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Nation’s Booksellers Battle Back in Face of Threats, Firebombings

Times Staff Writer

Just inside Cody’s Books in Berkeley stands a charred rack of shelves, filled with blackened books that no one will ever read. Owner Andy Ross has decided to keep it there, a stark reminder of the morning that a Molotov cocktail was hurled through the window, setting the bookstore on fire.

“Some people want to leave it for time immemorial,” the shop owner said, nearly a month after the pre-dawn incident. “They want to shellac it and leave it, like a museum piece.”

The bombing of Cody’s sent new waves of concern into a book industry already beset by threats and protests over Salman Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses,” the work that provoked death threats for its alleged blaspheming of the Muslim religion. In the days before and after the bombing, the industry in America seemed under siege: Already, the nation’s two largest bookstore chains had briefly pulled the novel from their shelves. Bombings similar to the one at Cody’s occurred at another bookstore in Berkeley and at a New York-based newspaper that had praised the book. Pundits predicted a long-term chilling effect in the book market for other works that might stir controversy.

Show of Unity

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Yet already there are signs--like the memorial at Cody’s--that the industry will carry on as always. With an unusual show of unity, members of the bookselling industry have battled back against the threats of violence and censorship. Publishers, writers and booksellers--who vowed soon after the bombing to take a stand in support of Rushdie--are generally following through on that promise now that the novel is becoming widely available.

With sales booming, “The Satanic Verses” reached No. 1 last week on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list and is expected to hit the top this week on the New York Times list. At the same time, bookstores and libraries in Los Angeles and San Diego are at last filling their shelves as overdue shipments have begun to pour in. Most stores, including the two that were bombed in Berkeley, are eagerly pressing ahead with sales while remaining on guard against further violence.

“From the very beginning, everyone’s feeling here was that we wanted to carry and display the book,” said Steven Root, assistant manager of Waldenbooks in Berkeley, which was firebombed on the same morning that Cody’s was hit.

The Waldenbooks outlet, which was only slightly damaged, had been trying vainly to acquire copies of the novel ever since the firebombing, and the late shipments finally arrived last week. The store filled about 75 back orders and put an 20 additional copies on display. The $19.95 book is being discounted to $16 at the small shop and is being handled much like any other new release, Root said.

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Security Measures

However, the store has hired a security guard in the wake of the bombing and is cautiously keeping the novel out of its window display.

“We decided we weren’t going to do anything to flaunt it,” Root said of the book. “We don’t want to provoke or inflame anyone’s feelings or sensitivities about it. We certainly don’t want to put a poster in the window saying, ‘Break Me.’ ”

At Waldenbooks stores in San Diego, most employees would not comment on the book’s sales, but, similar to the Berkeley store, Waldenbooks in Fashion Valley is not flaunting the book in its window.

“We have a lot behind the counter, but we don’t have them in the window . . . ,” said Kathleen Shumate, assistant manager of the store. “My manager is willing to have the book out (on display),” but not in the window, she said. “Another Waldenbooks store put it in their window and the mall asked them to remove it.”

The store, which has had the book in stock only for the past week, has sold about 50 copies.

Poll of Employees

At Cody’s, the 55 employees took a poll before deciding to go ahead with sales, keenly aware of the questions of free speech and personal safety.

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Officials of Crown Books in San Diego also were interested in what their employees had to say. The assistant manager of Crown Books on Rosecrans Avenue, who would identify himself only as Alan, said that Crown Books’ executives sent a letter to employees asking if they had objections to selling the book.

The seven employees of his store had no objections, and Alan said that although the company’s gesture was “thoughtful,” he admitted he had some trepidation. “I couldn’t say for the manager, but if the store was threatened, I’d think twice about having it here, yes. But we (employees) signed an agreement that would allow the sale to go on.

“We used to have the book behind the counter, and you had to come in and ask for it. Now it’s out on display, in plain view in back of the store with our other best sellers,” he said. “But it’s not in the window. We don’t want someone to throw a bomb through the window while we’re gone.”

Sales are still high for the book, noting that the store has sold about 100 copies, he said.

‘True to Principles’

Like its Berkeley rival, Cody’s is proceeding gingerly. The store has hired additional security guards and closed one of its two entrances as precautionary measures. No longer does it display a wall poster vowing to defy Rushdie’s critics, as it once did.

“We’ve come to the point where you put your life on the line in order to carry a book,” said one company spokesman, who asked not to be identified. “We are being true to our principles, and I think most booksellers are. When the story is told, I think booksellers are going to be the heroes in this thing.”

Concern over how the book would be handled has been prevalent since mid-February, when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini denounced “The Satanic Verses” as blasphemous to the Islamic faith and called for the death of Rushdie and “others” associated with the novel.

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The reaction of the nation’s two largest bookstore chains--B. Dalton and Waldenbooks--was to immediately pull the book from the shelves out of fear for the safety of employees. Days later, under pressure from employees and writers’ groups, the chains reversed their stance and allowed the book to be sold.

Then, however, on Feb. 28, came the Berkeley store bombings. A firebomb ignited the same day also gutted the offices of Riverdale Press, a New York-based weekly newspaper that had written an editorial in support of Rushdie. Cody’s in Berkeley had widely advertised the novel in the days just before the bombing.

Worry About Future Books

No one was injured in any of the three incidents, but writers’ groups quickly forecast a long-term chilling effect, particularly for books, like Rushdie’s, that might address Islamic themes. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, president of PEN Center USA West, a 500-member writers’ organization based in Los Angeles, predicted that influence would affect writers, publishers and booksellers alike.

“How ready might the next publisher be to publish a book that might offend a Muslim group?” she asked. “We’ve seen historically that . . . when there is risk, people do what they can to hedge themselves.”

But the book industry responded almost at once.

Writers, publishers and sellers vowed to keep the book available to the public. Rushdie’s publishing house, Viking Penguin of New York, quickly sold out its first run of 50,000 copies and made plans for additional printings. A two-week delay in gaining press time was responsible for a widespread shortage of “The Satanic Verses” earlier this month, according to a Viking spokesman.

But since then, the publishing house has been printing to keep up with demand, the spokesman said. Although the company will not disclose how many additional copies are being printed, Viking has carried on despite a wave of threats against the publishing house. The company’s New York offices have been evacuated 12 times since December because of bomb threats motivated by the book, said the spokesman, who asked not to be named for fear of his own safety.

Many of the threats have come since mid-February, when Khomeini issued his death decree.

“After a while, you get tired of leaving the building,” the spokesman commented. “But you don’t want to stay there and have that be the one time there is a bomb.”

The evacuations forced the hiring of additional security guards and required the close protection of high-ranking executives, the spokesman added. Mail had to be closely watched and checked for explosives.

By one estimate, the firm so far has received 100,000 letters of protest from Muslims, more than a few of which have contained threats, he said.

“In all likelihood, we won’t make any money off the book if one factors in the tremendous amount of money we’ve had to spend . . . on security,” he said. “Our top priorities have been keeping the book in print and making sure nobody gets hurt.”

Although most San Diego bookstores did not receive any threats, some, like Crown Books and Waldenbooks, have retained security companies that their employees can call if necessary.

But, as Conrad Jansen, acting manager for Crown Books on El Cajon Boulevard, said, “We’re here to sell books. I know I wouldn’t pull the book, but I’m just acting manager right now. If it came down to it right now, I wouldn’t pull it, but I’m not going to hold my breath. If someone tells me to do it, I’ll do it.”

Sally Goodell, owner of the The Book Nook in El Centro, said that even if she had gotten threats and wanted to pull the book, “I would have been forced to leave it on the shelf. You have to take a stand someplace. You may be afraid, but it would just be something we’d have to do,” she said. “It’s necessary and it’s important to let people know that we sell it.”

In Los Angeles, perhaps the most defiant stance was taken by Book Soup, on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Owner Glenn Goldman published a newspaper ad prior to the Berkeley bombings, saying: “Book Soup supports freedom of expression and the public’s right to read whatever it chooses. We will not bow to pressure from any quarter.”

The bombings did not change Goldman’s position. Afterward, his store was selling a waist-high stack of the books.

Times staff writer Shawn Smith in San Diego contributed to this story.


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