Since the first carton of newly printed books landed on a Berkeley sidewalk in August 1974, Heyday Books has been telling stories about California that might otherwise never be known: intimate descriptions of an Ohlone Indian village by San Francisco Bay; stories about Allensworth, the African American utopian community that sprung up in the Central Valley in the early 20th century; Joaquin Miller’s accounts of life among the early settlers of far Northern California – to name a few.
At the center of all the storytelling is Heyday founder Malcolm Margolin, a man who lives by the rule that “anything that gets you out of the office is good.” He roams the state, hanging out with Native Americans, artists, writers, naturalists, just about anyone who has a story. Out of these experiences has come a large portion of the eclectic Heyday catalog, including Margolin’s own account of the Ohlones before the white man came.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Heyday just published “The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin: The Damn Good Times of a Fiercely Independent Publisher.” Heyday editor Kim Bancroft compiled the collection of oral histories by Margolin and his family, Heyday staffers and authors.
In the book, Margolin’s children, Reuben, Sadie and Jake, remember growing up in rented houses full of books – boxes and boxes of them filling bathrooms and hallways. Their beds consisted of plywood boards placed over boxes of books.
Not in it for the money
The Margolins were so financially strapped in those years that they moved light bulbs from room to room. To this day, Malcolm and his wife, Rina, are renters in Berkeley.
Money was never of great importance to Margolin. Producing beautiful, carefully crafted books always was. “I’m sure he’s had to worry all the time about the finances of Heyday Books,” said his son Jake in an e-mail. “But I never heard him talk about a project positively or negatively based on whether it turned a profit.”
Heyday has published some 350 titles in its 40 years, with 200 currently in print. Gary Snyder’s “The High Sierra of California” was published by Heyday, as was Rebecca Solnit’s exploration of San Francisco, “Infinite City.” Ernest Callenbach’s charming “Humphrey the Wayward Whale” and John Muir Laws’ beautifully illustrated guides to the Sierra Nevada are on the list.
It no doubt comes as a surprise to Margolin that what he describes as “basically a rogue, outlaw institution” is now making money, or at least paying its bills on time, and that he and his enterprise are gradually lurching toward iconic status.
Margolin, 73, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Boston. He was a shy young man in a “self-induced state of dreaminess,” he writes in the anniversary collection. He grew up to be a quirky, unemployable misfit – one who had the great good luck to find his perfect niche in life.
But that was after a long period of drifting, of wandering the country with Rina after he graduated from Harvard. He and Rina, who was born in Poland and went to Radcliffe, met as students in Cambridge and eventually settled in the Bay Area, figuring it would be a good place to start a family.
Margolin was fired from an early job, with the East Bay Regional Park District, for refusing to wear a uniform but was able to fall back on a $10,000 advance from Houghton Mifflin for a how-to book on restoring wildlands. The fee also provided the seed money for the first Heyday book, “East Bay Out,” about the East Bay’s parks, which Margolin, inspired by the small press revolution of the 1970s, designed and typeset himself. That book was followed by Margolin’s meticulously researched book on the Ohlone.
In these early years, Margolin had no grand goals for his fledgling publishing enterprise.
“I was a confused young man in those days,” he said in his University Avenue office filled with books and manuscripts. “Just trying to get along, to support my family.”
In the beginning, Rina, who speaks three languages, helped with editing and proofreading in their home office, later moving on to teach ESL and run summer camps.
Since its inception, Margolin’s infectious laugh has been the ongoing soundtrack at Heyday. He’s a great raconteur, “specializing in stories about himself told with self-deprecating humor,” says Bancroft.
He carries no cell phone, feels somewhat helpless in the computer world and admits that he has “no capacity for organization.” He is famous for wandering off from the office for hours at a time to unknown destinations, blissfully disconnected from Heyday headquarters. But then, Margolin’s “office” has never been contained in four walls.
“Malcolm will stay out late participating in a ceremony in a roundhouse or being the last to leave a party because he’s finding out from the bartender what his day was like,” says Bancroft. “And then he’ll be up early, the first in the Heyday office, tucking notes into people’s boxes to thank them and encourage them in the beautiful books they are making.”
Margolin remains the vital, creative center of the operation, very much involved in author relationships and the acquisition of manuscripts. Eleven years ago, he set up Heyday as a nonprofit, with a board of directors, taking a major step toward an eventual post-Margolin era. The move enabled the company to seek grants, double its staff from six to 12, and form publishing partnerships with other nonprofits.
The nonprofit status also formalized Margolin’s commitment to publishing as a cultural, intellectual and aesthetic pursuit, not a quest for unit sales and profits. And it turned out to be a shrewd way to survive in the shrinking world of publishing. Heyday is thriving while many for-profit publishers are struggling.
He is surrounded by a staff “brought together by our love of California,” says Editorial Director Gayle Wattawa.
Margolin looks for two qualities when hiring a new staff member: intelligence and a sense of humor. One gets the impression from the “Heyday of Malcolm Margolin” that very little in the way of formal qualifications are discussed during job interviews. Wide-ranging, philosophical discussions take place instead. Often, though, through trial and error, and Margolin’s patience, it all works out as the wrong hires move on to positions in which they thrive.
“The jobs are built around people, people aren’t built around the jobs,” Margolin says in the book.
It’s just one example of the egalitarian, non-hierarchical ethos – and sometimes chaos – at Heyday. The same spirit manifests itself in Heyday’s relationships with its authors. Rather than imposing their own ideas on manuscripts, editors are urged from the very beginning to look for “what’s right about [the manuscript], where the power is,” says Margolin. “Make sure you work on bringing the power out in something rather than shaping something to your image of it.”
‘The kitchen voice’
Wattawa has observed Margolin up close for a decade, starting her career at Heyday as his personal assistant. “Malcolm doesn’t impose his own personality on the world,” she notes. “He absorbs; he watches. Who really asks you deep questions and seems so interested in your answers?”
What it all comes down to are the stories told in what Margolin calls “the kitchen voice,” the authentic, unselfconscious voice that provides a window into the real lives of people who’ve contributed to our history and culture.
Heyday board member and former staffer Patricia Wakida describes the quintessential image of Margolin – a man getting into a 1997 Volvo to begin the drive to California’s high country to hear yet another story around the campfire.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she says. “Forty years of listening.”