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She Made Me Become a Publisher
I know that Heidi Yamada had a profound, lasting effect on every one of us who will be speaking to you today. Every one of us was changed by knowing her. She was that kind of person: beautiful, stylish, funny, original to the point of being unique, and disruptive in the best possible sense: she turned our lives around. As for me, it is no exaggeration to say Heidi Yamada made me what I am today: a publisher. If Heidi had not walked into my life in the spring of 1980, I would no doubt still be a small-town, small-time merchant, selling used books and barely getting by. But, by the grace of Erato, Heidi did walk into my store, and into my life, and she offered me a manuscript that was to become her first published book, and mine as well.
In the ten years that have passed since that spring day, Heidi went on to publish other books with other publishers, and I went on to publish other books by other poets, and both of us made names for ourselves. Heidi Yamada is right now, today, perhaps the most spoken name in the world of poetry. My name is barely known outside the city limits of Santa Barbara. But I have no regrets except for one: that Heidi Yamada is no longer with us, will no longer visit my office and fill it with smiles and arresting phrases.
Happy is the man who has found his work. Heidi helped me find mine.
I had a small used bookshop in downtown Santa Barbara when I first met her. I got into that business mostly by accident, having collected first editions of post-WWII American poetry all through college and then through my twenties and early thirties, working for a big bookstore in Palo Alto. By the time I got tired of the traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had acquired enough books to constitute a fine collection. Perhaps the best private, individually owned collection in the country, although Lawrence Holgerson would no doubt dispute that claim.
I quit working for the Palo Alto Bookshop, a job I'd had too long anyway, and packed all my books into a U-Haul trailer and pulled them out onto the road. My plan was to drive south to Los Angeles, where I had a few friends. I never made it that far because my car threw a rod in Santa Barbara and I had to stay there for a few days. I found a third-floor walk-up room in the Schooner Inn, a cheap hotel on lower State Street.
It was February 1977, and the weather was gorgeous. I spent the first day out on East Beach, where everyone was naked, including myself. The second day I walked around town and knew I'd found the city I was meant to live in, a place of red tiles, blue skies, erect birds of paradise, and cascading bougainvillea.
On the third day, I stumbled onto one of the three major finds of my life among books, the Santa Barbara Used Book Factory, a hippie store in an old Spanish courtyard on a side street lined with skirted palms. I never pass up a bookstore, and the sign in the window said: "Going Out of Business. All books on sale."
I walked through the door and went straight to the front counter, where a tall young bushy- haired man was staring dreamily into space, plucking a nonexistent guitar.
"Hi," I said.
"You got a stepladder I can use?"
"I'd like to browse your stock."
"Be my guest," he said. He smiled at the ceiling and continued playing guitar riffs in the air.
"I need something to stand on," I persisted. "I'm only five feet tall."
He shrugged. "Plenty of books on the lower shelves," he informed me.
"Can I see your guitar?" I asked.
I held out my hands. "I play a bit myself," I said. "Lemme see your axe."
He gave me a quizzical smile and held out the pantomimed instrument. I took it carefully, looked it over, and said, "If you don't mind, I'll play a few tunes while you go get me a stepping stool."
The dude nodded and grinned. "Whatever, my man. Oh, I got an open tuning on that. If you want to change it, feel free." Bobbing his mop, he shuffled off to the back of the store. He returned a few minutes later with a small stepladder. I thanked him as we made the exchange.
I poked around in that store for two hours, moving my stool from aisle to aisle, picking up a few books and then putting them back, reminding myself I had enough books in my life, and then, misshelved in the European History section, on a top shelf, I came across a copy of Jack Kerouac's first book, Lost in the Old Country, a self-published collection of poems, which Jack had inscribed to Allen Ginsberg, with the title poem hand-written by Jack on the front flyleaf.
Lawrence Holgerson had told me about this Holy Grail of a book. Ginsberg himself was offering a small fortune to anyone who could find it. Holgerson was prepared to match his offer.
I put the book back in its hiding place, went up to the front counter, and asked the young man if I could speak with the owner of the store.
"Go right ahead," he told me with a bow.
"You own this business?"
"It owns me."
"How much you want for it? The business, I mean, including all the inventory."
He named a figure that was slightly less than I had in my bank account and in the world, and I got out my checkbook.
That was the beginning of Guy Mallon Books. I did all the necessary things: business license, DBA, State Board of Equalization, bank account, liability insurance, Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau. I paid for a month's rent at the Schooner Inn. I was set: thirty-five years old and in business for myself. I was lonely, but I knew that in time I'd make friends. I was also horny, but that was nothing new. Most important, I was in business, and I was glad to have a permanent home for my first editions, which had spent too much time in a trailer.
I auctioned off the Kerouac autograph quickly—Holgerson outbid Ginsberg—before I got too fond of it, and I was funded. Then I started cataloging my collection and bought a year's worth of ads in Antiquarian Bookman.
The front room was full of the previous owner's inventory, the usual second-hand bookstore staples, mostly crap, and the back room had my trailerful of poetry firsts. Over the next three years I improved the front room until it could pay for itself—the rent and my one employee, who dusted the shelves and ran the cash register.
And she, my employee, who joined me in early 1980, was the second great find of my life in the book business.
She walked in off the street one bright, warm winter day, this knockout lovely young Asian- American woman (actually, we said "Oriental" back then). She was short (not as short as me, but who is?), and she wore sandals and cut-offs and a UCSB tee shirt, and her hair flowed like black liquid satin over her forehead, beside her cheeks, around her shoulders, and down her back. She flashed me a sassy smile and told me she had come to pick up some books for her boss, Arthur Summers.
Yes, the Arthur Summers. By that time he was one of my best customers. He was also a former Yale Younger Poet (that would have been decades ago) and the Chairman of the English Department at UCSB and had won the Bollinger Prize earlier that year. And, knowing of his reputation as an aging Lord Byron and having enjoyed the steamy sensuality of his verse, I was not surprised to learn that he had an assistant as lovely and lively as Heidi Yamada.
I took her into the back room and proceeded to fall in love with her.
I showed her the gems of my collection, the J.V. Cunningham, the Yvor Winters, the Janet Lewis, the Edgar Bowers, the Thom Gunn....
"Thom Gunn?" she said. "Sounds like a cowboy star. Who's this guy Winters? Is he related to Summers? What kind of a name is 'Yvor'? Poets are a weird bunch, boy."
"I'm boring you," I said. "Sorry."
"Boring? You're not boring. These books are a bit moldy, but you ..." She looked into my face and gave me the first of hundreds of glittering winks, each more glittering than the last.
"You ain't boring, pal. Keep talking. Tell me about poetry. Or about anything else. Smile at me again. Hire me."
"I'll put Guy Mallon Books on the map. I promise. I can do it. Watch." She spun around, flipping her long black hair, stretched out her slender arms and snapped her fingers and wiggled her shapely butt.
"What about Professor Summers?" I asked. "Don't you work for him?"
"He'll be glad to be rid of me," she answered. "But you won't," she quickly added. "I mean you'll be glad to have me. If you'll take me. I've always wanted to work for a publisher." She took my hand. "Let's go across the street to the Paradise Cafe for lunch. We can discuss my salary and all the many things I'll be doing for you."
"I'm not a publisher," I reminded her.
"Yet," she said. "That's one of the things I'll be doing for you."
* * *
I've heard it said that short men fall in love too easily. Affection from a woman, almost any woman, is taken as a miracle: that this beautiful woman, in spite of my height, thinks I'm grand, and I'd better take advantage of this gift because it doesn't come along more than once in a lifetime and it makes me feel a foot taller, that kind of thing. I like to think I'm wiser than that. And so I'm careful. But here was Heidi Yamada making eyes at me, and I knew I had been careful too long.
Twelve hours later, in my room on the third floor of the Schooner Inn, between the second and third times we made love, Heidi Yamada propped herself onto one elbow and smiled down on my face. The golden candlelight made her face shine, her teeth glow, her eyes sparkle, her hair ripple with ebony luster. I held one breast while I stroked her arm, and the breast seemed to respond to my squeeze.
"Guy," she said.
I kissed her shoulder.
"Guy, I want you to publish me."
"I'm not a publisher," I reminded her.
"We can fix that," she said. "I want you to publish a book of my poems. I don't want any publisher but you. Guy Mallon Books, Publisher. Will you do it?"
Shine, glow, sparkle, ripple. Squeeze.
"You're a poet?" I asked.
"No, but I could be. It's about time I did something with my life. I'm thirty years old, and I've been a professor's assistant for almost ten years, ever since I was an undergraduate."
"Have you ever written a poem?" I asked.
"No, but how difficult can it be?"
I started to laugh, knowing all at once that for the first time in months if not years I was neither lonely nor horny.
"Huh," she said. "You laughin' at me, bucko?"
"No, of course not."
"So you'll do it? You'll publish me? You'll make me a postwar American poet?"
"Sure. How difficult could that be?"
"Yes! Oh man, Professor Arthur Summers is going to shit a brick!"
She fell back and held my hand, and we both giggled at the ceiling until I started to get just a little bit horny again.
* * *
And that is how I became a publisher, and how Heidi Yamada became a poet. She wrote her first poem the next day, on the job, between sweeping the floor and counting out the change in the register before we opened the door. She brought it to the back room and handed it to me and watched me read it.
"Nice handwriting," I commented.
"Do you like it?" she asked.
"Maybe you need to warm up a little bit. This is your first poem ever, right?"
The smile left her lips. She nodded. "You said you'd publish my book," she said.
"And I will," I said. "This poem shows me you have a way with words, your images are arresting, you have an ear for language and an eye for detail, and before long you'll be writing real poetry. Heidi, Babe Ruth didn't hit a home run his first time at bat."
"I have an ear for detail?" she asked.
"Eye for detail. An ear for language."
"Too much!" The smile had returned. "I'll have a book of poems ready for you by the end of the week I promise."
"As Thom Gunn would say, time's a-wastin', pardner."
So she delivered a book-length manuscript in seven days. The handwriting was still beautiful, but unfortunately she wanted the book set in type.
I chose Caslon Old Style. She got to choose all the words, and she refused editing. She let me choose the font because I was the publisher.
By the time the book came out in the fall of 1980, we were no longer lovers. When the book went back to press for a second printing, spring 1981, she quit the store to write full-time. She got Beatrice Knight to be her literary agent. The following year, spring 1982, Heidi's second book was published by Charles Levin Books, an imprint of Random House. It was reviewed by Taylor Bingham for Newsweek and she got on the Carson show and made the cover of People.
By that time, Guy Mallon Books was publishing three other poets, real poets who wrote real poetry, including Arthur Summers.
* * *
We continued to grow through the 1980s. It got to where Guy Mallon books were being reviewed regularly by the major poetry journals, and we were packing up our wares every Memorial Day weekend and hauling them off to display them at the annual American Booksellers Association convention. The conventions gave me a chance to travel all over the country, but of course I liked it best when they came west, which usually meant Los Angeles, Anaheim, or San Francisco.
* * *
Most of us in the business of literature pretended to be appalled that the American Booksellers Association had chosen Las Vegas for their convention in 1990. Was this what the nineties were going to be all about: schlock, insanity, waste, high risk, tits and ass? And then most of us winked and shrugged and said, well, that's what New York publishing has become in the eighties anyway, so let the new decade roll. Viva Las Vegas.
Besides, the ABA convention, known simply as the ABA, whether it's held in Chicago or Washington D.C. or New Orleans or San Francisco or Anaheim, is wilder and goofier than Las Vegas anyway. It's a four-day roller-coaster of hard work and wild parties, wheeling and dealing, free books, free booze, literary celebrities to bump into (literally), deals to make, nonstop noise, lines to stand in for tasteless hotdogs, hospitality suites, shuttle- buses, hands to shake, backs to slap, a lot of standing around in utmost boredom until another friend walks by and you're off for another beer, more shmooze, more noise, more party invitations, more lies and hype....
Tell me again: why is it I love the ABA?
Carol, my partner, thinks the ABA sucks out loud, and of course she's right. If you're a bookseller you're having a wonderful time wandering the aisles, gazing at the new season's splendid goodies, catching sight of Stephen King or the Pillsbury Doughboy or Ed Meese or Barry Manilow, being treated like royalty by the publishers who want your business. But for those of us actually working the booths, it's a lot more standing than walking, and the smiles get to feeling forced by eleven in the morning and there's still at least twelve more hours of smiling before the day ends and you get to sleep a few hours to prepare for the next morning's hangover and hard work.
Yet I love it.
So there we were, Carol and I, Friday afternoon before the show opened, setting up our booth. We had driven over from Santa Barbara that morning in a rented Ford station wagon, and by the time we got to the outskirts of Vegas, where a new casino was being hoisted, a version of Camelot built out of Lego Blocks, we were already hot and tired and cranky. Then for about three hours we'd been rolling our hand truck back and forth between the car and our booth at the Convention Center, then slaving under the fluorescent lights, which were turned up to nine. A boom box blared rock from our neighbors in the next booth, who were frantically fashioning a life-sized model of the Arc de Triomphe out of papier-mch. The music, if that's what it was, was intermittently interrupted by the whir and beeps of teamsters' trolleys and forklifts. Our tee shirts were sweaty and we'd gone through the six-pack. It's this way every year, the back-breaking backstage setup. But we were almost finished, and our booth looked great. I was catching a second high as we hoisted our display panels. Carol spread our tablecloths over the rented tables, then arranged flowers and stacks of books—giveaways of backlist overstock and display copies of our forthcoming fall list—while I started to hang the posters.
"Not again," Carol said. "She doesn't get the center panel this year, Guy. It's been ten years since you published that book. Give it a rest. Give me a rest. I'm tired of looking at that woman."
"We still have a lot of copies to sell," I reminded her. "And that book's our main freebie for the show. Besides, Heidi Yamada's a big star this year. Again."
"Bullshit. She's a has-been."
"That's right," I conceded. "And now she's making a comeback. At least she has been somebody."
"She has been a lot of things," Carol said. "She has been your plaything, for one, and all the world knows it, and you like to rub my nose in it."
I stepped back and surveyed the display. There she was, on a blown-up cover of And Vice Versa, bigger than life and still beautiful.
"But that was my first book," I said. "She put Guy Mallon Books on the map."
"She put Guy Mallon on the mat." She gave me a grumpy scowl and gave the finger to the poster.
Excerpted from The Poet's Funeral by John M. Daniel Copyright © 2005 by John M. Daniel. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 9, 2008
In 1977 Guy Mallon wanders into a used bookstore wheere he finds a signed copy of Kerouac¿s first book, which he hides. He buys the store and sells the Kerouac book at auction. Not long afterward, teaching assistant Heidi enters his store and persuades him to hire her, have sex with her, and publish her poetry though she has not written anything yet and he is not a publisher.--- In 1990 Guy and his beloved partner Carol Murphy attend the American Book Association (ABA) convention in Vegas. He finds a dead Heidi on the Elvis bed apparently form an overdose. Guy is shocked, but has doubts that someone as egotistical as Heidi would do drugs. Carol wonders if her too short (she is eight inches taller than he) and too young (five years younger) cherished Guy still carries the torch for Heidi. When LVPD Detective Plumley closes the case as accidental due to drugs, Guy is unable to resist investigating Heidi¿s death. --- This is a tongue in cheek amateur sleuth who-done-it that readers will enjoy. Perspective changes with a different participant taking center stage with each chapter although Guy is consistently in the forefront and ergo the focus of the plot. The story line is amusing and contains several cameos from the famous and though the death occurs toward the middle, the inquiries are handled deftly so that the audience obtains a solid mystery. The big Guy and his woman are a dynamic duo and the support cast enables the reader to obtain a deep look at what happens at an ABA convention. THE POET¿S FUNERAL is a unique super tale.--- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.