Steve Wasserman: making his mark on California publishing – and writing the next chapter of Berkeley’s Heyday Books, too.


Making his mark, as always

Steve Wasserman has 15,000 books –all of them choice, and all of them on display at the offices of Heyday Books, where he is publisher. I don’t know how this compares to other Bay Area private collections, but it must be high in the rankings. Certainly when it comes to quality:

“I’m a snail who’s hostage to an oversized shell,” he jokes during a tour of his library. Unlike most personal collections, Wasserman’s is intrepid and surprising: belles lettres, poetry, literary criticism. Black history, civil rights, California history. Fiction from The Arabian Nights to Stefan Zweig.

“This is all wheat, no chaff,” he says with pride. Turn a corner and find Antiquity, Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt, geology and dinosaurs. Civil War, the Holocaust, Vietnam. Art, dance, architecture.

“Books are like Aladdin’s lamp,” Wasserman enthuses. “You don’t rub the lamp, the geni doesn’t come out. And a book that lies on the shelf is in something of a coma. Writers need readers to complete the work.” 

We’ve written about him here and here and here, among other places. Now Edward Guthmann, a former San Francisco Chronicle writer, has written about him, too. He has just published a profile of Steve, one of our favorite subjects, for the current Oakland Magazine. But the best parts always are the bits from Steve himself. He has an enviable way with words. And a sense of style.

Back at his table at Chez Panisse (photo: Moi)

Guthmann captures the trademark nattiness of Steve in this paragraph: “There’s a watchful, canny look in his eyes. On the day of our meeting, he’s dressed in a retro, semi-dandy style: Purple corduroy trousers, purple necktie, black vest, button-down white shirt, and cuff links. His shoes are two-toned, brown and buff, and a handkerchief blooms in the breast pocket of his wool blazer — a gallant sartorial gesture.”

Steve was editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review when it was the best book section in the nation, bar none. Then he did a stint as editor at large at the Yale University Press. What lured him back to Berkeley? You can read the reasons in the piece, but this some of those factors were Heyday’s small-scale “lack of bureaucracy” and the chance  “to write Heyday’s second chapter and to make a mark on independent California publishing. Plus, Alice Waters promised me I could have back my old table at Chez Panisse.”

Steve has a remarkable gift for the crisp, polished, quotable phrase that makes me weep with envy. Here’s an example:

“I feel a little bit like Rip Van Winkle,” Wasserman says. Soon after his return to the East Bay, he took his dog, Pepper, for a walk in Codornices Park in the Berkeley Hills and entered a small redwood grove he hadn’t seen in 50 years. “It was a summer day, the sunshine dappling through the trees, and the smell of the redwoods braided together with eucalyptus and oak and that particular kind of barometric pressure that suffuses the Bay Area, which is very light on the skin. None of the East Coast humidity. I stood there, my eyes welling up with tears. It was almost, I’m tempted to say, a Proustian moment.”

Shit, Steve. Braided. The smells were braided together. I wish I’d said that. (I know, I know … I will). 

Read the whole thing here.


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