Bookstore Cancels Contract : Man Blames Firing on Rushdie Tribute

Times Staff Writers

Steve Mellow knew he was taking a bit of a risk when he decided to include a brief tribute to author Salman Rushdie in a theatrical reading this Friday at a Costa Mesa bookstore.

But Mellow said he never imagined that he would be fired by the bookstore chain.

An official with Rizzoli Book Store in New York, which also owns Scribner stores, confirmed that it canceled its contract Wednesday with Mellow for his regular reading sessions at Scribner in the Crystal Court shopping mall in Costa Mesa.

Rizzoli officials said Mellow was fired because the reading series, which began in October, failed to draw enough customers to make it worthwhile. Mellow contends that the firing was related to his plans to read a tribute to the author of "The Satanic Verses."

A Rizzoli spokeswoman, however, insisted that the decision was unrelated to acts of violence that have occurred since Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called upon Muslims last month to kill the Indian-born Rushdie for what they consider to be the novel's blasphemous offenses against Islam. The chain continues to stock "The Satanic Verses."

Two Berkeley bookstores were firebombed Tuesday after the owner of one vowed to resist Islamic pressure to stop selling the book.

Mellow, 52, of Santa Ana, said a Rizzoli executive told him, " 'You've breached the contract by endangering the public.' When I asked him if he really thought I had intentionally threatened the public's safety, he backed off very fast." Mellow would not say how much Scribner paid him under the contract.

But Rizzoli spokeswoman Katherine Arnold insisted that the decision was "based on our inability to quantify the readership." It was difficult to calculate how many customers Mellow was attracting to the store with his dramatic readings, she said, compared to the more clear-cut response they would get from a newspaper advertisement.

Scribner continues to stock "The Satanic Verses," although the Costa Mesa store was sold out.

Mellow claimed that last week he "had been given the green light" to read an article by author Norman Mailer, published in the Los Angeles Times, in defense of Rushdie. Mellow said he had not intended to read from "The Satanic Verses" or from any of Rushdie's works.

"This is a program on the theme of transformation that I had planned for 6 months. I got the idea (for the Rushdie tribute) from reading the Mailer article and also from seeing a story in the New York Times with a picture saying something like 'His Life Transformed, Rushdie Is 'Bearing Up.' "

The program, which Mellow said he still hopes to hold at another location Friday if he can find one, was to include selections from A.A. Milne's "The Tower of Pooh," poetry by E.E. Cummings, Ogden Nash and Sam Shepard, an excerpt from Carlos Castaneda's "Journey to Ixtlan," writings by Henry David Thoreau and "The Invisible Way" by Rashad Feild, which Mellow described as "a New Age love story."

Mellow lists among his credits the creation of a children's television show, "The Looking Glass Revue," which he said aired in New York in the 1960s. He also said he produced two musicals in New York and wrote a children's book, "Help, I'm Trapped in This Book."

In recent years, Mellow has conducted 6-week workshops in dramatic reading for which he charges $50. Students are then included in public readings, which have been held in various locations.

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