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 bombing. “They want to shellac it and leave it like a museum piece.”

The attack on Cody’s sent new waves of concern through 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.

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, the bookselling industry has 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.

“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 elsewhere 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 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 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.

However, the store has hired a security guard since 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. “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 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.

Cody’s also 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.


The reaction of the nation’s two largest bookstore chains--B. Dalton and Waldenbooks--was to immediately pull the book from stores 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 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.

No one was injured in any of the incidents, but writers groups quickly forecast a long-term chilling effect, particularly for bookslike 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 the chill 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 said. “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 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.”

In Los Angeles, perhaps the most defiant stance was taken by Book Soup, a store on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Owner Glenn Goldman published a newspaper ad before 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; others were displayed in a store window. Goldman was one of the first to have the book on hand because he had ordered early, anticipating a heavy demand.

“We haven’t had any threats during the entire course of the episode,” Goldman said. “We’ve had a very positive response. People said they were glad to hear someone stand up for freedom of expression.”

The Los Angeles Public Library system offers the novel at 17 of its 62 branches and a shipment of 100 additional copies is expected any day, spokesman Bob Regan said. Soon virtually every branch will carry it, he said.

Crown Books on Wilshire Boulevard waited weeks for the book, received 18 copies and sold them in a few days, a store manager said. More are expected from a warehouse.

Dorothy Ibsen, owner of the Fahrenheit 451 bookstore in Laguna Beach, said her first shipment “just evaporated” because of demand. Fifteen more just arrived, and 30 more are expected in a few days.

Employees at the store, named for the futuristic Ray Bradbury novel in which books are burned, are aware of the possible dangers, she said. One employee quit because of the furor.

“We’re a little frightened . . . but we’re carrying it,” Ibsen said of the book.

At her store and others, customers have had to sign waiting lists for copies. With shipments coming in, the lengthy lists are at last shrinking.

At Dutton’s Books in Brentwood, the list reached 350 names, clerk Jeff Haas said. The store has filled those requests and more, selling more than 400 copies in less than two weeks.