By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
McDonald's Books covers 3,500 square feet at 48 Turk St. on the first block off Market, as unsavory a stretch of street as the city offers. Menacing crack dealers, prostitutes, perverts, and drunks rule the sidewalk.
At different times, the bookstore's owner, Itzhak Volansky, calls his shop the largest in San Francisco, the largest in the Bay Area, and the largest in Northern California. Of course, he's never actually conducted a comparative study. But he could be right. The store is certainly huge.
On the first floor, three rows of shelves run down the middle of the room all the way to the back, climbing nearly as high as the ceiling of the two-story shop. Two equally gargantuan shelves cover the east and west walls and reach within feet of the ceiling as well. Hardware store ladders are provided for high-altitude browsing.
A passageway at the back and on the right leads off into another room full of shelves. The place is plugged in every conceivable nook and cranny with books and magazines in no particular order whatsoever. There are sections, and they have names, but the names mean little. Nothing is in alphabetical order or, for that matter, placed in any coherent sequence.
At the end of the center aisle, stairs lead up to the second story, a partial floor that offers more aisles to comb. Underneath the first floor is a basement equal in size to the first floor. Down there in the sepulcher, conditions tend toward the biblical: Rats sometimes run (chewed pages bear witness); floods have occurred when the occupants of the Dalt Hotel, the residential hotel in which McDonald's Books is housed, left water running and nodded off, passed out, or otherwise took leave of their senses.
It's in this basement that Volansky keeps a backlog of books, magazines, and records. For some reason this is where he keeps 10 copies of a 1972, adult-oriented Richard Nixon coloring book produced by the Grassroots Publishing Co. of San Francisco.
The state of affairs down here is even slightly more anarchic than the upstairs. (Excepting, mind you, the complete collection of LIFE and incomplete but still impressive array of Playboys, which are laid out in perfect order for easy reference. McDonald's markets itself as the place to get the issue of LIFE that matches one's birthday.)
Outside the store, Volansky has placed a sandwich board bearing a self-conscious and droll message: A Dirty Poorly Lit Place for Books. Over the door hangs the store's sign, made of yellow and white plastic. The plastic is shattered and the sign hangs slightly askew. A bullet hole, more than a year old, graces the front window.
Many customers of McDonald's Books have specific, exceptional needs; that these needs often are met is a powerful part of McDonald's appeal.
Michael Jackson visited twice in the 1980s, looking for photography, self-help, and children's books. (How these interests intertwined is open to speculation.) His second visit caused a near-riot, and he needed a police escort to safely depart. Steven Spielberg researched clothing styles of the World War II era for a movie that was never made. And McDonald's employees say network news reporters have called to check out reports that Theodore Kaczynski, the alleged Unabomber, bought Scientific American magazines from the store's all but inexhaustible supply. (He may or may not have; store employees told the reporters that strange as his appearance may have been, Kaczynski would not necessarily have stood out from the Tenderloin denizens who often wander McDonald's aisles.)
But the customers who know what makes this bookstore in the depths of the Tenderloin a truly singular civic asset walk in the door as empty vessels. They arrive in search of the joy that comes from finding a cultural artifact of rare (or divine) shape (or character) -- and finding it absolutely unintentionally.
The rapture begins slowly at first, as you leave behind the porn and the paperbacks at the front of the store and enter the aisles. Slowly, the enormity of the store makes the clatter of the street -- and eventually, the clatter of daily cares -- subside.
You pass the '60s history section, pull up a blue milk crate as a chair, and begin to read The Truth About Kent State: A Challenge to the American Conscience by Peter Davies and the Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. Flipping through the extensive collection of moment-to-moment photographs, Kent State grows fuller, and ceases to be an icon encrusted in the wall of history.
A bit farther back, you stop at the store's 13-shelf section on Catholicism. Lives of Saints, a new arrival, seems interesting, so you crack the hard, nut-brown, gold-trimmed cover, and read about St. Perpetua, a Carthaginian noblewoman who gladly confessed and died for her faith. You read about her trial and gruesome death in her own words; she kept a prison diary.
(Sanctimonious to the last, Perpetua spent her last night praying for as much suffering as possible, to better please her God. She dreamt of a gold ladder to heaven. Upon ascending the last rung, God, who was milking a goat, handed her a sweet curd. Upon awaking, she wrote, her mouth still tasted sweet.)
Upstairs, you spy the 10 or more stacks of New Yorkers and remember how you promised yourself you'd look for some John McPhee stories.
You pull out as many issues from between 1970 and 1985 as possible; you have no luck finding McPhee pieces but, suddenly, there is a short piece by John Cheever called "The Night Momma Picked Up the Wrong Fur Coat." One page long, the narrative is simple. On this bare rack, though, Cheever hangs a wardrobe of mannerisms that tell you all you need to know about aging New York society.
Who can forget his scampi: four garlic-drenched shrimp arranged in a way that says more about our involvement in Vietnam than countless books on the subject?
Back to looking for McPhee -- and you find Part 4 of his tome on the Swiss army, but you're distracted by what is surely the aha! moment of the day. In a 1977 issue, in the Goings On About Town section, the New Yorker makes a virgin attempt to describe what at that time had no name, but would later become punk rock. The flailing for words is adorable:
C.B.G.B. & O.M.F.U.G., 315 Bowery, at Bleeker St. (982-4052) -- This mid-sixties neo-Bowery bar presents mostly local, primitive rock bands. On Wednesday, April 20, the Ramones run through their loud, simple, and short-beyond-belief oeuvres. On Thursday, April 28, Television, one of the more music-oriented, as opposed to image-oriented, bands that play here, will come in. The quartet's leader, Tom Verlaine, says his main influences are Ravel, Albert Ayler, and the Rolling Stones tune, "19th Nervous Breakdown."
Still trying to get back to McPhee, you take yet another sidestep and run head on into this guy named Roger Angell who writes about baseball in the most curious way.
Intrigued, you take an Angelled turn and begin to pick away until Sporting Scene articles start breaking loose from the heap. You've completely forgotten about McPhee and Allen and then, realizing that you have spent far too much time in the New Yorker piles, you turn to go downstairs because you want to get to the Transactions of the America Institute of Mining Engineers, Vol. XIV from 1885 and find out what that is all about -- and just then, Volansky approaches and asks if it's OK if he closes the shop, so he and his girlfriend, Carol, can get home to dinner before dark.
You've yet to find that one singular item that you can proudly purchase and feel triumphant about. (Nothing like the six-page newsletter of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals [SINA], a short-lived prankster society led by a then-unknown Buck Henry that convinced S.F. media it seriously advocated the clothing of zoo animals. This, the truly perfect McDonald's discovery, was unearthed a few years ago.)
Then you remind yourself it doesn't matter. At McDonald's, the detours are what's important, and you leave the store with your head buzzing with phrases and ideas and images: St. Perpetua's goat curds from God. Woody Allen's Vietnam shrimp. Jeffrey Miller's sad, crumpled body.
On the sidewalk, on either side of the entrance to his bookstore, Volansky has placed two wooden bins where he displays -- discards is more like it -- his 25-cent material, mostly magazines of seriously questionable value. Car manuals and fashion mags are regularly dumped here.
The other day he ejected a ratty 1960s East Coast College Guide from the interior stacks to the 25-cent bin.
"Where else can you find a 1960s college guide, hmm?" Volansky asked in his still remnant Polish Yiddish accent. "For the procrastinators, eh."
Volansky, a thin, diminutive man with small feet and hands, could have easily thrown the college guide away. He knows full well he will never see a quarter for it. One day it will simply disappear, pilfered by someone who will ascribe value to it.
Still, he took a Magic Marker, wrote 25 cents on it, walked outside, and plopped it in his bin.
Volansky displays his most commercial inventory, the books that keep the store afloat, just inside the entrance; they are paperbacks mostly, mysteries, popular fiction with authors whose names you know -- Grisham, Koontz, and Steel -- and science fiction and fantasy.
Up against the window display case, to the left of the entrance as you walk in, a rack offers equally popular publications: old Playboys, Hustlers, Swanks, Mayfairs, and other pornographic magazines. Next to this rack is a bin where Volansky keeps the more graphic and the homoerotic books. Bondage and discipline and other fetish materials are stored behind the counter.
Beside the graphic porn, Volansky displays his collection of trashy pulp novels from the '50s and '60s, which bear titles such as Commie Sex Trap, the work of one Roger Blake, a Boudoir Original published in 1963. The cover explains the plot: "A Berlin GI's desperate search behind the Iron Curtain for the nympho queen who held the plans to America's most important secret weapon!" The first sentence: "Wow! What a body!"
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.
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.
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.
Her glasses are equally spectacular: big and black and framed in artificial jewels. Her purse is bright yellow, her lipstick bright red and liberally applied.
Francesca's queenly carriage and dress have been undermined by a recent tragedy: an aneurysm laid her low and stole her sight. But, she says, "the grace of God" gave her back her eyes and her books, and today she's on a search. She's looking for Bibles and dictionaries -- old ones, new ones, as many as she can find. Her self-appointed task: to trace changes of vernacular in various versions of the Scriptures.
When this royally eccentric bookworm returns to the front of the store hours later, she has finished exploring subtle changes in biblical idiom and found two items to purchase: a paperback version of former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas' The Right of the People and a bizarre little antiquity, a series of small bound and boxed pamphlets from the 1930s, written by someone named Estelle B. Hunter, Ph.D., titled Practical Language and Effective Speech: A New Self Teaching Course.
The cover of each pamphlet is made of red leatherette, slightly rough to the touch. Very nice, really. The pages are yellowed, but only slightly.
Francesca counts the pamphlets. She's scored a complete set of Dr. Hunter's tutorial, meaning that she has purchased an old and extremely rare item that has absolutely no value.
Except to Francesca Causey.
She gathers up the loose papers, notepads, and books she came in with. She adds her new books to the bundle, takes her change from Volansky, and asks for a bag, a nice one please.
"I will bring it back Saturday when I come back to purchase more of my books," she says.
Again, the word hangs in the air like rare music. Francesca darts out the door with new treasure to catch a bus.