THE LONG WINDING ROAD FROM LUBBOCK TO TINSEL TOWN
By Bob Vickrey
The two tall handsome gray-haired gentlemen stood staring each other down across the bookstore counter as if they were about to break out in a classic Burr and Hamilton duel.
Former Texas Governor John B. Connally and local Houston bookseller, Ted Brown, were trading sardonic barbs in their ongoing colossal battle of giant egos. They were both elegantly attired in expensive pin-striped suits and each represented that era of the male-dominated, testosterone-driven business world of the 1970s. Governor Connally was a regular customer at Brown’s Bookshop, the best-known bookstore in Houston at that time, and seemed to truly relish his encounters with the feisty Brown.
I sat nearby as a young star-struck bystander watching these two business tycoons take each other on in their battle of intellectual one-upmanship. This mildly uncomfortable situation was not exactly one I thought I’d initially signed up for when I had recently joined my east coast publishing firm as the local field representative. It also seemed a bit unfair that facing the stern, short-tempered Ted Brown would happen to represent my very first sales appointment on the new job.
A few weeks later after meeting other booksellers in the area, I was relieved to find that my first appointment was not a true indicator of the traditionally collegial atmosphere that existed in the business of bookselling.
My mind had wandered elsewhere that first day while watching those two spirited power-brokers engage in their verbal sparring. I had remembered an earlier time when I dreamed of becoming a famous sportswriter, with hopes of avoiding these high-wire trappings of the competitive business world in which I had little interest—and only a slight understanding of.
I was a typically unfocused 17-year-old high school boy who one day received a timely and thoughtful letter from my future brother-in-law in Ft. Worth. He encouraged me to consider journalism as a viable option in selecting a college major after reading a couple of my early forays into sports writing for our town’s weekly paper.
While I was at Baylor University, I struggled mightily with any serious focus on academic life, and was much more captivated by intramural sports, parties, and beautiful girls—although not necessarily in that particular order. I eventually became sports editor of the campus newspaper, The Baylor Lariat. Many journalism majors there also worked weekends at the Waco News Tribune in the sports department where we rounded up the local high school football and basketball scores. We attempted to create makeshift stories from sketchy information obtained from well meaning, but rather unreliable sources like the breathless and excited head cheerleaders of the victorious Hutto “Hippos” and the Groesbeck “Goats”—(my two all-time favorite mascots.)
Although my internships at the various local papers had been initially thrilling, I found myself after my college years once again adrift and bouncing from one job to another. I wrote for several newspapers and magazines as a freelancer, but struggled financially with the traditionally low salaries paid to non-staff writers. To my long-suffering parents’ great relief, I made the command decision that it was time to go out and secure a “real” job.
I spent the next three years in book retailing and wholesaling, which some might consider qualifying as a “real” job. My contacts with local publisher’s reps there helped me land a job with Houghton Mifflin, where I became the Southwestern representative for the company.
I found the affable camaraderie among the local reps one of the real joys of my new job. Publishing was somewhat unique in that the various companies’ marketing of their books did not necessarily create an atmosphere as competitive as that which was engrained in most businesses. I found a spirit of surprising cooperation among the circle of reps I socialized with during those early years. We dined together and often even traveled together on extended trips.
And travel, we did! The publisher’s reps that were based in Texas had an enormous geographical area to cover, and most of that was done by driving—not flying. Many of us also covered nearby states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A typical trip to the vast wide-open spaces of West Texas usually entailed considerably more drive time than in the actual visitation with bookselling customers.
My pal, Michael Donahue, another Austin-based publisher’s rep, often joined me as we navigated our way through the far-reaching outposts of West Texas. We pressed our way through a week spent in Wichita Falls, Lubbock, Amarillo, Odessa, and Midland, and yet somehow managed to keep our sanity somewhat intact throughout the trip.
After driving for five or six hours the first day, we would awake on Monday morning at the Holiday Inn in Wichita Falls to make our first sales call on the Boyd-Lovelace Bookstore, which was owned by the mayor of the city. Mayor J.C. Boyd seemed equally interested in his community standing as he was with the ultimate success of his bookstore. The Mayor took Michael and me to his favorite downtown diner for lunch where he greeted every rancher and urban cowboy who gathered there each day and routinely eased into their customary red vinyl booths. He proudly led us from table to table and introduced us rather proprietarily as “my” reps.
Those trips were eye opening to bigger city dwellers like Michael and me who took great pleasure in our short stays in each town, but ultimately could not wait to return to our vital and energetic home of Austin. Once, while passing through the small town of Brownwood, we slowed through the mid-town area, and Michael asked the rhetorical question: “What would happen here if someone actually wanted to find a book to read?” (That era preceded a time when a simple click of the “cursor” would have had a book winging its way to your front doorstep—no matter how remote your location.) The revolving book rack at the downtown drug store would have likely been your best chance of finding some reading material. Pocketbook authors such as Max Brand, Zane Grey, Ian Fleming or Georgette Heyer represented just about the full extent of the very slim selection there.
As we returned at week’s end to the sunlit hills of west Austin, we suddenly became aware of the song that Mac Davis was belting out on the car radio that provided an appropriate welcome home for both of us. Davis crooned his timely lyrics: “I always thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas in my rear view mirror.”
In the late 1970s, my sales manager called to offer me a job transfer to Southern California, which sounded quite exotic to one who had never ventured far from his home state of Texas. I politely refused his offer and thanked him for thinking of me. However, Tom Martin did not take no for an answer and encouraged me to talk it over with my (then) wife, Mollie. Her not-so-subtle response to the proposal was: “Have you gone mad? Of course we’re moving to Southern California.” I may have also mentioned a minor detail that the territory included Alaska, Hawaii, Las Vegas, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, and Scottsdale.
After I had officially accepted the position in Southern California, my boss was kind enough to send me out West to meet some of the booksellers I would be working with there. I was also afforded an introduction from Jerry Goodman, the rep I was replacing who had taken a position in our New York office.
I could tell from the minute Jerry picked me up at the airport, that this trip represented more to him than just an introduction to new clients. He became an impressive ambassador for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce as he squired me from one Southern California tourist destination to another. He seemed as excited about my move as his own to New York.
We hit Hollywood Boulevard within minutes of my arrival to meet advertising director, Nick Clemente of Pickwick Books. Nick escorted us up the boulevard to his regular corner booth at the legendary Musso & Frank Grill where writers like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Chandler, and Hemingway had spent many long hours. One might have assumed that Nick was the acting mayor of Hollywood judging by the number of people who stopped by his booth to say hello. I was told the flamboyant Mr. Clemente held court there often during the lunch hour. I remember having been completely mesmerized by the red-flocked wallpaper, which I’m sure, had not been changed since the Grill’s opening in 1919.
Jerry took me to meet Larry Todd at Hunter’s Bookstore in the staid and proper setting of Beverly Hills. This was the store which held the reputation of catering to the town’s rich and famous. Larry was a fellow Texan who had maintained his rich Southern drawl and seemed somehow out of place at this ritzy store located in America’s most famous star-studded community. But then again, I suppose he could have said the same about me.
Minutes later, we arrived in West Los Angeles where I was introduced to local poet John Harris at his unorthodox and avant-garde store, Papa Bach Paperbacks—the very antithesis of our last visit. When I walked through the door, I felt like I had just entered the Los Angeles version of Haight-Ashbury. I gradually recovered from the whip-lash effect of the contrasting styles of the two stores located less than three miles from one another. I noticed a large Persian cat sleeping atop the shelves in the psychology section and wondered if this might have been his preferred reading and sleeping category. Harris was an impressively well-read bookseller whose memorable booming baritone voice I imagined as having entertained numerous audiences during his poetry readings there.
We soon headed toward San Diego, and specifically, LaJolla, which had already been described to me as a lush paradise and perhaps the real crown jewel of Southern California communities. We stopped by Barbara Cole’s bookshop located on the LaJolla cliffs overlooking the emerald-green Pacific. Her picturesque store was housed in “Wisteria Cottage,” which had once served as the Scripps’ family guest quarters in much earlier times. Barbara and her late husband John had enjoyed a long friendship with author Theodore Geisel, and had hosted the legendary Dr. Seuss at their store numerous times through the years.
The town was home to bookstores on seemingly every corner and each had its own distinctive personality. Warwick’s was a fourth-generation store which prided itself in the long tenure of its employees and their inherent dedication to the many loyal customers. It is now the country’s oldest family-owned and operated bookstore. The store has always been a must-stop destination for prominent American writers from widely-varying fields. Warwick’s has hosted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, cooking legend Julia Child, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Others who have made store appearances include: Andy Rooney, Garrison Keillor, Salman Rushdie, Barbara Kingsolver, Julie Andrews, and Anne Rice.
Just down the street, D.G. Wills Books had much more of a bohemian feel to it, and was owned by erudite bookman Dennis Wills. The shelves there are high; the aisles narrow, and the literary ambiance striking and utterly palpable. If Warwick’s style characterized and attracted the more formal, buttoned-down crowd of LaJolla, Wills’ store offered a unique alternative with his cozy refuge for the discriminating reader. The selection often featured obscure titles that appeared to be hand-picked with inspired curation.
Dennis hosted evening gatherings with the likes of Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gore Vidal, playwright Edward Albee, and poet Gary Snyder—and many of those events lasted well into the late-night hours. The mood at these engagements was often festive, irreverent, and rowdy in which one could sense the unrestrained spirit of a pure celebration of literature and the written word.
The scent of blooming bougainvillea and the impressive views from every vantage point in LaJolla had delivered its desired effect on this visitor—and that’s exactly why Jerry had taken me there. The overwhelming combination of the visceral feel of this stunning city and the welcoming book community there had me already picturing my inevitable move as I dreamily napped on the return flight to Austin.
When Mollie and I finally arrived in Southern California, we met John, our realtor, who had the seemingly impossible task of finding us a house we could afford on the Westside of Los Angeles, given our financial limitations in the inflated housing market there. After enduring a long day of frustration in our search, John stopped for a quick respite at the local Safeway market in the beachside community of Pacific Palisades.
John had told us that there were many movie stars who lived in the area, and sure enough, he spotted a man in the market’s parking lot that he identified as Academy Award winning actor, Peter Ustinov. Mollie and I were thrilled about our spontaneous sighting of a famous celebrity in only our second day in town.
John approached the man and told him the story of having spotted someone a year earlier who he thought was the renowned actor, but in fact, had misidentified the man. He told him of his embarrassment about the incident, and how he was finally happy to meet the real Peter Ustinov. The distinguished looking stranger smiled meekly and said, “Unfortunately, my friend, you’ve done it once again; that was me you approached that day a year ago.”
John seemed almost tongue-tied in his embarrassment after seemingly having made the same mistake once again with the same gentleman. He turned, and walked dejectedly away from us toward his car.
Afterward, the stranger turned coyly toward the two of us, and gave us what we easily identified as a mischievous actor’s clandestine grin—and his very best theatrical wink—before mysteriously disappearing into a late afternoon fog that had shrouded Will Rogers State Beach.
Mollie leaned toward me and said with a girlish giggle, “Toto, I have a strange feeling that we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns frequently appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors at the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.