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

Yet during a recent lunch, Volansky says, "I said I was going to leave in July. Well, it's July."

He makes a gesture with his hands that says, I'm still here.

Last month, an agitated man in a suit named Victor Lopez, a retired technical illustrator from Southern California, came into McDonald's Books and asked for a 1948 LIFE. He didn't know what date exactly; it was in the spring or early summer he said. He said it had to do with "Gaitan's assassination."

Volansky's brow drew up into a pinch. "Who?"
The man grew suddenly perturbed, standing there with a look of disgust on his face that suggested the words did not exist to express his shock and dismay that such an important event was not immediately remembered. Seeing the man's distress, Volansky sent an employee down to the basement to get a sampling of 1948 LIFE magazines.

Lopez eventually calmed down and, taking pity on Volansky, explained the whole Gaitan business. Jorge Gaitan was the president of Colombia in the immediate postwar period. Lopez lived in Colombia at the time. He was 11 years old when the Liberal Party leader was killed by a supporter of the Conservative Party, and the whole country broke into chaos and violence for months. "My father's shop was burned," he said. "The Christian school I attended was burned."

Suddenly, he found the issue. April 9, 1948. Looking at the pictures -- including an eerie black-and-white shot of the assassin's naked, bloody corpse lying alone on the wet pavement as the mob that killed him moves into the distance -- Lopez lit up. Memories dislodged and came pouring forth like water.

He remembered his father, who knew that the economy would grind to a halt and money would be useless until a new government was formed. So he bought sacks of rice and stored them at the house to barter for other goods.

He remembered his maid, and how her unfortunate choice of a blue hair-braid on assassination day -- blue was the color of the Conservative Party -- led angry Gaitan supporters to cut off her ponytail.

"I'm buying this to show my nephews," Lopez said. "I want to show them that they should stop crying about things. I always tell them, 'You live in a cocoon. You live in Disneyland.' "

A day later, a man bearing a strong resemblance to Burl Ives enters McDonald's and inquires about the store's collection of the English porn mag Mayfair. "I have a friend who catalogs them," he says.

Itzhak can't resist the opening. "That's what they all say. It's sociological research."

Actually, the man, whose first name is Mike, turns out to be telling the truth. He works for the same guy who produces the Playboy index Volansky uses. But Mike points out that his main job is as a free-lancer for Celebrity Skin and Celebrity Sleuth magazines. His sole task is to search far and wide for nude pictures of people who are now movie stars. One way to find these valuable items, for which the Sleuth and Skin pay handsomely, is to search through old porn mags where the stars may have posed for a pictorial before they became famous and respectable.

Mike won't give his last name. But he's more than willing to share with Volansky the intricacies of his trade. Usually, he says, he concentrates on two magazines, Gallery and Genesis. "People will start their careers there, since they are not as hard-core," he says.

His greatest obstacle is what he calls the redundancy factor. "Hustler '93 shots will show up in Cheri in '97," Mike says.

Again, Itzhak can't resist commenting. "I have never been as intimate with these magazines," he says.

Francesca Causey walks in the door at McDonald's Books and announces her intentions and desires: "I don't want anyone to bother me. I don't want anyone to talk to me. I just want to be alone with my books."

She draws out the last word and gives it its due, lying among the middle consonants as if they were luxurious pillows, before closing the door on it with a slam made by the sound ks. The hiss hangs in the air, a dare to anyone who might think of filling the pause with other words. Her diction is immaculate, deep and resonant in a way very few besides African-Americans of a particular generation can bring to language. The words could have been formed in a marble cistern.

Volansky simply nods and accedes to Francesca Causey's demand, as he has, in one way or another, for the 20-some years she has been coming to his store to be alone with her books.

Mannerly and formal, Francesca enters the store as if she were attending a cotillion, rather than walking into a seedy bookshop on a urine-stained stretch of unremarkable street in the Tenderloin.

She's certainly dressed for an imperial role, her red velvet jacket appointed with a large, fragrant gardenia. But it's her turban that literally grabs one's attention; its huge multicolored brim and magnificent yellow crown beg comparison with the costuming for Beach Blanket Babylon.

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