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Scalloped Outlines

April 19, 2015

“When time, blissfully awry, spreads milky arms across the black expanse, to sleep, of what does time dream. And, thus unraveled, of where does time long.”

– Patti Smith

When I was a student, I worked at a bookstore in downtown San Francisco. I liked being around the books and people who liked books. Other than the low pay, this was a pretty good job for a year or so.

Patti Smith likes books also. Here she is reading her book at Winterland in May 1978. Stephen Harlow took this photo.

Patti Smith likes books also. Here she is reading her book at Winterland in May 1978. Stephen Harlow took this photo.

The store had three floors of books. I mostly worked in the basement, which was accessed by the delivery vans with a service elevator that opened up on the Sutter Street sidewalk. I’d go up there to stop the pedestrians from using that section of the sidewalk while we opened up the elevator door and loaded the platform with heavy boxes of books. The sidewalk setup was an eventful accident waiting to happen, but that’s just the way things were done then. Pedestrians generally went along with it and rarely said anything. What other options did they have?

The store basement wasn’t a bad place to be. Sure, you missed out on the crazy things that happen in any retail store, but that’s not always a bad thing. And I had no idea if it was sunny, foggy or whether I would be waiting for the bus after work in the pouring rain, but that never really mattered. The basement was a controlled environment. The work load was generally pretty steady and easy-going. The large seasonal or promotional shipments weren’t a big deal and were simply viewed as a challenge to beat.

The basement was large. The lights were bright and easy on the eyes in the work space, but this quickly devolved into pitch black in the outer regions. I rarely ventured out there and never into the darkest corners. I have no idea what, if anything, was out there.

I unpacked boxes, stacked and sorted the books on a workbench, placed the price tags in the upper right-hand cover and then moved them to a cart that was rolled out to the floor space for placement on the shelves. Even though the store was for the mass market, the inventory was pretty broad and there were always engaging titles to skim. In between best sellers from Stephen King, Ken Follett and Robert Ludrum, I unpacked non-fiction books on every topic imaginable topic and fiction to suit many. I was a very fast reader back then and read all sorts of interesting introductions, dust covers, table of contents, indexes and passages. The store sold its share of the classics too. I recall seeing many Russian literature titles. Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Woody Allen were also popular authors at the time, so now and again, someone would read out loud a line or two from them that amused them.


From Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco (not the store that I worked at). Nonetheless, accurate.

I worked downstairs with a couple of others my age. There was Walter, a very likable and relaxed fellow with a beard who wore bib overalls and wire-rimmed glasses. His father was stationed at one of the nearby military bases. He was finishing his undergraduate program and then planned to be a commercial pilot. Walter was a good worker, but he would take long pauses when he came across a book about airplanes or rockets.

Geoffrey had just come out to San Francisco from Detroit. He dressed in the punk clothing popular at the time, but still wore his Tigers cap. He was gay and came out to San Francisco to come out. Detroit was no place for him, but San Francisco’s Castro District most certainly was. He was here for the scene. He knew all the punk and gay dance clubs and practiced his dance moves in the basement while singing his favorite tunes. Geoffrey was always up for a story and a laugh and was fun to work with, even when he had been out with his friends through the wee hours of the morning.

There was a second service elevator that lead from the retail space to the basement. We’d wheel the carts full of books labeled with our price stickers to an area near that elevator door and employees from upstairs would then wheel them to the book shelves. That elevator was old and rickety and took forever to reach all three floors. We could hear it slowly descend floor by floor and with accurate precision, know exactly how far away it was and when those doors would open.

I don’t remember everyone there, but I don’t recall anyone who we weren’t happy to see come through that elevator door. I think it was mutual and they always greeted us pleasantly. The basement was so different from upstairs and a good change of scenery. It was a place for them to get away from customers for a few minutes, catch their breath and take a load off their feet.

Owen McGowan was one of these employees. He was a tall lean man in his late thirties who always wore a thin very fashionable tie. He too was gay. So now, a newcomer to San Francisco, I knew two gay men. Owen was a part-timer. His full-time job was at another book store out on Polk Street. When he told me that he made an extra fifty or sixty cents an hour there, I asked him if he could get me a job. Polk Street was a shorter bus ride from the apartment and I could always use more money. Owen told me that he’d be happy to help, but also advised me that he didn’t think that I was the perfect fit, since the store was a straight-up gay establishment. I accepted his advice.

Jeff also worked the floor. He was in his mid-thirties, well-educated and hated Ronald Reagan. He was a strong man and seemed to be preoccupied with a lot on his mind. He had straight shaggy long hair, a mustache and always wore a wide tie. His cowboy boots echoed loudly with a steady rhythm on the concrete basement floor. I always had the uneasy feeling that he was going to launch into a passionate and calamitous philosophical and political diatribe with some unwitting customer who had the misfortune of asking him where he could find the collection of Milton Freidman or Irving Kristol books. Although he was intense and tightly wound, Jeff liked a witty response and joke as much as the next guy and his tightly-clenched jaw could quickly relax into a big smile. We had some good laughs together.

One of the fellows I remember and can visualize, but not remember his name floated back and forth between upstairs and downstairs, depending on workloads or staffing. His wife was in medical school or something intense like that. The two of them attended and were involved with one of the large beautiful protestant churches in Pacific Heights. To this day, I think of him when I see somebody playing tennis on Sunday. He told me once how a friend of theirs rearranged her Sunday tennis routines to start attending their church with them and had found her meaning in life. I wonder if she still feels this way.

The guy who needed the respite the basement offered the most was Reese, a middle-aged man who always wore a tie and vest sweater. He was teaching himself to play the clarinet and would come downstairs on his break to practice. He’d sit on a folding chair out in edges where the dark met the lights. He was awful and he knew that. He sounded like a level 1 grade-school student, held back by the plasticity of a fifty-year old. The acoustics caused by concrete floors and walls didn’t help. We were all at the bookstore for our own purposes, none of which were to deprive anyone of a few minutes to escape into the challenge of learning a musical instrument. Reese received nothing but encouragement from us. I hope he stuck with it and became a master.

The store was managed by Bill, a soft-spoken Asian-American who liked classic literature. His girlfriend also worked there. I can’t remember her name. Bill’s job could not have been easy. The store was in the heart of the Financial District and was busy every weekday. We were still a cash-based economy without inventory theft technology and that alone must have kept him on edge. He was also responsible for book signings and special events. And that is what lead me to writing today.

Patti Smith Winterland May 1978

Patti at Winterland May 1978 singing with her hands. Stephen Harlow also took this photo.

In another instance of it’s a small, small world, I recently learned that in May 1978, more than a year before I moved to San Francisco, my blogging buddy, Virginia Antonelli, had an adventure at the book store. Virginia was a quick nod and a smile away from her trip to the book store becoming an ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME, when Patti Smith was in town to play at Bill Graham’s Winterland and promote her poetry book, Babel.  For a great story, read about it here.

Virginia’s Lame Adventures blog posts are sure to bring you a smile, chuckle or full-belly laugh, depending on her topic and your own sense of humor. When she’s not writing excellent blog posts, slogging it out on the New York subway, grinding it out at THE GRIND or enjoying New York’s theaters, she beats clogged city streets by flying over Central Park in an Ann Taylor outfit. No kidding. You can see that photo for yourself right here. Tell her I said hello.

If you want more, go buy her book. The book store on Sutter and Kearny Streets closed years ago. But you can buy it at Amazon.

patti-profile Lame Adventure

This is Virginia’s photo.


  1. When people enter our lives, for good or for bad, they change the roads taken up ahead.


    • These people were in my life for such a short time, but for some reason I still can remember them. I suppose it is because of my age at the time and that I was new to San Francisco and some of the first people I met here. The store’s basement was our hang-out.


  2. permalink

    Bruce, here I am concentrating on the Business of life and then interrupted by your bit of poetry, I’m lost for half a day… B.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. I used to spend a lot of time in San Francisco; I am pretty sure I was in that bookstore in the 1980’s. I was around the Financial District a lot and have a penchant for books… nice piece.


    • You most likely were, as it was the largest bookstore downtown at the time. Lots of people stopped in during their lunch breaks.


  4. Bruce what an interesting and lively tale. I have visited San Francisco only once but sadly didn’t visit any bookstores!


    • Hello Rebecca, there’s a lot more to San Francisco than bookstores. I hope that you had a lovely time during your visit. Like most towns, bookstores aren’t as common in SF as they once were.


      • Yes it was wonderful albeit way back in 1990! Bookstores are declining here in Shrewsbury UK too, which is a real shame. Perhaps, like vinyl records people will tire of digital books and they will have their time again.


        • 1990 = way back. For sure.

          Who can say about the future of books, but I think they will end up a niche market, maybe even a luxury item.


  5. Unpacking box after box of new books sounds like a dream job. Especially if there was a soft chair you could curl up and read them in. I’m betting that wasn’t the case though…


    • It was a great job for a young man curious about the world. Everyone there liked books. It’s funny, just as I am writing this, I remembered another guy who came to the basement. He was a NYC native who came to SF to write his book. I can’t think of his name, however.

      We stood on rubber mats next to the workbench, but also had bar stools if we wanted.


  6. Ha ha. I hear you. I was probably fortunate that I didn’t have any money to spend on books. With the employee discount, I would have been tempted to bring some of them home with me. The store received credit from the publishers for paperbacks that did not sell. We would tear off the front cover and return a stack to the publisher rather than send the entire book. I guess the industry figured out that this was the most economical way (avoiding shipping costs). The manager gave a few of those paperbacks to me. I had them in my library for a long time. I think they are all now long gone.


  7. I think it’s sad that books are such a luxury item that people buy them for household ambiance. Great piece, Bruce. I always enjoy your posts.


    • Thank you for your kind words, Gary.

      I guess books have always been expensive. The libraries have always been there for us and I’ve known many people, even those with means, to wear out their library cards with frequent trips. I don’t buy them very often anymore. I have a backlog right here and it seems, less time to read what I have. Still, there’s something about holding and reading a book that is special.


  8. Very interesting and enjoyable post. I’m impressed that you remember all these characters in such a detail! Somehow they must have left a lasting impression. I tried to think where I worked when in college in 1978 in Stockholm… Recalled a few people but nothing this colorful 🙂 you described the almost bygone era of wonderful bookstores perfectly!


    • The funny thing is I remembered yet another person from the store when I was washing after I wrote the post. His face, his clothing style, even his name and a little more. Who knows why. Do you speak Swedish?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A nice tale Bruce that captured a moment in your past. Thanks for taking us along on the ride down memory lane. –Curt


  10. Thanks for the shout out, Bruce. It’s wild to think that 37 years ago, you and I were in the same place at the same time, and 37 years later, when you’re living in the Bay Area and I’m in NYC, we know each other through the Internet; something we could not have possibly foreseen when we were young. Something else neither of us could have seen coming was what’s happened to books and bookstores. It’s so depressing. One of my dearest friends, Martini Max, visited me on Sunday. We met through work 22 years ago and even though we went our separate ways work-wise a dozen years later, our friendship continues. Max and I were discussing the indie bookstores we used to hang out in. They’re all gone now, save one: The Strand. If you ever visit New York, as a booklover, you must visit The Strand. You will feel like you’re in Paradise:


    • I enjoyed finding our small world, Virginia. I used to travel to NYC for business. Not frequently, but on occasion. I think I’ve been to Strand. But maybe I just took it for granted and that is why I cannot recall for sure. People out here talk about Powell’s Books in Portland. It is a remarkable place. Books, books, and more books.


  11. Enjoyed this post very much, Bruce. I visited San Francisco and Berkeley in the 60s, and spent a lot of time in bookstores. Along with libraries, they were a favorite hangout, and I had some great finds in that area. Especially loved City Lights. Your post brought back some very good memories. And yes, it’s really amazing, what’s happened to bookstores over the years… but we trade one thing for the other. Now we have the internet. I suppose a lot of people consider the change an improvement.


    • City Lights is a special place. The very fact that it still exists and is popular says a lot. I visited it just a couple weeks ago, just because. As things go, most of what you knew about Berkeley and SF doesn’t exist anymore. Should be no surprise to any of us. There were a lot of bookstores, weren’t there?


  12. I enjoyed your post, Bruce. I love bookstores and libraries. I will even buy used books (and have found some interesting things left in used books). I read Kindle books because I enjoy reading. However, it’s not the same as holding a good book in my hands and flipping through pages.


  13. Bruce, I have trouble remembering names and details of people I shared moments of time with even just a few years ago! How you remember all this wonderful detail just astounds. I can picture each as you describe them, can smell the books you unpacked, and can hear Reese blowing away on his clarinet. Captivating story with a great, unexpected twist. Thanks for the enjoyable time I just spent immersed in your past 🙂


    • Thank you Stacy. The fact that my past crossed with Virginia’s and we did not know it caught my attention. The small world moments are there for the discovery, it seems. The part-time job in the bookstore was a pretty good way to go for me. The bus trip into the Financial District from my SF neighborhood was a little long on some days, but that too was beneficial, as I was able to familiarize myself with the city. I hope Reese became a very good clarinet player.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I worked in the library in my junior high. Just being with books was an education. I read all of Burroughs, Wells, Doyle, the Landmark series history books and James Fenimoore Cooper before high school.


  15. I love the picture you painted here of your past. I could almost see it as a TV series – a fiction one I mean, set in the basement of the bookstore, and each episode would focus on something happening in the life one of the people who comes down to the basement. Hmmm…


    • Well, there you go. You’ve passed right through your missing blogging mojo and found yourself a new TV series. You could find a character development sequence for all of these people I worked with at the bookstore. I think that there were good stories to tell with each of them.


  16. I am amazed you remember them so well, and most of the names too. They certainly made an impact on you – as did the bookstore itself.


    • Why I remember these folks, I am not sure. After I wrote the post, I remembered another fellow – David. He was an aspiring author. Big head of dark hair and aviator glasses.

      Liked by 1 person

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