All Booked Up

Itzhak Volansky insists he isn't much interested in books, or the bookstore he owns. That disinterest is one reason McDonald's Books has become an enormous, wonderful, disordered phantasmagoria that attracts a wonderfully eccentric clientele. And who real

Other Boudoir Originals include Was She a Dyke?, Case of the Eager Nymphs, and Wolf Woman. Volansky is particularly proud of his Boudoir Originals. He keeps duplicate volumes and shows them off when first-time customers ask about his store.

Past the porn, the pulp, and the paperbacks, throughout the rest of the store, the cavernous aisles form a second, and radically different, part of the store. There, the shelves support more respectable fare: the vast collections of magazines -- LIFE, TV Guide, GQ, Vogue, National Geographic, Billboard, Opera News, and Scientific American, to name a few -- the biographies and the novels, the works of history and philosophy, the reference and travel guides, and so on.

Assayed under the normal rules of the book trade, few of these volumes have much value. Some are tremendously obscure. In the true crime section, the store boasts a rather odd historical artifact, the official British Government report on the so-called Profumo Affair. It's amusing to read the stilted language of officialdom attempting to explain what was essentially a bunch of repressed Brits who paid to be spanked and otherwise gratified -- and got caught.

But is there a market for this?
"This is where books come to die," Volansky says. "This is the last stop before the city dump."

It's true. After someone sells his or her more marketable used books to Green Apple or some other used-book store, he brings the unwanted items to McDonald's, where Volansky either buys them for pennies or simply unburdens the seller by taking them for free.

Last month, an elderly couple, unable to get rid of their 200 Scientific Ameri-cans, called up Volansky. Bring 'em on down, he said. He bought them for 10 cents a piece, adding to an already overflowing collection.

On the weekend before last, a man dropped off three milk crates full of books. Most were spiritual guides of the New Age variety. There was a decent piece of literature, Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills, a modern classic of African-American literature taught at many universities. The copy, however, was badly worn and stained on its cover with what looked uncomfortably like feces. Still, Volansky took them in. All of them.

Why not? He has ample display and storage room. His rent and payroll are minimal. It's easy: Buy cheap, mark up the price, be willing to come down a little to move a book, and let nature takes its course.

The history of McDonald's Books is almost as strange and meandering as its current inventory.

Itzhak's father, Tuvia, bought McDonald's Books in the early '70s from a park ranger who had abandoned his ill-considered idea to be a bookseller. Before the park ranger, the store was owned by an alcoholic who had let the shop go ever since be bought it in the mid-'60s.

The elder Volansky wasn't the person to put McDonald's in order. "I don't recall ever seeing him read a book in his whole life," Itzhak says. To Tuvia books were a commodity, pure and simple. They had no meaning different from what car parts or vegetables meant to mechanics or grocers. He bought in bulk and threw it up on the shelves. And it was out of this disdain and neglect, more than anything, that McDonald's became the bookstore equivalent of the Rorschach test.

It was not always this way. In fact, for several decades, it was quite the opposite.

In 1976, Tuvia hired a Harvard dropout named Mark Jensen, who set about organizing the store into sections, apparently for the first time. Jensen, a book lover of the first order, went on what can rightly be compared to an archaeological dig. Quickly, he unearthed the literary bones of the original owner, Jack Amos "Jock" MacDonald, a saucy old Canadian who loudly recited Byron and Keats as he fixed his morning coffee and who loved few things more than Marxism, books, cigarettes, and scotch. (No one knows why the store's name is spelled differently than the original owner's.)

MacDonald harbored an insatiable appetite for books. He read every kind that came into the store, critiquing them, slipping idiosyncratic reviews on 3-by-5 cards into the pages, and displaying the review-ed volumes in his front window. (The store was originally located at 76 Sixth St.; it moved to Mission Street before landing on Turk in the mid-'50s.)

The one thing MacDonald loved as much as books was radical politics. A die-hard Marxist, he joined and left several radical groups, including the precursor to the Communist Party U.S.A., until he landed in the 1920s with an obscure Socialist group called the Workers Socialist Party (later the World Socialist Party) and stayed a loyal member until his death. The party was so small it could not muster enough members -- it took three -- to found a San Francisco local chapter.

MacDonald served as polemic writer for several radical publications, most frequently The Western Socialist, the official organ of the World Socialist Party. His writings were sharply sarcastic and sorely in need of an editor.

But it's likely he saved his most eloquent writing for the year before he died, 1967, when he wrote a letter, apparently under the influence of a few Haig and Haigs, to his newborn grandson, Craig MacDonald Hamilton of Fairbanks, Alaska.

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