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

It begins with a ditty:
Though I revel in Sunny October,
My senses are languishing and vague,
For I simply refuse to stay sober,
While musing on infantile Craig.

MacDonald goes on to welcome his grandson to the world and warn him "that this jittery old globe has many faces; some winsome and beautiful, others false and malevolent."

On the subject of food, MacDonald offered this valuable advice:
Should you find the contents of your bottle to be flat and tasteless, a little dash of scotch in the formula will do wonders in restoring the ambrosial piquancy that the palate craves. I proffer the advice to attach a little note such as -- mix milk for Craig, with a little Haig and Haig -- on the side of your crib. The rhythmical swing of the request is bound to ensure promptness that stolid prose would fail to convey.

As a bookseller, MacDonald was courtly and warm, his bookshop a place of intellectual debate and radical politics. MacDonald obtained banned books such as Lady Chatterly's Lover and Tropic of Cancer and displayed them prominently in a glass case. Rather than pornography, MacDonald peppered the front of the store with radical journals: The Western Socialist, The People's World, The Truth Seeker, and The Atheist.

"He was a great conversationalist," says his daughter, Mary MacDonald. "People came in because they loved talking to him. He could discuss anything. He could take any side of the argument and win it. He was the boss and he called the tune. He studied the Bible and could win any argument on religion. People who were Catholic couldn't believe he wasn't Catholic.

"Whatever you were, you couldn't believe he wasn't one."

A Dickens novel, Bleak House, sits high on a shelf, within sight of the counter at McDonald's Books. Volansky points to it to emphasize the two things about the store he most wants to be known:

One, he doesn't care at all for the store or, for that matter, books.
And two, the only reason he has run the store for 18 years is because it was tied up in a baroque estate war among him, his sister, Liza, and a revolving cast of attorneys and administrators after his father, Tuvia, died in 1979. Hence, the reference to the Dickens novel, which tells the story of a tortured estate battle so complex and lengthy that at a certain point it loses all meaning for anyone but the lawyers involved.

The bookstore reminds Volansky of his unhappy family. Indeed, it brings to mind another literary reference: the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina -- "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Both of Volansky's parents survived the Lodz ghetto and, later, Auschwitz. Tuvia saw his father murdered during a Russian pogrom. Itzhak's mother's father died when she was a small girl. "The home environment was very ugly, very dysfunctional," he says.

The files on the Volansky estate war -- which involved both the estate of his father and his mother, Zenia, who died in 1990 -- fill more than five thick, booklike volumes. The upshot of the situation is that his mother dies in 1990, and all hell immediately breaks loose among the Volansky siblings. They are appointed co-executors of the estate and, according to the dictates of Zenia's will, they are to split the assets of the estate. After paying back taxes and nursing home bills and other expenses, the two siblings split everything in the estate (two buildings, some furniture, Israel bonds) except for the bookstore.

Itzhak and his attorneys fight with Liza and her attorneys; later, Itzhak fights with his own attorneys; further on, his attorneys do battle with his former attorneys. Everyone generally vexes, hectors, accuses, annoys, and bullyrags one another, generating lots of paper and bile, but few results.

At one point, in 1991, Liza storms into McDonald's Books wielding a statue of a cat and attacks Itzhak, his assistant and girlfriend, Carol Powell, and another employee, according to a police report. She is taken away by police for psychiatric observation, and Itzhak eventually has a restraining order slapped on her.

Finally, in 1996, the two siblings, who at this point are speaking to each other only on paper or through lawyers, agree to the following: Liza gets a cash payment for half the value of the store; Itzhak gets the store and all it's worth, which, according to tax records and other documents in the court file, is approximately $50,000.

After nearly 20 years of acrimony and delay, this is what Volansky is left with: a bookstore in a run-down hotel in an extremely dangerous part of town, whose inventory is so huge and unwieldy that it could never be placed anywhere else.

Volansky says he wants nothing more than to leave the bookstore and go to Los Angeles, and, even at the age of 47, take a stab at being a songwriter. (He won a songwriting contest there in 1978.)

But the force of inertia that has held him here for years can't seem to let him go.

He has contracted with an antiquarian bookseller to take over management of the store. The bookseller, Rich Wilkinson, is already spending one day a week at McDonald's, where he has begun the arduous process of weeding and evaluating the store's inventory.

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