Archive for May 12th, 2024

“While Malcolm’s shoes are singular,” he said, “I walk in my own shoes.” How a small publishing house found a new life.

Sunday, May 12th, 2024
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Steve Wasserman among his 20,000 books (Photo: Ximema Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

The story of small publishing houses in today’s world often aren’t happy ones. Here’s the story of one that is.

I know Malcolm Margolin, the legendary founder of the valiant publishing house, Heyday Books in Berkeley. I know his successor, Steve Wasserman, even better. I wrote for Steve when he was the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books when it was the best newspaper in the nation. And now I’ve published with Heyday – well, I wrote about that here and here. Czesław Miłosz: A California LIfe is now a reality, and about to appear with Kraków’s Znak, the Polish poet’s favored publisher. I’ll be writing from Kraków as that event happens next month.

This, however, is the story of Heyday. Here’s an excerpt from Joanne Furio‘s article in Berkeleyside. Read the whole thing here:

In November 2016, four months after becoming the publisher of Heyday books, the independent, alternative press Malcolm Margolin founded in Berkeley in 1974, Steve Wasserman faced what he described as “a major hiccup.” The nonprofit imprint was  $250,000 in the red and couldn’t pay salaries. There were few options, including the possibility of closing up shop. 

“We had to really look at each other and say, maybe we could throw a 40th anniversary wake and celebrate the achievements that were made during the first four decades of Heyday,” he said. “On the other hand, if you look at the sweat equity that was put into the place over those 40 years, maybe there was something worth nurturing and a path forward.”

The staff chose a path forward. As Wasserman put it, everyone — himself included — cinched their belts and took a temporary pay cut. The 15-member staff was also reduced by a third. 

“Fortunately, the business rebounded,” he said. “We put our house in order, and now we are thriving. We’re in the best fiscal position we’ve ever enjoyed in 50 years.”

***

Heyday’s occupied a few rented offices around Berkeley over the years and is now in a ground-floor suite of a newish apartment building at 1808 San Pablo Avenue in Northwest Berkeley. Some 20,000 books belonging to Wasserman line the walls, practically from floor to ceiling. Storing the books in the Heyday offices, where employees had access to them, was a condition of his hiring and seen as a win-win for both. Wasserman’s been hauling them around the country for years. 

For Wasserman, returning to Berkeley closed a circle. He went to Berkeley High and UC Berkeley and has returned to the North Shattuck neighborhood he grew up in. He joked that his hometown has become “the La Brea Tar Pits of the counterculture,” which he also played a role in. 

At Garfield Junior High (now King Middle School), he organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965. In 1968, he co-led a successful student strike there that founded the first Black history and studies department at an American high school. In 1969, he organized a sleep-in to protest the military occupation of Berkeley, a.k.a. People’s Park. 

***

Wasserman had known Margolin for years when he learned of the opening and called him. “‘Why would you want to leave the New York big-time to work at Heyday, this farshtunken publisher in Berkeley?’” Wasserman recounted, providing the translation for the Yiddish word farshtunken, which means “stinking.” 

Malcolm Margolin at his home in 2021 by Christopher Michel

“‘After all,’ he said, both flattering me and slightly insulting me, ‘you’re a big-time New York publisher. Why would you want to waste your time?’” Wasserman said. “I said, “What do you think big-time New York publishers do? They do the same thing you do. They look for good ideas and for fresh, original voices. The scale is different, the work is the same.” 

Wasserman sees his role as a steward to safeguard Heyday’s editorial and publishing program in a fiscally responsible way that honors the DNA of its founder as he helps write its second chapter — in his own way. 

“While Malcolm’s shoes are singular,” he said, “I walk in my own shoes.”

Since taking the helm, Wasserman has stabilized Heyday’s balance sheet and expanded its stable of writers to include the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley. “We’re expanding in every realm,” he said. 

Under Wassermann’s stewardship, Heyday’s no longer in the red and has managed to break even every year. Each year, the imprint has raised about $1 million, with sales revenue at just over $2 million. Sixty-five percent of its revenue comes from book sales, according to Heyday’s 2023 Annual Report. 

***

Recent books Wasserman has shepherded include Linda Rondstadt’s Feels Like Home (with Laurence Downes), Tony Platt’s The Scandal of Cal and Don Cox’s Making Revolution: My Life in the Black Panther Party.

In addition, Wasserman has recently tried on the hat of “author.” At the suggestion of staffers, he has collected his essays in a memoir titled Tell Me Something, Tell Me Anything, Even if It’s a Lie, due out Oct. 8. The book is being blurbed by such literary heavyweights as Joyce Carol Oates and Vivian Gornick

He has also written, with Gayle Wattawa, Heyday’s general manager, the intro to the book Heyday at Fifty: Selected Writings from Five Decades of Independent California Publishing, coming out Aug. 13 to celebrate Heyday’s 50th anniversary. Gary Snyder, Jane Smiley, Ursula Pike, Greg Sarris and Susan Straight are among the contributors. 

Looking ahead, Wasserman is encouraged by Heyday’s prospects in an industry that appears to be rebounding from the gloom-and-doom predictions of a decade ago. He noted that more independent bookstores have opened up in the last five years, and e-book sales have declined. He admits that attention spans are shortening, and that remains a challenge, but books as we know them are not disappearing anytime soon. 

“Ultimately, I want to no longer be the best-kept literary secret in the state of California. I want us to be the principal independent publisher that would-be authors think about when they want to publish their books,” he said. “My ambition is that we become a magnetic pole that attracts to our side like iron filings writers of ambition and talent who yearn to be published by us. And I want to do that by continuing the bespoke tradition that has been so well established, which is part of our identity.” 

Again, read the whole thing at Berkeleyside here.