread among other houses, from Harper Australia and Random New Zealand to the independent Angus and Robertson, that the consent decree would break up that Penguin advantage.

Thus Peter Mayer, whom I had admired from afar but met only once in person, had his work cut out for him. Penguin had hit a low point for the first time since its founding in 1935, so who knew if this was the right time for its new CEO to fly 10,000 miles and visit the hinterlands? But word had it that Peter hit the ground running; he was a’vistin’ book trade folk like a house afire. Wherever I went in either country, people would say that Peter Mayer was either a city behind or a city ahead of me, and it always seemed that his visits had a profound effect on everyone who met him. Some said “incendiary,” but in a good way.

For example, if I interviewed staff members in a Penguin office before Peter Mayer came through, answers to my questions usually took a noncommittal direction — daily accounts and predictable data were trotted out to show titles selling briskly and markets responding nicely, and so forth. Few risked an opinion about the consent decree or, really, about anything.

Like a house afire

However, after Peter Mayer had been there, it felt like everybody from warehouse handlers to managing directors came rushing out with eyes shining to meet me excitedly and blurt out things like this:

Well, we used to sell to bookstores once a season, but now we’re going to do inventory checks and co-op ads and author signings even for the smallest books because we’ve got the legacy to turn this consent decree around, you see? Here, look at this advance title list: we’re picking up more local authors than ever and our crossover [trade to text] numbers are going up because real growth is in the offing, but first let’s introduce you to this editor and that sales rep, and do you want some tea? Are you going to the ABPA (Australian Book Publishers Association) dinner and have you heard of this small press and that new bookstore?

It was curious at first because I thought that Peter as the top Penguin exec would visit Penguin’s offices throughout ANZ and then, you know, leave. But his infectious we’re-all-in-this-together outlook about books compelled him to stop in at bookstores and wholesalers and competing publishers and author signings everywhere he went.

The original orange look for Penguin fiction

And each time he got somewhere, he’d strike up a conversation without regard to rank or privilege. To Peter it was a gift to work with books at any level – for publishers, for example, to sign an author with huge potential despite the house’s small budget; or to announce a large hardcover printing but reserve enough f&g’s (folded and gathered sheets) to bulk up the paperback run. It might be a gamble to offer discounts for unknown authors like one-free-for-ten (meaning the bookstore would get the 10th copy free, a crazy idea since most buyers ordered a maximum of three books by unknowns), but what the hell — if we believe in our writers, let’s take some chances.

Peter also liked to rummage around bookstores asking questions of everybody: Why were some books placed face out rather than spine out or as “endcaps” (end-of-the-aisle displays)? How had the buyer convinced publishers, who usually dreaded the idea of paying for bookstores’ advertising, to accumulate stats from previous orders to cover almost the whole bill?

Penguin green: mystery and crime

I should mention that everybody on the sales side knew how to do these basic things. They did not need the boss from London to instruct them on their job. The difference was that Peter made it all fun again, made the risks of returns and bad reviews worth it and, again and again shared that vision he knew we all had, that working with books at any level was a privilege, a kind of art in itself.

I put the “we” in there because even hearing about such things third or fourth hand, I got just as revved up as anybody else. I remembered that years before, a younger Peter Mayer had taken a group of students through an Avon warehouse as part of a Publishing Procedures course in Boston. As a member of this group, I was not alone worrying that the book industry had become arrogant and stuffy and mired in the Dark Ages. So I was struck by Peter’s enthusiasm over little things, like new ways to glue signatures in paperback books, or how one day it would be possible to print all books on acid-free paper, so one day the pages wouldn’t turn brown and crackly the older the book got.

In the1990s

True, Peter Mayer had been billed as part of the new breed of publishing — hungry for new ideas, not stuffy, hugely ambitious for himself and his house and unashamed about driving a cab for a living (of course this made him all the more romantic) before he started in book publishing. Most important, he was no phony. Showing us around that ice-cold warehouse, he picked up, pawed at, held to his heart and even recited parts of so many titles that it was clear he loved reading for its own sake, a rare quality in our trade.

Peter left us at the end of that tour with a challenge. The paperback industry might cover the world with millions of reprints, but the house was always looking for the next, best one. Could any of us think of a critically well-received hardcover that hadn’t been reprinted in paper? Standing at a loading dock in that B.C. (Before Computers) era, this was not an easy thing to research.

I think my candidate was A Separate Peace by John Knowles, which prompted a “Great idea!” response from Peter, who then remembered that Bantam had picked it up in 1953. (How nice of him not to mention that any book on the bestseller list as long as the Knowles novel had been would be snapped up fast.)

Ah well, he shrugged, as if to say, that’s the joy of publishing — hundreds of other good books are out there waiting for all of us, so why are we standing here?

That’s the question I heard ringing through the book trade these past decades as collapse from a new era seemed inevitable. For every industry, it seems, you’re lucky if you get one Peter Mayer in a lifetime.

 

A Police Shrink Who Gives Up on Nobody — Part III

Sue Grafton’s recent death reminded me what a joy it was to watch this gracious, no-nonsense writer break into the male-dominated mystery genre back in 1982.

I’ve been thinking of Grafton while writing about Ellen Kirschman, a mystery writer whose work is just as fresh and relevant for her time.

Sue Grafton

Ellen Kirschman

As I remember the B.C. (Before Computers) era of the early ’80s, novels by unknown writers like Grafton were lucky to be published with a first printing of 5,000 copies — and luckier still to clear a sale of 3,000. Grafton’s publisher, Henry Holt and Company, took a risk on her first novel, “A” Is for Alibi, with an initial printing of 7,500 copies and was thrilled when it sold 6,000.

As the world now knows, one reason for its success was Grafton’s catchy, classy idea of making a lethal murder mystery sound like a children’s spelling book. Something about following the alphabet had a huge and immediate appeal, and why not? Few could resist solving “B” (Burglar) without looking forward to “C” (Corpse). Readers coming in late at “E” (Evidence) seemed to always want to go back and start with “A” Is for Alibi.

This was also the PFE (PreFeminist Era) when publishers were just beginning to realize that women not only bought most of the books in the United States; they actually read the damn things and, in the mystery genre especially, spread the word of an intriguing newcomer faster and more powerfully than any marketing or publicity campaign ever could (still true). (more…)