Passion Tempered with Patience: An Interview with Paul Yamazaki

Stephen Sparks

This year, more than ever, it’s important to support the independent bookstores that help sustain our local literary community. With that in mind, we thought we would share a conversation from Issue 110 between Stephen Sparks (co-owner of Point Reyes Books) and Paul Yamazaki (lead book buyer at City Lights Bookstore).

ZYZZYVA Volume 33, #2, Fall 2017

Paul Yamazaki made me want to be a bookseller. When I met Paul, I’d been working in bookstores for fifteen years, but it wasn’t until getting to know him and seeing just how established and comfortable he was with his place in the publishing ecosystem that I began to find a similar comfort myself. At the time, I was working as a manager and book buyer at Green Apple Books on Clement Street, and have since, at the beginning of 2017, become with my wife the owner of Point Reyes Books. 

Paul has been at City Lights Bookstore for nearly fifty years. He started out as a part-time clerk and eventually became the lead buyer, a position that entails deciding, in conjunction with staff and sales representatives from publishing companies, which books the store will stock. City Lights is possibly the most thoughtfully curated bookstore in the world and, as more books are being published each year, the buyer’s job is to find among the nearly one hundred thousand catalogued titles that small fraction that fits into the store’s sense of identity. 

At sixty-eight, Yamazaki sees transition on the horizon. For the past few years, he’s focused his energy—and there is an abundance of it—on grooming the next generation of booksellers to carry the City Lights tradition into the future. 

Paul is deferential nearly to the point of frustration. I’ve met few people as self-mocking as Paul, whose familiar outburst of “Holy shit!” is often followed by a comment about how anyone who takes him seriously “must be crazy.”

In keeping with this characteristic, he insisted that our conversation be labeled as such. It wasn’t an interview, he stressed (“Who wants to hear me go on and on?”), but a dialogue. And so we talked for four hours on a spring afternoon at his corner table at Cafe Zoetrope in San Francisco’s North Beach district, a spot many in publishing think of as Paul’s office, replacing his former “office,” a booth at Tosca. With little room at his upstairs desk at City Lights, with its low ceiling and monumental stacks of books, it makes sense for Paul to usher sales representatives, editors, booksellers, writers, or whoever else comes to visit him a block down Columbus.

As we sat down, he pulled out Alfred Barr’s famous diagram outlining the connections linking a variety of artistic movements from the late 19! century through Abstract and Cubist art in the 1930s. Barr’s aim in illustrating this web of relationships was to make clear an ecosystem of influence, tracing, for instance, a genealogy from Van Gogh to Fauvism to Abstract Expressionism through to Surrealism. Paul told me he’s been handing this printout to City Lights booksellers for the past few months as encouragement for them to think about the relationships within the bookstore and the wider publishing world, to serve as a visual aid in charting the various strands that, together, form City Lights.

Paul Yamakazi: You represent the first inkling of a change… 

Stephen Sparks: That’s troubling.

PY: When you look at Pete [Mulvihill] and the Kevins [Kevin Hunsanger and Kevin Ryan] at Green Apple [Books], they were the young-sters, and it didn’t look like there was anyone else who would be able to buy a store. I remember talking to Richard Howarth of Square Books and Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books at a bookselling conference eight or nine years ago and said, “Everybody’s old!”

SS: It seems that’s changed significantly in the past few years. At thirty-nine, I’m on the upper edge of this youth movement, but it does seem that there are more energetic and excited young people entering the bookselling ranks.

PY: And you almost left bookselling. What led you to leave Green Apple and go work for Dalkey Archive Press?

SS: I wanted to frame this conversation by admitting that despite having worked in bookstores for the entirety of my adult life, with the exception of the year I was at Dalkey, I never considered myself a bookseller until I got to know you, which was after I returned to San Francisco and Green Apple for my second stint at the store. Until then, I hadn’t considered bookselling a viable profession.

PY: Well, it’s not a viable profession. [Laughter] 

SS: There’s a line in David Mason’s memoir, The Pope’s Bookbinder, that says, “Bookselling is not really a job; it’s a vocation. A vocation is a job where you don’t earn enough to live on.”

PY: Holy shit, that sounds right!

SS: I moved to San Francisco in 2007, got a job at Green Apple on my first day in the city, and left two years later. It wasn’t until I returned after being away in 2009–10 that I be- came more involved in the bookselling community here. It came as an awakening: here was a generous and enthusiastic group of booksellers, supported by a strong regional trade association, who got together to talk shop, etc.

PY: It’s our great fortune of being in an area that has such a dense network of independent bookstores. I forget sometimes how lucky we are. I was talking with Steve Bercu of Book People in Austin and Steve said, “I have to drive 300 miles to see other booksellers.” 

SS: Tell me a little about this diagram. 

PY: Alfred Barr, who was the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, created this flowchart for himself to visualize the influences that led to Cubism and Abstract art. This has been an inspiration to me for thirty years and I recently found a copy for my younger colleagues to get them thinking about why we do what we do in a very specific way. I ask them to view this both institutionally and as readers and to consider what influences them and the store.

SS: You’ve been with City Lights since 1970. How’d you get the job? 

PY: I think it’s accurate to say that I’m the only bookseller who went straight from jail to bookselling. 

SS: I know of at least two who have done that in the opposite order. You’ve been on the straight and narrow ever since?

PY: More or less.

SS: At least as far as the law is concerned. 

PY: I was politically active in the late ’60s and one of the people I became involved with was a poet named Francis Oka. Francis worked at City Lights, and after I’d served about a hundred days of a six-month jail sentence I was told that in order to get out early I needed to prove someone would employ me. So Francis went to the management at City Lights, explained my situation, and they hired me blindly based off his recommendation. Lawrence [Ferlinghetti] was sympathetic to someone he considered a political prisoner.

SS: You were studying at San Francisco State University at the time? 

PY: Yes, but I never took school seriously, which is one of my great regrets. Still, all of this turned out very fortunately for me. Besides learning to be a bookseller at City Lights, I was also given another kind of education. I was just a kid recently out of the suburbs of L.A. who couldn’t have been more typically middle-class and here I was suddenly at City Lights.

SS: Did you have any idea at the time that this would become your life’s work? 

PY: I couldn’t think more than a few months ahead at the time. I thought it was fine. The books were a great attraction, and we were doing so little business in those days that even on weekend nights I just sat behind the counter and got a lot of reading done. There weren’t a lot of other distractions except for the street traffic.

North Beach in those days was a more interesting place. There was more clashing and mixing of cultures. There were immigrant cultures who had become established in the neighborhood forty or fifty years before that had become more conservative, but were still adding to the cultural mix.

On one side of Broadway you had Chinatown and on the other the Italian district and even in the late 1960s they didn’t get along entirely well. Friends who grew up in Chinatown and had to get to Galileo High School a little north described the walk there as a gauntlet.

But by the early ‘70s, a large part of the Italian community moved to other parts of the city or the suburbs, a typical immigrant pattern of movement, and a lot of people living in Chinatown ended up further west, in the Richmond and Sunset districts. But rents in North Beach were still in those days incredibly cheap. The whole City Lights staff lived nearby. We really were a neighborhood store.

SS: Did you live in the neighborhood? 

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PY: Initially I lived on a houseboat in Sausalito. Francis Oka wanted to get out of the city and a houseboat sounded romantic…

SS: And in reality? 

PY: In reality, we were out at Gate Six. Gate Six is the farthest up Richardson’s Bay and so a couple of times a month we’d be sitting directly on mud and since sewage went right into the bay, we found ourselves sitting on a shit pile. And it smelled like that. And, if you’re like me, you’d come back after hitchhiking a ride out of the city at night and of course you’ve lost your keys. Lost keys on a houseboat are irretrievable.

SS: So after losing your keys you had to move to the city. 

PY: After Francis was, unfortunately, killed in a motorcycle accident, I lived in the publishing office for four months. Lawrence had his editorial offices upstairs when we were at 1562 Grant and City Lights did its own distribution, and distribution for other small presses, at the time. Because I was such an ignorant kid at the time, I didn’t realize I was sitting on—or sleeping on!—a treasure trove of indie press stuff from the ’60s, ’70s, and even earlier. 

Small Press Distribution, which has since become a cultural institution, was just getting going—but it was, like City Lights and other distributors at the time, a much more haphazard model that operated conversationally. Lawrence may have known someone who was publishing books, or Allen [Ginsberg] knew this person, and so we’d start distributing books, or would realize we had them in the basement already!

We were distributing Angel Hair at the time, so we had what may have been Patti Smith’s first published work in our basement at the editorial offices.

SS: This interests me because so much of City Lights history is tied to the Beats, but in this version, City Lights was part of a much broader conversation within the literary community.

PY: Well, Lawrence and Nancy Peters, who is the secret hero of City Lights and without whom we wouldn’t be here today, we’d just be talking about this seminal institution around which a lot of legends had grown.

Lawrence and Nancy have always resisted labeling City Lights as Beat. Lawrence respects Allen and the movement, of course, but feels that City Lights and his own poetry are part of a river of radical resistance that belongs to a wider literary and poetic tradition. So he more broadly identifies with that and sees how the Beats fit into that river.

SS: So City Lights is just one manifestation of this radical tradition? 

PY: Yes. That’s why Lawrence felt sympathetic to poets like Philip Lamantia, who didn’t quite fit with the Beats, but was a key member of the Surrealist group in the U.S. Lawrence’s sense of what’s possible and his outrage over what is have kept the store and the publishing so vital. If he was a different type of person, he could have franchised the whole thing.

SS: You’d be the Beat Museum! 

PY: Even if we had just stayed a single store, the ugliness of the franchise would be awful to imagine. The staff could have been costumed in berets and turtlenecks and we’d have to snap our fingers every time we made a sale.

SS: Thank God things went in a different direction, though in the early ‘80s things were looking bad, right? 

PY: We were—and no one has ever contradicted this—the first exclusively paperback bookstore in the country, but by the early ’80s it became obvious we were missing out on talent that was being published in hardcover. At that time, Nancy Peters had brought an organizational and fiscal coherence to City Lights without damaging its radicalness or literary aspirations both in publishing and the bookstore. Her ability to do that is remarkable and unusual, which is why I call her the secret hero of City Lights. We were fortunate to have her, because though Lawrence and Shig Murao were visionaries in their own way, they didn’t think of themselves as small businesspeople.

SS: I know the feeling. 

PY: By the mid-’70s, Allen Ginsberg’s popular culture notoriety had faded and the sales of Howl, which kept the City Lights bathtub full, slowed and that water level went down and the cracks in the tub began to appear—and to leak. This led to long conversations between Lawrence and Shig…

SS: Who was Shig? 

PY: I characterize Shig Murao as the literary Pope of North Beach. He was integral to the development of City Lights. He sat on trial with Lawrence over the sale of Howl—it was Shig who was arrested for selling a copy of the book to undercover cops. But his biggest contribution was to create an aura around the store. He spent hours and hours behind the counter, and though he wasn’t outgoing, he was very public. 

In those days, we closed at 2 a.m.

SS: Those were the halcyon days! A bookstore staying open until 2 a.m. 

PY: And if Shig thought things were happening or good conversations were taking place, he literally didn’t close the store. He’d keep it open all night.

SS: City Lights in those days was a destination?

PY: When I talk to Lawrence about that, he prefaces it by saying that North Beach had become a real gravitational center for young writers and artists. Kenneth Rexroth was a big part of that, but there was also Robert Duncan over in Berkeley with Madeline Gleason, and the San Francisco Art Institute, which was just a mile north of here, was a hotbed of the most advanced pedagogical stuff happening in the art world at the time. That combination of influences, along with the number of poets and painters sharing flats, being neighbors, living in close proximity, helped City Lights become the place it is.

SS: I want to get back to the lean times, but am curious if you think bookstores can still be the center of an artistic community.

PY: Absolutely. It’s harder now because of the economics, but I think there may be more desire for that now than ever. There’s so much good work being published, there’s a whole new generation of booksellers, editors, writers, and readers. And in places like San Francisco, we’re fortunate to have organizations like Litquake, who step up during a time when national media are giving less and less space to the literary arts in the assumption that reading is disappearing.

SS: There’s not even a menu option online to find the [San Francisco] Chronicle’s book section… This seems to lead us naturally back to a time when City Lights may have disappeared. What happened in the mid-’70s?

PY: When things got tough at the store, Shig and Lawrence had conversations that centered on whether they would find a way to be sustainable and have an understanding of City Lights as a business or to keep doing things the way they’d always been done and if they went out of business then they’d go out of business. It’s my understanding of those conversations that Lawrence was trying to figure things out and Shig was resistant. I don’t know if Shig would have thought of him- self this way, but he was a kind of radical bohemian in the tradition of Villon—a kind of total fuck you to accepted norms.

Whatever the case, we almost went out of business. Shig had a stroke in the mid-’70s and Lawrence made moves, like hiring a manager, that he thought would relieve some of the stress on Shig, but instead left Shig, who was very proud and stubborn, feeling insulted. He never stepped back into City Lights; his relationship with Lawrence had been severed.

SS: Things didn’t fix themselves immediately, then. 

PY: No, but as a young bookseller I was fortunate that one of the legend- ary jazz clubs, Keystone Corner, was in the neighborhood, and since City Lights was struggling I’d do a six- to eight-hour shift by myself–the manager at the time was supposed to relieve us for break, but he’d often disappear—and then, since I was a neighborhood fixture at that time, I’d be able to slide into the second set for free.

SS: Can we talk for a moment about how often we spend eight hours alone in a bookstore? I’m glad that people speak highly of bookselling and consider it a noble profession, but sitting behind a counter for eight hours can be a drag. In the grand scheme of injustices, it’s not worth mentioning, but it’s a reality of our situation that, at the end of the day, we’re shopkeepers.

PY: When Joe Wahlberg, the store manager back then, would often go missing, I’d often slip a friend or regular a few bucks to pick up dinner for me in Chinatown or ask them to watch the counter for a few minutes while I used the bathroom.

SS: That’s the position I find myself in now. Steve Costa, the former owner of Point Reyes Books, would sometimes ask if any of the customers in the store ever dreamed of being a bookseller. When someone answered yes, he’d say, “Here’s your chance! Watch the counter while I get a sandwich.”

Because our margins are so thin, our profits so modest, and, if we’re being honest, our temperaments more generally on the introverted side, we spend a lot of time working alone.

PY: For a lot of booksellers across the country this is the way it is. So I have to ask: knowing this, why did you and Molly decide to buy a store?

SS: Well, I’ve never been the most practically minded person. I planned on making a living by ditching bookselling for nonprofit publishing, so any economic decision I make is suspect.

The fact that we as booksellers are so easily able to find someone who’s willing to pick up dim sum or stand at the counter while we take a short break says as much about why we decided to buy a store as anything. A bookstore is a profoundly important actualization of a community. A tangible community that forms uniquely around these spaces, where relationships are developed and, as you mentioned with Shig, conversations happen.

PY: You’ve become a focal point of that community, especially after Green Apple opened its 9! Avenue store and you began hosting events and gathering folks there. I see young booksellers who have been inspired by you to seriously consider staying in the book business… They should know better by looking at the two of us.

SS: If we follow this to the source, it’s ultimately you who are to blame. Don’t throw me under the bus!

I remember talking with Danielle Dutton, who, as you know, is a writer and publisher of Dorothy, a publishing project. I met Danielle while I was working for Dalkey—her and Marty Riker, her husband, being bright spots in that otherwise forgettable year—and we’ve since become friends. She visited San Francisco on a book tour and I asked what led her to start a publishing house. She said that she was lonely and wanted to gather around her kindred spirits. This is as concise and apt a way of phrasing my selfish desire to keep people in the book business as any.

Also, book people are the best drinkers. I won’t go so far as to say it’s imperative, but having a bar near a bookstore that’s conducive to conversation and bartenders who don’t mind you nursing a beer while you read for a few hours is of great importance to the development of my professional skill set.

PY: We’re sitting here in Zoetrope, which according to the staff is my home away from home. Francis [Coppola] has gone out of his way to make this entire building a space for the arts. The magazine is edited here; there are writers, artists, independent filmmakers who have space in the building because Francis is concerned with physical community.

SS: You spend a great deal of time working here, meeting with publishers’ sales reps. 

PY: I do. I’m fortunate that this space exists so close to the store and that it’s so conducive to conversation. 

SS: Conversation seems to be the engine that really keeps the industry going. 

PY: For me, it boils down to conversation. Whether we’re in independent bookselling or a small emerging indie press or Knopf, I don’t think there’s another community that is so horizontal. People like us can call on our acquaintances who are in so-called big positions and they want to talk with us because we have an interest in common. It doesn’t even rely on the direct link between our bookstores selling their books, but it’s because we’re enthusiastic and interested and have a ground-level view of the entire industry.

SS: Can conversation save books? So much of what we sell or want to sell requires patience. Whether it’s because certain books are ahead of the curve or whatever, there’s a real tension between those books that will sell quickly and often, then taper off, and those we stand behind, even if they move more slowly.

PY: This is a key point. Some of what we know is really good will not be in the short term economically viable. I’m in a privileged position at City Lights to be able to order those books I think will last or whose cultural impact won’t come for years. 

When we look at the great book- sellers through the U.S., most of us agree that there are certain books and certain authors we fight for. In this we’re like editors who have to fight to hold on to their authors, even as the short-term reductive spreadsheet stuff hinders that.

Almost every book needs time.

SS: That is a very City Lights statement. Which is to say that every other bookseller in the country reading this is feeling a lot of envy right now.

PY: We’re in trouble when some of our publishing friends react to initial sales figures the way someone in the film or recording industry might. This kind of thinking creates an industry where a young editor who discovers someone they think can be a future Toni Morrison has no chance of doing that author’s third or fourth book unless they have significant sales. They can’t do what an editor previously did with an author like Toni, whose first few books had sales under five thousand copies.

SS: Cormac McCarthy was another case, right? 

PY: Yes, five books. Everything up until All the Pretty Horses, whether in reprint or originals, didn’t sell well. City Lights employee Scott Davis started by reading [Ecco Press founder] Dan Halpern’s reprints of the first three books, so when Random House presented Blood Meridian we were already fans because of Scott’s enthusiasm. I haven’t found anyone to contradict me, but I think we were the only store to sell Blood Meridian as an original hardcover in double digits. It was only like fifteen copies!

SS: So this stress you place on conversation starts at the store level and works up or spreads out. 

PY: People desire the intimacy of that level of conversation. There’s so much that’s generic. To have a conversation with a bookseller can be a life-changing thing. 

SS:  Your job as the head buyer at City Lights basically requires you to be in conversation with people all the time. How do you decide what to bring into the store? What’s a City Lights book? 

PY: We have to look at City Lights as a whole, its history and mission, to answer that. To get back to what we were talking about earlier, we were at first a paperback bookstore, but we realized we were missing out on a lot of talented authors and books by not carrying hardcovers.

For Lawrence, who was justifiably proud of being the first all-trade paperback bookstore in the U.S., the decision to carry hardcovers was not easy. My contention at the time was to ask if it was more important to have a format or a mission? We weren’t shaping literary taste.

As a young bookseller, I was excited by all the writers Toni Morrison, to bring her up again, was editing: Henry Dumas, Leon Forrest, Toni Cade Bambara. We did not carry these writers in hardcover. Same with Paul Auster, Salman Rushdie, on and on…

SS: You weren’t a part of the conversation, so to speak. 

PY: Totally out of the conversation. So as a young person at the time, it seemed City Lights was a backward looking institution that only looked at Allen and Jack [Kerouac] and that whole crew. That killed me.

SS: But it changed and now City Lights is arguably the most forward-thinking bookstore in the country. Maybe more bookstores would follow suit if they owned their buildings! That might buy a lot of us the time we need to see those books through the inevitable. 

PY: You hit on a key word: patience. Introducing something unfamiliar or unexpected into a community requires patience. It takes time to develop trust, to grow an audience. Lawrence and Nancy’s willingness to allow us to experiment has benefited City Lights greatly.

For instance, the whole room of Third World literature came out of a conversation I had with Dr. [Raye] Richardson, the owner and founder of Marcus Books on McAllister. I would go to Marcus Books to find certain titles, as they were the only store carrying these books at the time. I’m thinking specifically of the Heinemann African Writers Series. Dr. Richardson slowly introduced me to the classics when I would come in for music books. These suggestions led to conversations at City Lights and twenty feet of shelf space eventually turned into a room full of world literature.

SS: And again it started with a conversation. At this point, though, it should be acknowledged that City Lights booksellers are not known for their chattiness. [Laughter.]

PY: It started with Shig and continues with me. Nancy got me off the floor and put me upstairs, which benefitted everyone. It’s the advantage of coming into an established institution in a moment of chaos. Everything was failing, so everything was possible.

SS: Now, however, it seems that City Lights has more than righted the ship. 

PY: We’ve had record sales the past few years. 

SS: A consequence, or perhaps it’s only a coincidence, of this is that you now have time to consider succession plans and the future of the store. 

PY: As I said earlier, I’m sixty-eight and we have such a good crop of young booksellers that the time feels right to think about what’s next for City Lights.

SS: What makes a good buyer?

PY: Of the things you and I have in common is a panoptic view of what we do. There is little separation of the personal and the work. 

SS: Probably to a fault. 

PY: It’s a great strength and weakness.

I think this lack of distinction between the personal and professional contributes to making a great buyer. It’s almost pathological. The buyers I know are all similar in this way. There are different emphases: some buyers spend time on the floor, others hide in offices, but I think that overriding passion is a fundamental characteristic of a great buyer.

SS: I would also add intuition to the list of characteristics. Buyers have an ability, whether through empirical data or anecdote or conversation, of what will strike the right chord in their community, of what their customers want or don’t yet know they want.

PY: So let me ask you: out of all the choices we have, how do you determine what you’ll read next?

SS: Whatever came in the most recent batch of mail. [Laughter.]

In all seriousness though, I have found that my reading has changed after self-identifying as a bookseller. It means finishing books less often, getting caught up in galleys, feeling a little lonely because we’re reading six months ahead of everyone else.

PY: There’s a responsibility to our reading. 

SS: Both to our customers and the editors and writers on the other side. Speaking of responsibility, I want to talk about your outspokenness in addressing problems of race and class in the publishing and bookselling industries.

PY: As a business, the vast majority of bookstores are in upper middle class neighborhoods, the majority of our clientele are upper middle class white people. I’ve been banging my head against the wall for a long time about this but thought that the group of young booksellers who took this issue on at Winter Institute [an annual bookselling conference] accomplished more in one weekend than I’ve done in twenty years. I was impressed by this group of young people; the big challenge now is how to harness that energy and move forward.

SS: You’re optimistic this can be done? 

PY: Yes. I’d say that having Roxane Gay as a keynote speaker at the conference this [January] is proof that the American Booksellers Association understands the necessity to address the problems confronting the industry. Having someone like Roxane call out our industry is beneficial to all of us.

SS: It was much more compelling to hear something of substance at the keynote rather than the usual cheerleading about our value to culture. I think bookselling is important, obviously, but more important is a real confrontation with deep-seated issues.

Do you think that the American Booksellers Association can have a mandate that will help solve our issues with race and class?

PY: It has to start at the individual store level. It all starts where you are, which isn’t to say there can’t or shouldn’t be a multipronged approach, but there should be an ongoing task force, which the ABA recently initiated, that will help make this a collective effort.

SS: Beyond hiring practices, do you think carrying a broader and more diverse collection of books— books published by corporate and independent presses, in translation, from other cultures—can help with this crisis?

PY: I do. Bringing in these kinds of books is one of the most important things we can do. One of the reasons for City Lights’s success is due to the fact that many of our employees, about half of whom are people of color, recognized themselves in books on the shelves. There’s a correlation there.

It’s a buyer’s job to find books by people of color, by writers from different cultures, and to be patient with them. We’re in a privileged position to be able to do that at City Lights, and I recognize that many stores don’t have the luxury of patience we do, but the books are out there. Maybe this is something the regional trade associations can help with, help our staffs recognize and be able to talk about these books.

Stephen Sparks is co-owner of Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station, California.

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