Books Matter. People Care. Change Is Possible.
Richard Bray and “Chicago's most
April 14, 1989
The Reader cover story that week. Bray believed that a good bookstore is a subversive presence in a settled society, and he enjoyed an outsized reputation among that faction of Chicagoans who like to think of themselves as subversive presences. There are seldom many such people in any city; there certainly weren't in Chicago, and the store closed in 1993.
"You want my olives? I can't eat them anymore." Richard Bray, literary causemeister and author of Guild Books, settled exhaustedly into a booth at the Seminary for lunch. Three weeks earlier he had been laid open like a book on an operating table at Michael Reese while doctors did some preventive maintenance on the clogged plumbing of his heart. Bray ordered a post-operative lunch of lox and bagels (hold the cream cheese, no salt). He looked pale and dismayed—perhaps at his own weakness, perhaps at the prospect of 40 years of drinking decaf coffee. "I'm wiped," he moaned.
Guild Books is located on Lincoln west of Halsted, just off the intersection of 1969 and 1989. It has been described as a small left-leaning bookstore that grew into a large left-leaning bookstore, which, considering that its expansion coincided with the Reagan era, is a compliment as well as a description. It is not the only independent-minded bookstore in Chicago, nor will every reader find it the best. But as long as diversity is valued in the city's intellectual life it will be one of the more essential.
Bray—thin-bearded, with the perpetually vexed look of one who's just remembered something he wishes he'd forgotten—eats lunch with the relish of a man paying a bill. Bookselling is not usually considered a high-risk occupation, but it was the way Bray practiced it for the last nine years. Twelve-to-16-hour days building a bookstore into a business were made longer by simultaneous careers as author's advocate, labor organizer, arts adviser, and impresario. He drank a lot of coffee, ate too much, exercised too little, and smoked like a fiend. In 1987, while at a booksellers' convention in Anaheim, he suffered chest pains of the sort that reminds all aging leftists that there is more than one way to put your body on the line for the cause.
"I didn't have a heart attack," Bray explained. "They told me that if I had, I wouldn't have survived it." He was 42.
His friends and colleagues would have had their eulogies ready in any event. Says Reginald Gibbons, editor of TriQuarterly magazine, "Richard put too much of himself into Guild." Michael Anania, poet-professor, says, "Richard is a quotidian revolutionary. He's still driven by the old impulses." Kurt Vonnegut, who knows about old impulses, has said that Guild and Bray have helped "keep the culture alive."
It's hard to find anyone who will say un-nice things about Bray. I felt obliged to add to my notes, "He's a sloppy eater."
* * *
Bray, it should be understood, did not exactly found Guild Books. He no longer owns it exclusively, and he no longer really runs it. Ask him who has made Guild work and he will give you a dozen names other than his own, including that of his wife, Suzannah, who doesn't work there. Bray is a savvy merchandiser; he has been quoted in the trades on the subject of magazine racks. But a certain consciousness at Guild, not any slickness, is Bray's contribution to the local trade.
In many ways, Bray has been a radical organizer masquerading as a bookseller. He believes that a good bookstore is a subversive presence in a settled society, that a book can make as big a bang as a bomb. "We don't see books as commodities," he explained, "but as ideas."
Guild's shelves offer a syllabus of 1960s causes, from farm workers to third world interventionism, from racism and sexism to ecological murder. The mood is didactic. This week, in the window where the Cubs posters ought to be, Guild is likely to display a roster of banned books. Next week the store will hold lectures on what a publicity flier calls the FBI's "current plot to spy on patrons of our libraries." The week after that it will stage a benefit art exhibit "in commemoration of the 1980 Spanish Embassy Massacre in Guatemala in which 32 people were burned alive by the government security forces."
Guild has special sections of books on black history and culture, feminism, and Latin American fiction and history (some in Spanish), as well as respectably comprehensive selections of mainstream titles, displayed in a comfortable store done up in Graduate Student Revival style. The Guild magazine section reflects an antic cosmopolitanism: News From Native California sits next to Vogue Italia, Illinois Issues is next to Beijing Review, while in the middle is Border Crossing, which the well-traveled will recognize as Manitoba's magazine of the arts.
Bray's own politics are those of the 1930s labor Left, updated by the feminist and third world consciousness of the '70s. He can say the word "committed" without smirking, which must make him a curiosity to young people, like someone who can whittle. There was a time not long ago—by some calendars as recently as last week—when such a mind was dismissed as dated, nostalgic, even quaint. Bray insists that issues like discrimination and powerlessness have acquired a new urgency, and thus a new constituency. "People are asking, 'How come our government is always on the wrong side?' It doesn't matter whether they're talking about South Africa or Ireland or the Middle East. They want to read about it."
In some ways the '60s really have come back. The cheapening of money, the collapse of the market for unskilled work, cutbacks in public services, and other economic changes have in effect made sharecroppers not just of poor blacks but of women, working-class whites, and the unaffluent young. Speaking of Guild's selection of books about the labor movement, Bray said, "It used to be that only the committed would go to those kinds of sections. But now . . ."
Writers, of course, have always been on the margins of the economy, and Bray believes that many of Guild's customers are finding in the social and economic alienation of writers useful links to their own experience. A new generation, he insists, is afraid or angry and full of questions and is looking to books to find the answers.
Is something happening here, and we don't know what it is? In an interview published last summer, Noam Chomsky also claimed to have detected a spontaneous, unstructured movement of dissent in the U.S., not populated by the young, as in the '60s, but by women, the poor, eco-freaks, the working class, and nonwhites. While it is true, Chomsky explained, that the '80s turned most Americans into morons, the rest were becoming rebels. Folk singers are again making money singing about poverty, students are reading Camus, and the alternative media are again carrying the work of what Chomsky called "couriers—people who have been somewhere else and say what is going on there."
There is an atmosphere of self-vindication at Guild that some visitors find annoying. These days, when a man running for president feels obliged to apologize for being even a liberal, the "movement" more closely resembles a coterie. Revolutions are not often made by people who read a lot.
According to the least sympathetic, Guild deserves to be listed among Chicago's hobbyist bookshops along with stores that stock only cookbooks or kids' books or mystery novels. What has kept Guild from becoming just another delicatessen of causes, Mike Anania believes, is Bray's appreciation of the connection between artistic experiment and political adventure. "I used to be geared toward nonfiction almost exclusively," Bray recalled, "especially after I became active in community organizations and trade unions. Lately I've rediscovered people like Balzac and Eduardo Galeano and realized how much history there is in novels and poetry. What did Chaim Potok say? 'Fiction is the distortion of fact into truth'?"
After a boyhood in upstate New York, Bray moved with his family to California. "My gang in high school and junior college was like the UN—Japanese, black, Hispanic, Anglo." The vulnerabilities of the working class he learned from his unionist father, the invalidity of prejudice he learned from his friends, and from an older sister then active in civil rights campaigns.
"It all came into focus when I went to San Francisco State in 1968," Bray said. He was an indifferent student ("I had to take dumbbell English twice"), but more attentively tended to the lessons outside of class, where students organized one of the era's bitterest campus strikes.
The result is a personal politics that is less ideological than cultural. Some critics take issue with the scholarship of Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, others with Bloom's taste in rock and roll. Bray faults the book on political grounds, seeing it as a refurbishing of the stereotypes that dismiss the un-white and the un-middle-aged as vulgar, even barbaric.
Guild's advocacy has earned it a market niche, but no one has suggested that it is calculated; the effectiveness of the '60s Left can be questioned but never its earnestness. Guild, for example, donated a percentage of its proceeds from a recent in-store promotion to Chicago shelters for the homeless. "When you run an independent bookstore, making a living becomes a sideline," said Bray. "The bottom line is social profit."
Bray believes, in short, that books matter, that people care, that change is possible. To the disenchanted, his seriousness is more manifest than his wisdom. "I am not a naive optimist," he said in defense. "My dad used to tell me, 'We were the scapegoats once. We were at the bottom. It could happen again. So always support the underdog, because the next underdog could be you.' In Germany they blamed the Jew. Now they blame the black underclass, or the immigrants. What happens to workers in the Rio Grande valley could happen to me." Bray said this with the blend of resignation and dread that you hear in other people when they talk about the possibility of being mugged on the el. "The world is so goddamned small."
* * *
People are crouching on the floor, leaning against the feminist poets. A guy in combat boots knocks over part of Latin America. Somebody is taking pictures, and the air smells of young wine and old musk. On an impromptu stage a man speaks into a microphone, saying, "The homeless have no place to lay their heads."
It's another author's event at Guild. The man onstage is Jonathan Kozol, author of Rachel's Children, a plea for the homeless in U.S. cities. Perhaps 60 people are in the store on this particular Sunday evening; it is hard to tell how many of them came here looking for Kozol and how many simply found him here. A few people pull books off the shelves nearest them and leaf through them as Kozol speaks ("I suspect that we'll see housing riots in this country in the next couple of years"). Kozol looks like a man who's crossed the country four times in as many weeks. He's not pushing a book but a cause; Frederick Douglass once said, "Power concedes nothing without demands," as Kozol reminds the crowd, but today he might add, "or book tours." His publisher (Fawcett) and the American Booksellers Association selected a single bookstore in each of the 50 states to deliver a copy of Rachel's Children to their respective governors on George Bush's inauguration day; Illinois's emissary was Guild.
Every serious bookstore offers reading and autograph parties, of course. Barbara's began offering a stool to visiting fiction writers back in the '60s. Stuart Brent showcased local writers such as Nelson Algren in the '50s, when Brent ran a bookstore and not an institution. In the '80s, however, Guild has done more, and more kinds of, author events than anybody.
Guild does not attempt a comprehensive listing in its own promotional material. The roster includes national figures such as James Baldwin and E. L. Doctorow, local stalwarts—Studs, Heinemann, Chernoff, Blei, Petrakis, et al, plus a pod of poets and international artists such as Wole Soyinka.
Guild's schedule for the spring of 1988 was typical: Andrew Patner, I. F. Stone's profiler; Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan man of letters; Arturo Santamaria Gomez, the farm workers' Upton Sinclair and a guest at Guild's first bilingual author's party; Stuart Kaminsky, detective novelist; Herbert Mitgang, author of an expose of the FBI's writers files; Wayne Smith, journalist and authority on U.S.-Cuba policy; City Hall reformer Dick Simpson; the Organization of Black American Culture, featuring readings by Sterling Plumpp, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, and Haki Madhubuti; Cyrus Colter reading from his novel A Chocolate Soldier.
To the established writer, bookstore appearances rank just above hemorrhoids on the list of professional hazards, if only because they require a public performance from people who tend to be private by nature. Calvin Trillin, whose career arc in the '80s paralleled Guild's on a national scale (Trillin having gone from being a little-known left-leaning columnist to a well-known left-leaning columnist), has been there several times. "For me to say that I don't dread going to Guild," Trillin says from New York, "is a compliment."
For the unknown writer, appearances at places like Guild can be essential in building an audience. "It's a marketing device," allows Anania, who's read there, "but it's served us well." Anania adds that Guild's reading series has probably been more significant socially than commercially. ("It's good to do black and Latin writers in a mainstream bookstore.") That assessment is glumly confirmed by the store's staff. "They've never been profit makers," concedes Michael Warr, who handles readings for Guild.
An appearance by a star author will move a lot of books; Baldwin and Vonnegut each moved more than a thousand copies of their various titles when they were there. More typical was the scene the day after Kozol's appearance, when tables were piled high with unsold autographed copies of Rachel's Children, looking like the leftovers of an over-catered wedding party.
To help the store ease its losses and sustain the reading series, local poets organized a benefit reading a year ago. Held at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, the event was stage-managed by an eccentric bunch of eight cohosts—including Terri Hemmert, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nicole Hollander, and Clarence Page—whose presence confirmed the diversity of Guild's audience. It was a rare case of poets making money for a bookstore.
To the busy culture vulture, Guild's readings are a welcome way to learn about books without having to actually read any. To the impecunious, a reading is a cheap date. Anania suggests that Guild readings bring a kind of theater to that community of Chicagoans who do not confuse Charles Bukowski with former linebackers for the Bears. Chicago's favorite literary celebrities have always seemed more at home on the platform than in the study. The city has seen of late the emergence of a kind of literary cabaret in fact, in the form of the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill and the Poetry Under the Stars series cosponsored by Guild and the Red Lion.
Bray, characteristically, described the appeal of these new troubadours as political. "Our poets don't do the stereotypical rifles-in-the-air poses, but they are political. They have a passion for the common person and sympathy for victims."
* * *
In recent years, Richard Bray of Guild Books seemed sometimes never to be in Guild Books. He was always off somewhere chairing a panel or promoting a literacy program or touting a literary magazine or circulating a petition to expand arts grants to writers. Anything that expands the world of words and writers and ideas, Bray insisted, benefits Guild. It was also a grand excuse to get out of the store.
Every fall, for example, Bray sneaked away to the annual Illinois Literary Heritage Conference. The meeting is an inspiration of Jim Edgar, who as secretary of state is also Illinois' official state librarian. Its larger ambition is to promote Illinois authors, living and dead. The program was first aimed at public librarians, which was a little like addressing an antismoking campaign to the American Cancer Society.
As a board member and committee chairman, Bray was one of those who urged a wider focus, one that would also encompass writers, booksellers, and publishers, indeed the whole literate culture of the state. "It should be a massive event," he gushed, conjuring up images of an ink-smudged Woodstock. Last year's conference, held in Chicago, offered readings by such poets as Angela Jackson. They proved to be unexpectedly moving for many of the participants (usually the tears shed at literary conferences are caused by the refreshments). People who spend every day moving books can forget that books can move people.
Bray was to have sat on two panels but his operation made him cancel. He had taken full part in the previous year's conference in Carbondale. It was a little unusual to see a Chicago literatus that far south in October. But Bray did not share native Chicagoans' contempt for the life that begins where the Stevenson ends, although he once shared their ignorance of it. Three years on an advisory committee of the Illinois Arts Council, however, alerted him to the astonishing fact that they grow poets as well as corn downstate. He discovered that firms such as Peoria's Spoon River Poetry Press (which recently published the complete works of Vachel Lindsay) were doing essential work in documenting, collecting, and promoting Illinois writing; he discovered that firms such as Urbana's Stormline Press were setting a high standard in the publication of new verse. Bray became a literary ecumenist, preaching brotherhood at Read Illinois planning meetings, at Arts Council meetings, and to his customers.
Works that the conventional-minded regard as too local, too black, too female, or too foreign are published by and large by small literary presses, regional publishing houses, university presses, even vanity presses. The major publishing houses shun them, often not because they don't sell but because they don't sell enough. The big houses put out a lot of books, Bray says, but they are incapable of providing literature to society.
The sort of outfit that can, Bray believes, is the University of Illinois Press. The U. of I. Press recently debuted two new book series. One, "Visions of Illinois," includes photo books such as Chicago and Downstate, a collection of Farm Security Administration photos taken from 1936 to 1943, and Changing Chicago, the book version of the massive photodocumentary project whose results will be exhibited in various venues across the city in April. The other series is "Prairie Books," library-quality paperback reprints of ignored works of merit. "That's fantastic," said Bray. "They're looking for old labor novels, black history, stuff that never should have gone out of print in the first place."
Such houses contribute only marginally to the nation's gross publishing product, however much they add to its gross intellectual product, and thus are easily passed over by mass-market retailers. The big bookstore chains prefer to deal with publishers directly and in large lots; recently B. Dalton notified small publishing houses that any firm with whom the chain did not do at least $100,000 of business a year might have to make its books available through another publisher who did; otherwise its books would no longer appear on the chain's shelves.
"The distribution system is antiquated and based on profit," complained Bray. Publishers who ship books in small lots find it uneconomical to distribute their books to retailers through the big wholesalers who warehouse and ship books for a fee. Neither can they afford to put their own salespeople in the field to promote their titles person-to-person with retailers; U.S. bookstore managers—a breed distinct from booksellers—do not blush to sell books they haven't read, but even they will not stock a book they've never heard of.
"Independent publishers—I don't want to use the term 'small press' because it's very condescending—need stores to represent them." Guild is not the only independent in Chicago to stock such titles, but as Dick Wentworth of the U. of I. Press puts it, "He carries more titles from a press like this one than anybody."
Small may be beautiful, but in the book business it's also a pain in the ass. A not-for-profit distribution and marketing system that specializes in books the big boys won't touch would be more efficient. Bray has proposed just such a system, to be administered through the national Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (Richard Bray, chairman), which recently was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to purvey hard-to-find "little magazines" to libraries and bookstores.
Why not do the same for independent book publishers? Bray put the idea to the Illinois Arts Council, which responded with enough money to set up the not-for-profit Illinois Literary Publishing Association. By last summer the ILPA had sales reps on the road (part-timers, working for commissions) in all 50 states, and by last fall it had added its first full-time staffer at its Oak Park warehouse and office site. Lee Webster, ILPA board chairman, hopes to double 1988 sales of $60,000 this year; ditto its present 280 store accounts. Because of the ILPA, books by such publishers as Another Chicago Press, Dalkey Archive Press, and Lake View Press can now dependably be found in places like LA; Naming the Daytime Moon, the anthology by Chicago women writers, became something of a national hit via feminist bookstores supplied by ILPA.
"Richard has been extraordinarily helpful in getting us started and keeping it moving," says Webster. "He even found us our first sales rep."
* * *
"I never dreamed of owning a bookstore," Richard Bray explained one day over coffee. "I'm from a union family. Businessmen to us were the bad guys." It was 1979. Bray was living in LA, looking for a change. He'd visited Chicago many times and liked it; its history of labor agitation endeared the city to him, the way Saint Croix's beaches recommend that island to sun lovers. He had heard that the Guild co-op bookstore on Armitage was for sale, and with several partners he bought it. Over the years, all the other partners dropped out of the business.
"We got it for next to nothing," Bray recalled, which is about what any conventional businessman would have figured it was worth. "It was truly a child of the '60s. The focus was on the Wobblies, anarchists, socialists, poets"—Bray routinely lists poets among subversives—"and trade unionists." The focus of the country by then, however, was less on sharing the wealth than holding on to it in the face of inflation.
Four days in Georgia taking a crash course in the business offered by the American Booksellers Association (a course he would eventually teach) was all the training Bray had. But then, how much do you need to know to lose money?
Bray's student career at San Francisco State had been undistinguished; the administration signed the diplomas of student strikers, Bray says, not because they'd earned them but just to get rid of some troublemakers. He'd worked railroad jobs while he went to college; after graduation he drove a cab, worked at a hospital, and held factory jobs at plants belonging to Alcoa and Martin Marietta. A back injury on the job led to a workmen's comp settlement and a chance to go back to school. He was trained as a typesetter, a craft that brought him into contact with publishers of West Coast community newspapers and pamphleteers.
In high school, Bray had skipped classes, got himself suspended, and been tracked into vocational classes. "I come from a normal working-class family," he explained. "Registered Democrats. My dad was an electrician most of his life, and my mom worked in hotels and laundries. We were not a book-reading family."
The Brays were not, however, unanimated by ideas. His working-class/trade union background was confirmed by the political tumult of the '60s at a time when many of his middle-class contemporaries were rejecting their parents' experience as irrelevant, if not corrupt. Anania notes that Bray's enthusiasms attach most easily to what the poet calls "affiliated writers" from politically correct groups. What Bray says about the works of novelist Louise Erdrich, for example, is accurate enough ("Her books are examples of how to depict working-class people in ways that really respect them") but is perhaps not the first aspect of her books most readers would think to praise.
Bray is as dismayed as any conscientious reader at the book-buying public's appetite for the how-to book, the spurious memoir, the celebrity blow job. "There's a lot of schlock coming out," he said. "Many of Guild's best-sellers are not on the New York Times best-seller lists," Bray added, sounding a bit like the teacher whose class did not misbehave on the school trip. It's true enough; a check of Guild customers' favorite paperbacks against the Times's national mass-market lists for mid-January showed that only two fiction and two nonfiction titles (Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth and James Gleick's Chaos) appeared among the ten top sellers on both lists.
But independent bookstores almost always deviate from national mass-market trends. Guild's clientele has been described as the semi-yuppie, semi-hip Lincoln Park crowd, people who are readers or who wish to be thought of as readers. (Oddly, although it stands hard by the Lincoln Park campus of DePaul University, Guild does not seem to draw much of a college crowd.) Guild has acquired a dubious intellectual cachet, consistent with the neighborhood; as cast members of A Girl's Guide to Chaos once joked on WBEZ, the play's heroines may be found "at Guild Books looking for Nancy Mitford novels."
Bray himself has acknowledged that a significant part of his trade is with, well, frumpies—which would be Formerly Radical Upwardly Mobile etceteras. Guild's political titles offer these aging causistas the consolations of pornography, enabling them to experience again the thrill of acts they can remember but can no longer perform.
A bookseller's personal taste informs his store as much as it informs his personality. Some 100,000 books are published each year, and few stores have room to stock more than 30,000 of them, so the latitude for choice is temptingly wide. However, Guild has survived because Bray never completely imposed his own taste on his customers. Rather, he shared it with them, making sure that Guild never stocked only approved titles. The uncommitted read too, and they can find Erma Bombeck at Guild as well as Meridel Le Sueur. They can also find Allan Bloom.
There are limits, however. One Lincoln Avenue denizen reports dropping into Guild to buy something to while away the hours with as he sat with a sick friend. He asked for the latest by Robert Ludlum, a name the clerk professed never to have heard of. "It may," the clerk said icily, "be among the fiction."
* * *
"Call for you, Richard. Some guy from New York named Mitchell."
Bray sighed in exasperation. "He knows I don't have any money. Why does he want to talk to me?"
Bray disappeared into Guild's back office. A bookseller does not spend his time selling books, certainly not talking about them with customers—a cherished daydream of the neophyte—but taking them out of boxes and putting them into other boxes. The back rooms at Guild have the ambiance of a loading dock and the scale of a mobile home. Half-empty shipping cartons, stacks of invoices, inventory printouts are crammed everywhere in purposeful disarray. There are signs of a hundred errands interrupted. The genius in bookselling, if there is any, lies in simply knowing where things are.
It was August. Bray was in the store for only a few days before he had to return to New York City. He had been there for more than six months, exploring the possibilities of opening a Guild-style bookstore. The Mr. Mitchell on the line was a real estate agent. Readers are easy to find in New York; one book in every five sold in the U.S., it is said, is sold in a New York City bookstore. What is hard is finding affordable store space.
Bray hung up. "New York wasn't my idea. But you see, in Manhattan, the multicultural center of the world, there is not a single bookstore like Guild. New York authors who come here to do autographings and readings complain to me that it's hard to find their books on shelves in New York now."
Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation, gathered investors who raised enough money to pay Bray to come to New York early in 1988 to determine the feasibility of opening a Guild-like bookstore there.
"The fact that they asked Richard speaks volumes," TriQuarterly's Reg Gibbons explained later. Guild has enjoyed a certain reputation among Manhattan's literati for some years now, fueled by writers who returned from the hinterland telling wondrous stories about a bookstore that stocked the first book of a writer as well as the latest and that sold poetry on consignment.
"Navasky has been on my case since the days of the American Writers Congress in 1981," Bray said with the tone of a man describing a beloved but trying in-law. The look-see was supposed to take three months. It lasted six. The Brays—wife Suzannah Bray was with him—stayed in borrowed digs and ran up the credit cards. Bray did some paying work on the side while he scouted sites, doing a little of this and that for the National Writers Union and the producers of the PBS documentary film series P.O.V.
Guild had been left in the hands of Lew Rosenbaum, a former buyer for Santa Monica's Midnight Sun bookstore who had come to Chicago to run the store in the fall of 1987 and who was to become Bray's partner a few months later. Bray's absence no doubt was assumed by some people to signal a permanent move to New York. It is a well-marked trail, after all. Bray, however, was not impressed by the bookseller's life as lived in Manhattan. "There's a camaraderie among booksellers in Chicago," he explained. "We trade stock, we buy books together, we give each other advice. We even hold joint autographing parties. In New York, people in the trade don't even talk to each other."
The idea that Chicago has anything to teach New York about the book trade is novel to say the least. That city is the self-proclaimed center of culture in the U.S., a claim that is all the more irritating to those who live in the provinces for its being substantially accurate. New York remains a place where explorers go to be discovered; a Chicago writer still has to be certified by New York critics and New York publishers before he or she can be regarded as anything but a minor regional talent. To do this one doesn't necessarily need to write about New York's world, but one needs to write about the world in the ways that New York sees it. Bray offered as evidence the experience of Gary Rivlin. When Rivlin approached the big New York houses with his idea for a book about the administration of Harold Washington, he was rebuffed. Harold was worse than dead, Rivlin was told in effect, he was passé; how about a book about Jesse?
One Midwestern writer who has attracted the attention of the coasts is Erdrich, who stopped at the store in October to read from her new novel, Tracks. "They're wonderful people," said Bray of Erdrich and her husband, novelist Michael Dorris. Bray met them four years ago at a booksellers convention and struck up a correspondence. "Reg Gibbons and I organized a fund-raising event at the Cultural Center and she came. She won the very first Nelson Algren Award back when Chicago magazine used to run it, although that never seems to get mentioned among her credits."
Bray thus championed Midwestern writers (including those who work in Chicago) out of the same impulse that led him to champion Latin American writers or women writers: to strike a blow against cultural imperialism. Local writers are featured prominently at Guild, both on its shelves and in its schedule of readings. Says Reg Gibbons, "Richard played a huge part in my sense of the vitality of Chicago as a place for writers."
Indeed. If the burden of the writer in Chicago in years past was to be ignored, the risk today is to be overpraised. Back in 1953 Malcolm Cowley wrote about the dawning of another Chicago literary renaissance; its name, it turned out, was Nelson Algren. Ever since, local literati have assiduously watered any likely looking patch of garden in the hope that another Algren will bloom. Accomplishment may be the test in other cities, but talent is still enough to earn you a reputation in Chicago.
Local bookstores have always boosted local writers, out of motives that arguably are suspect. (Lacking a new Nelson Algren, Guild continues to promote the old one; of the top ten best-selling titles in the combined hardback and paperback fiction lists this winter, three were by or about Algren.) Guild's contribution may go beyond mere promotion to something more basic. Guild is one of the places where writers can, as Anania puts it, enact their identity.
Writing remains perforce a solitary act, but being a writer is a social act. It is debatable whether there is a literary community in Chicago, however. Writers are not only physically dispersed but separated by stylistic and political differences. When plans were made to gather poets for the Guild benefit a year ago last January, the event was titled, self-consciously, Neutral Turf.
Assembling in one room artists of diverse traditions such as Badikian, Hernandez, Golden, Sheehan, Chernoff, Mueller, Madhubuti, Edwards, Janik, Pintonelli, and a dozen others was a feat of diplomacy as well as charity. "Richard has been very important in the last six or eight years in pulling together people who have aesthetic dislikes for each other," explains Lee Webster, who runs Another Chicago Press. "They still dislike each other, but Richard allowed them to at least be together in one room so they could talk."
One of the things Chicago literary types have been talking about lately is how to formalize Guild's informal role as a locus of the city's literary culture. Bray likens Guild to such shops as the Hungry Mind in Saint Paul or San Francisco's City Lights, places he calls "culture centers." The distinction may be made between culture centers and cultural centers, the former being places that not only dispense culture 'but foment it. Guild sells original paintings and photographs. Writers tend to gather there, to shop or mingle or count how many copies of their books moved that week.
About three years ago Bray signed a lease on a room next door, hoping to use it to stage readings away from the tumult of the main store. But the new space added $1,200 a month to the rent, and Bray had to fill it with displays of magazines, calendars, even greeting cards to make it pay its way.
This is the space that would be the home of a new not-for-profit center being organized by friends of Guild, principally Reg Gibbons, Mitch Kovic, Julie Parsons, and Patricia Murphy. The center has a board of directors, a name—the Guild Complex—and plans to host Guild readings (perhaps charging admission to them), mount art showings, even rent the space out for meetings, debates, and so on. Current plans call for the Guild Complex to open in May.
* * *
It is February, and Bray is physically sound again, although he still can't find anything he can eat for lunch ("Did the waiter say cream of vegetable?"). Bray is at a familiar table at Vie de France, across the street from Guild. The explorations toward a New York store, followed by his surgery and its aftermath, have kept him away from the store and the city for most of the last 13 months. Not so long that he has been forgotten on the block ("You're skinny!" exclaims someone), but long enough for his mind to start to wander from the day-to-day duties of the purveyor of printed goods.
Specifically, to California. He's just back from Los Angeles, where he has been recuperating at a relative's place. It is not a city he particularly likes, except for its weather. "When we moved here ten years ago, people said we were crazy," he recalls. "When you work 60 or 80 hours a week in a bookstore, the elements don't bother you much." He was bothered more by the social climate in Chicago, where people made jokes about Californians. "After a while I just lied about where I was from."
To keep busy in LA and make a little money, he did some consulting, talked to some people, made a few calls. One of them was to the offices of PEN USA Center West. PEN is the prestigious international writers' organization, a kind of ACLU for artists and thinkers dedicated to what the group calls "the unhampered transmission of thought." The LA-based PEN center is one of two in the U.S., the other being in New York. Bray had been one of the people who set up a PEN Midwest a few years ago. (PEN being an organization of writers as well as for writers, PEN Midwest had to invent a category of non-writer membership, in no small part to accommodate Bray.)
Bray has long been interested in the dilemma of the writer. In New York he worked part-time for the National Writers Union on that organization's project to rid authors' contracts of punitive clauses. (Some publishers, for example, have insisted that cash advances be repaid if a larger-than-acceptable number of an author's books are returned unsold, a violation of the venerable tradition that the writer takes the financial risks of creation and the publisher takes the risks of publication.) It has never been possible for independent writers as a group to live well from their craft, and few expect to. But in recent years it has become difficult to live at all just from earnings as a writer of anything but hackwork.
The perils writers face abroad are more often political than economic. An inconvenient commitment to the truth can cost a writer a grant in the U.S., but it can earn one a death sentence in many other countries. PEN mobilizes public and diplomatic opinion in support of prisoners of intellect in much the same way that the better known Amnesty International works for the release of political prisoners.
So when PEN USA Center West told Bray it was looking to expand and was looking for its first-ever full-time director, Bray listened and agreed, somewhat in spite of himself, to take the job.
"LA's a lousy book town compared to Chicago," Bray explains. "And out there I have to fill my car once a week, and I get 35 miles to the gallon. But the job description is like everything I've been doing for free."
Last summer Bray had said, in explanation of his extended stay in New York, "I'm broadening my involvement with books and writers nationally, but I'm always bringing it back to Guild in Chicago." Even then, his tone was defensive and not quite convincing. Regular visitors to Guild in recent months could not help but notice the ubiquitous presence of Lew Rosenbaum, supervising inventory-taking, arranging with a hopeful poet to take a few chapbooks on consignment, acting as emcee at authors' events, braving Lincoln Avenue traffic to bum a few shopping bags from the guys at Booksellers Row across the street, even deputizing for Bray at conferences. No doubt Bray noticed, and saw in his partner's bustle hints of his former servitude.
"We're so much alike," Bray says of Rosenbaum. "And he's a great bookseller." The distinction may have been inadvertent, but it seems valid nonetheless. Anania has remarked that Bray made himself into a good bookseller. But real booksellers are born, not made, and even Bray admits that in recent years he's been a distracted parent to his store.
From where Bray is seated at Vie de France he can see Guild, a perspective he will have to get used to. He says that there is no question that he will miss Chicago, that it is only a matter of how much, The same may be said about his colleagues. "Wherever he's been he's been helpful," says Lee Webster in what may be the summary praise. "The store will do fine without him. But the city will miss him a lot." ●
Note: I sent the following letter to the Reader, which ran it on May 5, 1989, under the heading, "Illiteracy: The Creeping Menace.”
To the editors:
The "Read Illinois conference" referred to in my profile of bookseller Richard Bray [April 14] was in fact the sixth annual Illinois Literary Heritage Conference, which is but a part of the Read Illinois program undertaken by that nice Mr. Edgar, our secretary of state.
I for one wish him well. If hack writers can't make sense of press releases these days, imagine what the man faces trying to get teenagers to parse the poets.
By the way: When last heard from, Mr. Bray was setting up a Salman Rushdie hot line in Los Angeles. In case anyone was worried that moving to the big city might change him.
James Krohe Jr.