Just a warning, reader, that this will be less a book review of Reading the Room than an appreciation of Paul Yamazaki, someone I’ve known as an inspiration, legend and comrade for many years.  I first met Yamazaki through one of his longtime friends, my former colleague, Rick Simonson, the senior buyer, reading series founder and guiding light at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company. Simonson’s forward to Reading the Room sets the scene: this book is about someone intimately involved in the world of books and bookselling. This book is also essential reading for anyone interested in Asian American history and the intersection of bookselling and radical politics and much more. 

Reading the Room is a series of conversations between Yamazaki, longtime bookseller and head buyer at City Lights Books, and Rick Simonson, Jeff Deutsch and other booksellers at Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstore, among others. Yamazaki’s influence on bookstores, publishing and book culture nationally might seem unusual, especially taking into account his background and his location, which is in San Francisco, not New York. The book is filled with delicious nuggets of history, Yamazaki’s personal biography, politics and book talk. If you think about notable Asian Americans, you might not think of Paul Yamazaki. That would be a mistake. 

The narrative doesn’t begin with Yamazaki talking about himself or his store, but about some of the other bookstores that form a part of our book community, which is a broad one. He talks about visiting other bookstores and first looking for the unfamiliar book and then for the familiar “in a new context.”  That way of browsing will probably feel sensible: while looking for something interesting, you’re checking out new titles alongside books and authors you’ve enjoyed.  This tells you who’s here (as well as who’s not here) and gives you a sense of what a bookstore–or a book– might be about. This approach is also one way of reading books like Yamazaki’s. If you aren’t surprised that Yamazaki cites Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel I Hotel as one of the most significant and under-read books of the 21st century, you might be surprised to see Fred Moten, Coltrane and Chester Himes mentioned in these pages. All are worth reading and experiencing and, taken together, say something about him as a reader and a thinker.

This is not a blueprint for other bookstores. It’s a story about how it is possible for individuals (and bookstores) to both live their values and have some influence on the culture. I found myself thinking about what makes this sort of life possible and how someone like Yamazaki might take root and then help grow the next generations. 

Paul Yamazaki became a part time bookseller in 1970 at City Lights Books, which was founded in 1953 by Peter Martin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. It remains there, enlarged, thriving and evolving to this day and since 1955 has also included City Lights Publishing.  

Yamazaki’s father was a military veteran, a Japanese American physician who spent years studying the effects of the atomic bombings on Japanese children. His mother was an Okinawan American incarcerated in Manzanar during World War II. Yamazaki was a newly radicalized student at San Francisco State and member of the Asian American Political Alliance with an arrest record related to his participation in political protests.  When on the recommendation of writer and fellow bookseller– the late Francis Oka– he was hired by City Lights, his employment was the condition of his early release from jail. 

That someone saw something in him–maybe the curiosity that Yamazaki points out as an essential characteristic of good booksellers and possibly the presence of other Asian American booksellers at City Lights at the time–made it possible for him to connect with and thrive at this particular bookstore. He brought his own tastes and interests (which included blues music, anti-capitalist politics, music writing, Black writers) and enlarged them. He notes that in bookstores, one’s own personal taste is balanced with what “serves the store.”  Visiting sales reps for publishers large and small–many BiPOC people themselves–took notice of him and soon he was invited to participate in book culture in a larger way outside his own store. 

Yamazaki himself has had a significant effect on national book culture—he is the winner of the 2023 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community from the National Book Foundation, which administers and hosts the National Book Awards each November. Past literarians have included Terry Gross, Maya Angelou, literary organization Cave Canem and Seattle’s Nancy Pearl. While he gave an acceptance speech, I think that most of the audience would have preferred a sit down with him, perhaps over a drink, and enjoyed a wide ranging conversation with a lot of give and take. That’s his preferred setting as well, and this book provides a brief introduction to what conversations with him might entail. 

Reading this book, I kept jotting down titles and authors to read and reread.  I thought about my first visits to City Lights in the late 1970s and early 80s and started planning a return trip. I thought again of the many, often invisible people who play a role in promoting books and authors and of the stories behind them. Some of those mentioned by Yamazaki are well known figures such as the late Sonny Mehta, while others such as New Directions editor Mieke Chew and the late, legendary WW Norton sales rep, Oliver Gilliland, less so. The authors and booksellers contributing “advance praise” for Yamazaki and this book have their own stories to contribute.

Reading the Room will nurture your curiosity about the deep and living culture that produced it. Every bookstore can be seen as a collection of memories, stories, sacrifices, triumphs, disappointments and strong opinions. How will they choose what books to carry in what will always be a limited space? How will diverse political points of view, including about writers themselves, be handled? How does all of this affect the viability of bookstores? Readers won’t find simple answers in Reading the Room, but will be invited into a lifelong conversation with book people. 

City Lights Books bookseller Paul Yamazaki talks about his memoir “Reading the Room” (Ode) with friend and fellow bookseller for Elliott Bay, Rick Simonson on Wed., May 22, 2024 at 7pm (PT). At Elliott Bay Book Co. at 1521 – 10th Ave.on Cspitol Hill.  For free tickets, call 206-624-6600 or try elliottbaybook.com.  

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