Events to celebrate Heyday Books founder
By Lou Fancher
Malcolm Margolin is not just an East Bay icon, he's a "national treasure."
At least that's how the National Endowment for the Humanities has described the founder of Heyday Books. Appreciated by his peers and colleagues as much for his cockamamie dreams and steep historical relevance as for his wild beard and energetic intellect, the Berkeley publisher has been issuing books and magazines of visionary beauty for 40 years.
Margolin launched Heyday in 1974 to publish his first book, "The East Bay Out," and has led the imprint through multiple incarnations to become a small but respected nonprofit empire. Today, it publishes 25 books a year, from politics to poetry, memoirs and children's books to native and American Indian history, all with a common denominator -- California. It also publishes a journal of American Indian writing, "News from Native California."
Over the next few weeks, Margolin will be celebrated with a series of events and readings from a new biography, "The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin: The Damn Good Times of a Fiercely Independent Publisher." Author Kim Bancroft includes more than 75 interviews and hundreds of memories from friends, family, colleagues, authors -- and most enjoyably, from Margolin himself. Contributors include California historian Kevin Starr, and praise ranges from actor/writer Peter Coyote's "Malcolm Margolin Should be Bronzed" to Nature Conservancy executive director Mike Sweeney crediting him for bringing "unrivaled beauty" into the hands and imaginations of readers.
Seeking to find it in literature, Margolin knows beauty is not pretty.
"Pretty is slick, beauty is lasting and just on the edge of scary," he says. Protesting there's no room in his life for systems, there's one he concedes to using: "Someone (once) asked me if we had a hiring list that was quantified. I had this mental image: 50 points for being funny and 50 for being honest, for speaking in your real life."
An interview with Margolin -- in a former violin-maker's home on University Avenue that houses Heyday's staff and towering bookshelves -- is a shower of delicious, often hilarious one-liners and stories.
"I haven't learned anything you couldn't talk me out of in five minutes," he says.
Uncomfortable with being mythologized, Margolin knows that acting ungrateful for the attention would be surly.
Born on Oct. 27, 1940, and growing up in a rich, Yiddish culture in Boston -- a time when he says with amazement that people remembered the Civil War and America without automobiles -- Margolin created a fake persona, "Stephen." He told stories of "Stephen's accomplishments" that were really his own, to earn praise from his critical father.
"Stephen was a character I built up," he notes. "I do that with my authors."
When an author delivers a book, he knows it contains "all of their hopes," and to do something less than magical with it would be "a betrayal."
Describing himself in his biography as a psychotic optimist who loves the grand opera of bookmaking and always considers himself 15 minutes from abundance, his philosophy is this: Work is holy; financial problems are to be kept behind a firewall. His publishing advice is unclouded by sentiment: tell good stories, deal only with people you like, look for what's good, believe in the spectacular. And laugh -- often and unrelentingly.
Most important, follow a tradition of the Northern California Ohlone people, build a roundhouse, not an institution. A roundhouse is a joy-filled community center, designed to last 20 years and collapse, providing the next generation with an opportunity to learn cultural traditions while rebuilding.
In fact, the roundhouse metaphor is integral to Heyday's future.
"I've found people who are a different breed of person: there's no way this strange and unpredictable assemblage of attitudes will be found in another me, " he says. "I want to see people tear it apart and survive."
Vincent Medina, Roundhouse's outreach coordinator, represents Heyday's next-gen. He's working on a book about traditional Indian community games and learning Chochenyo, one of eight Ohlone languages. It has been dormant for 70 years and is nearing extinction.
"The last fluent speakers have died," Medina says, "but linguists made wax cylinder recordings, and we are learning what it sounded like while filling in the gaps to modernize it."
Margolin, who sometimes relies on serendipity for financial security, says that even if he lost every material possession, there's nothing he'd miss. In fact, his favorite story is one of beauty rising from danger from a victim of the Oakland hills fire who lost everything she owned and found herself the recipient of items she'd originally given away.
"I've often thought if I came here one day, and this whole thing was an illusion, I'd be disoriented," he says, "but I'd walk away and find something else to do."