Acid Heroes

August 8, 2014

Berkeley street vending days

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 8:04 pm

The Duncan – Backwords vending table. Photo from the Oakland Tribune, 2002.

I was a Telegraph Avenue street vendor off and on for 19 years.  From 1990 to 2009.  Like most things in my life it started out by accident.  Duncan and I had just published the second issue of the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar and it had become a surprise local hit.  So CBS News came up to the Ave to do a feature about it.  They thought it would be a cute visual to have us actually selling copies of the Street Calendar on a street corner.  So I dragged over a newspaper rack, put a board on top of it, and dumped a bunch of calendars on it.   Pretty soon a crowd of people had gathered around us and were buying copies.  I think they were attracted by the TV cameras.  People seem to think that if something’s on TV it must be important or something (an attitude that has always baffled me considering all the crap on TV).

But as I stood there, a little lightbulb went off in my head.  You hang out on a street corner and all these people start throwing 10 dollar bills at you.  Seemed like a good gig.  Thus began my career as a Telegraph street vendor.

Duncan and I became a fixture at our vending spot in front of Cody’s Books.  And over the years I developed several different vending gigs, starting with the Calendar.  Then one year I sold this beautiful set of greeting cards by different homeless artists that I printed up on a linoleum press.  That was a big hit, too.  It was the closest I ever came to printing up money.  We sold every card we printed.  And for awhile I sold my own different publications and artwork.

For about 10 years I did my 25 Cent Book table, selling used books.  That, too, started by accident.  I used to scrounge up books and try and sell them at Moe’s Book store.  Usually I’d sell a couple books and make 20 or 30 dollars in cash or trade-slips.  Anyways, this one day I scored four boxes of pretty good books.  Unfortunately, Moe’s only bought 5 of the books.  So I thought:  “Geez, these are pretty good books.  What should I do with them?”  So I dumped them out on a street corner, wrote “25 CENT BOOKS” on a piece of cardboard.  And pretty soon I had 50 bucks in my pocket.  Thus began me 25 Cent Book table.


Note the industrial-sized tape dispenser to my left.

I scrounged up the books from a variety of sources.  But one of my primary sources were the recycling bins at Half Price Books on Shattuck.  Twice a week they would put out 5 or 6 recycling bins crammed to the top with all the books they no longer wanted to sell.  The only downside was, they would tear off all the covers (to prevent people from trying to re-sell them — it was a pain in the ass for the book stores to keep getting the same books that they had thrown out boomeranging back at them 20 times a day).  So what I would do was haul all the books and the torn covers to my vending table.  And in between dealing with the customers, I would systematically tape the covers back onto the books.  I’d go through 4 or 5 big rolls of tape every day.  And after awhile I became very proficient at it.  Fast and exacting.  I got so good at it, you could barely even tell they had been taped.  The tape even added a nice bit of lamination to the covers.

And I found it very relaxing.  Sitting there for 10 hours taping away. It was kind of like knitting or crocheting.  Mindless, but just challenging enough to keep your mind semi-occupied while you’re multi-tasking.  And it was weird to have invented this entirely new craft that was all my own.  I was without a doubt the greatest book-taper in the history of book-taping.  I was an expert in a field of one.

And it was amazing to me, the quality of the books Half Price Books would throw out.  These big, gigantic coffee table art books.  Every classic author you’ve ever heard of.  All the books that had been best-sellers just 6 months ago, but now had to be cleared from the shelves to make room for the latest best sellers. I even found some of my own books in the recycling bins.

So it was like a gold mine.  And my customers absolutely loved it.  Getting all these great books for a quarter.  It was like selling books by the pound.  And I would go through thousands of books every week.

One day this older, Indian-looking guy approached me.  I guess he had seen me taping away.  He had this huge book with a torn spine and he offered me 20 bucks if I would tape it.   It was a sacred text by Kabir, this famous eastern mystic.   And it was one of those ancient, gigantic books like you’d see on the altar of a temple.  The pages were so silky and thin they were practically transparent.  I felt like it was a great honor to even be holding a sacred book look that.  But I was also very nervous as I taped away.  I sure didn’t want to fuck it.  Maybe God would put a curse on me or something.

Another time, this friend of mine — who was a big chess fanatic — spotted this chess book from the 1940s that was actually autographed by this famous chess master.  He bought it for 25 cents, then took it to Moe’s Books who paid him $150 for it (not a bad dividend for a 25 cent investment). And Moe’s ended up selling it for $250.  My friend offered to split the dough with me.  But I let him keep it all because I knew I would get such great mileage from telling the story over the years.

When Duncan died in 2009 I knew the party was over and that it was time to retire my vending career.  I distinctly remember the last time I set up my vending table in November of 2009.  At one point it suddenly began pouring rain.  Almost like a flash flood.  So I scrambled to cover up all my books with these huge plastic tarps I kept with me for that purpose.  Then I rushed off to this doorway on Telegraph to escape the rain.  Normally I would be cursing the gods when that kind of thing happened (“MOTHERFUCKIN’ COCKSUCKER!!  MOTHERFUCKIN’ COCKSUCKER!!” repeated many, many times).  But I knew this was my last day, so I was savoring the experience.  It was like the last scene in a movie.  I sat there in the doorway, sipping on my beer, as the rain pounded down, with this big, goofy grin on my face.  Thinking about a million different memories from over the last 19 years).

When the rain finally stopped, I went back to my vending table and packed it up for the last time.  I was going to keep the cardboard “25 CENT BOOK” sign as a memento.  But just as I was reaching for it, this big gust of wind blew the sign far down Haste Street.  I took that as an omen.  The gig was over.

Aaron Cometbus later did a famous issue of his Cometbus zine all about the history of the different Telegraph Avenue book stories.  And I was featured in there.  As the last chapter naturally.  And it was a great honor to have been a part of it all.  A little part of history


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