Thursday, December 17, 2009

Resisting terrorism in Berkeley in 1989: The Salman Rushdie affair and the fire-bombing of Cody's Bookstore

Mick Hartley (tipped off by Panda's Thumb) picks up this little blast from the past. As he says, this is "a reminder of what was, looking back now, one of the defining stories of the time." (To find out what the title of his post means, read to the end of the quotation).

Yours for freedom of expression,
Jeff Weintraub

Mick Hartley (Politics & Culture)
December 17, 2009
Others Get Holes

Andy Ross, at the time owner of Cody's bookstore in Berkeley, writes about being fire-bombed in February 1989 for stocking Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses - here and here (via). Worth reading in full, as a reminder of what was, looking back now, one of the defining stories of the time. Bear in mind that at this point a number of America's leading book chains had already pulled Rushdie's book from their shelves.
Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values. So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons.... I felt just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians and movie stars. We were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived. It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence, had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know, some people get statues, —-and others get holes.”

JW: One other aspect of this story is worth noting. Cody's was definitely fire-bombed, but it's not absolutely certain that the store was attacked for carrying The Satanic Verses. Likely, but not absolutely certain. However, by that time the largest bookstore chains in the US had already pulled the book from their shelves because they were afraid of being attacked--with some justification. That's how terrorism works.

P.S. And another little coda. A few weeks ago, looking back on the aftermath of this incident, Andy Ross closed with this:
The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association Convention. I went there hoping that at last she would acknowledge that Cody’s did something special. She was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out one in Berkeley, California: Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.
A lot of people behaved a lot more shamefully than Andy Ross and the staff of Cody's in that affair--and not just corporate bookstore chains.

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