At his independent bookstore in this famously left-leaning town, Neil Coonerty offers bestsellers from both sides of the political spectrum. But there’s freedom in owning your own shop: You can make fun of those you don’t like.
Over three decades, the 60-year-old former Berkeley radical has skewered his share of conservative authors and politicians -- along with others whose ideas he didn’t think were worth the paper they were printed on.
He has sold a Rush Limbaugh book for the price of baloney. In 1995, his Bookshop Santa Cruz included a “barf bag” with every copy of Newt Gingrich’s manifesto, “To Renew America.”
Now Coonerty has his sights on the Oval Office: He’s selling a “Bush Countdown Clock,” which displays to a tenth of a second the time left “until Bush goes.”
Tongue-in-cheek political barbs have been popular for decades. Especially after the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, former President Clinton was raked by the sale of such memorabilia as funny money, “Slick Willie” T-shirts and, yes, cigars.
A Bill Clinton presidential countdown clock became a must-have among conservatives. A newer Hillary Clinton senatorial countdown timer is also making the rounds on the Web, marketed by her detractors.
In Bush’s contentious second term, Coonerty’s clocks -- which feature an unflattering image of the president and an assurance that “Our national nightmare will soon be over” -- have struck an emotional chord.
Coonerty and his two grown children, Ryan and Casey, sold 30,000 timekeepers last year through their Internet site, www.nationalnightmare.com, and at scores of independent bookstores and gift shops -- not just in Santa Cruz, but in red states such as Mississippi and even in Bush’s own Texas.
The clocks, which sell for $11.98 in the store and $9.95 online, have become popular gag gifts in Democratic circles. Sen. Barbara Boxer has one. So does former California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides.
Bill Clinton also has one, compliments of historian Arthur Schlesinger. Television producer Norman Lear bought 50 and has handed them out to friends. One of the Dixie Chicks wrote about the clock on her Web log. The website has received orders from as far away as Germany and China.
Coonerty, now a Santa Cruz County supervisor, said his novelty timekeeper has its critics, who contend such humor demeans the office of the president. One e-mail writer wanted to know “if the clocks were being manufactured in Osama bin Laden’s cave,” he said.
Coonerty has his own beef with the clocks, which still show more than 700 days until the next inauguration. “How,” he joked, “can we speed them up?”
The white-bearded Coonerty has radical roots. An antiwar protester at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, he began sporting facial hair before a protest because he feared tear gas might burn his skin. He hasn’t shaved since.
He and his late wife, Candy, bought the shop in 1973. As a bookseller, his first foray into political commentary came a few years later when Richard Nixon published his memoirs.
He weighed the autobiography at a butcher shop, where he noted the price of baloney. Then he sold the book at his store for the same price per pound. “This was high-quality baloney. It was deli baloney, not the kind you get in some grocery-store bakery,” he said. He did the same with Rush Limbaugh’s 1992 book, “The Way Things Ought to Be.”
When Gingrich’s book came out, Coonerty called a national airline to buy airsickness bags. “What are you going to use them for?” a worker asked.
The bookseller told her he wanted to offer them with each Gingrich book he sold. The woman on the line paused.
“I happen to like Newt Gingrich,” she said finally. “But this is funny. So I’ll do it.”
Coonerty’s son Ryan learned from his dad. While editor of his high school paper, Ryan made news by including condoms in an issue dealing with sexuality.
“He was smart enough not to staple the condoms into the paper,” Coonerty recalled of his son, “so I figured he had a future in politics.”
Limbaugh, who had heard about both Coonertys, declared on his syndicated radio show that Santa Cruz should “kick Neil Coonerty and his son out of town.”
Said Ryan, now a Santa Cruz city councilman: “We basked in the controversy.”
Bookshop Santa Cruz has stocked other provocative books -- including one that made a case that African Americans had lower IQs than whites. “People were offended by it,” Coonerty said. “But bookstores are a marketplace of ideas, and we believe in the 1st Amendment.”
So Coonerty stocked the book but put it alongside others that reached different conclusions. “The answer to a bad idea is more ideas,” he said, “not censoring that idea.”
He also sold published attacks against Clinton, even though they weren’t all that popular in Santa Cruz.
Shortly after Bush was reelected, Coonerty was surfing the Web when he got the idea for his countdown clock. (He doesn’t claim to have thought it up first. Another variation of the clock, sold on the website www.backwardsbush.com, claims to have sold 80,000 units.)
“People were depressed after Bush was reelected,” Coonerty said. “Our customers stopped buying political books. We needed a reason to laugh again.”
He contacted a general website that allowed him to design his own clock, which is set to expire on Inauguration Day 2009. He ordered 1,500, which sold out in weeks.
Coonerty expected his clock to do well in Santa Cruz, where selling merchandise that lampoons conservatives “is like shooting fish in a barrel.” At his store, he said, browsers often cover or hide conservative titles on display.
Soon, clock sales also took off elsewhere. He began receiving orders from independent bookstores and shops nationwide.
A Bush spokeswoman was not aware of Coonerty’s clock, but said many White House workers have their own plain black countdown clocks to remind them of the limited time they have left to achieve the administration’s agenda.
“The idea of making fun of sitting presidents dates back to Abraham Lincoln’s day,” said Emily Lawrimore. “We just don’t pay that much attention to it.”
Coonerty said he’s considering creating an Arabic version of the clock for Middle East customers, but “I don’t want to end up on Bush’s terrorist list.”
For now, he’ll keep selling his clocks along with other related merchandise thought up elsewhere: Bush toilet paper and candies called “Indictmints,” “National Embarrassmints” and “Impeachmints.”
“And wait for the next Ann Coulter book,” he said of the conservative commentator. “We have plans.” (He may sell the book with a free toilet brush.)
Is he going too far?
“If it’s funny, I’ll sell it,” he said. “I’m not going to sell stuff that makes fun of dead babies. But presidents are fair game.”