The Naked Bookseller: Skylight Books’ Steve Salardino Bares All
Like Ishmael, I was empty, restless, and looking for a job. Maybe with a little adventure on the side. And free coffee…
I first became a bookseller at a place two blocks south of the Melrose shopping district. Was this before La Luz De Jesus moved? Was Mel and Rosie’s dinner still there? Retail Slut? Vinyl Fetish? Or had those sub-culture suppliers already been replaced by Urban Outfitters and upscale panini shops?
The bookstore was open until 2 a.m. Mostly a café with tough, aggressive, and hilarious punk rock women serving coffee, pastas, and salads. I was in charge of selling books and records from a small but interesting selection and changing the music. Espressos were sipped by students, stars, and artists. The many Hasidic Jews that lived in that neighborhood, and that I saw at all hours strolling along the sidewalks, never came in for the coffee or the books.
I was fresh out of college – a creative writing degree from San Francisco State before the city got crazy expensive. I sent stories and poems out and was rejected by magazines with prestigious names like The New Yorker and Sassy. I had no time to wait for those guys to catch on so I began publishing my work in tiny editions that I would staple into the magazines we sold at this bookstore/cafe. Did you purchase a People and find a little booklet containing a story about suburban BMX bullies or low rent sex in Austin? That was mine.
Geeked on strong coffee, I took the late shifts no one wanted. That kept me out of trouble and made sure my $5.50 an hour was not pissed away. I was paid to hang out instead of paying for it at a club or a show. I sold Adam Yauch a book on Buddhism. Brad Pitt was in his long hair days and across the counter from me he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. Madonna left her sparkling water bottle on the table when she left and I took a sip off it, kissing the place her lips had been.
When the place closed about a year later the staff and customers were uprooted. So many milestones and memories! I had touched my first (and only) enhanced breast there! Where would we all go? Was there a future?
It took two years to figure that out and my answer was typical of my 90’s brethren: Graduate School. I applied to CalArts and they liked my zines and my attitude and I was accepted. It was around this time I met Kerry Slattery at the no name Japanese restaurant next to the boarded up Chatterton’s Bookshop on Vermont. The counter lunch stand (it was called Mako if you really want to know) was one of the two best $3 meals in town (anyone remember Senor Fish in Highland Park?). Mind you, Vermont Avenue was a bit dodgy back then – a night drinking cappuccinos at the Onyx Café often included your car being broken into and roaches falling from the trees. And the closing of Chatterton’s (and the death of its owner) had put a hole in the heart of literary Los Angeles.
There I was flipping through a comic book and drinking miso when a friendly woman asked what it was I was reading. “Sandman,” I told her. In an effort to explain the merit of what looked like a book of cartoons, I updated her on the story and the characters. I am sure I tried to sound smart. It must have worked because she revealed her plans for opening a new bookstore in the shuttered Chatterton’s. “I worked at a bookstore once,” I said, and we agreed to stay in touch.
The day came. Skylight Books opened in the fall of 1996. I had just started my graduate writing program. We were still putting books on the shelves when the locals started coming in to make sure we were not up to something sinister. I was part-time, working between classes and on weekends. This bookstore was different than my first one. My literary chops were tested on a daily basis by everyone from skateboarding adolescents to ex-naval intelligence senior citizens. And instead of being a spoke on the community wheel, Skylight was more like the hub. Almost immediately there was a sense that Skylight Books was becoming something that expanded further than its walls of brick and shelves of wood.
In those days it was the regulars that really kept us going. Some people came in almost everyday to discuss politics, the new restaurant going in up the street, a new book coming out. Everyday we sold an L.A. Times to the same person. On payday we splurged and bought mineral water from the dusty liquor store next door or a slice of German Chocolate Pie from House of Pies.
I wrote a zine about my heavy metal past and sold it at Skylight. My band sold its CD at Skylight. We planned a CalArts reading to happen in the store and I told Kerry that I was not sure which piece I should read. She said, “Read the one that scares you.” So I read something called Why I Fuck. We had a birthday party for William Burroughs and he wasn’t there but we were convinced he felt our genuine love and respect as we ate cake and handed out masks of his likeness.
Darren Aronofsky made a film of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel Requiem for a Dream. They appeared at Skylight together, Aronofsky honoring Selby and Selby praising Aronofsky. Selby was the most caring soul and it felt beautiful and momentous to talk and listen to him.
Once, I fell in love with a woman looking for Coetzee and vampire stories. The next day I saw sexy pictures of her in a magazine. We are on the edge of Hollywood after all. When she came in again I told her I had seen the pictures. Her eyes burned a hole that sunk my love boat.
Some of my favorite writers lived close by or would visit when in town or have an event when appearing on tour for their new book. Some were even legendary. Diane di Prima, Fanny Howe, T.C. Boyle, Benjamin Weissman, Camden Joy, Mary Gaitskill, Dodie Bellamy, Daniel Clowes, Alicia Erian. We had buttons that said “Dennis Cooper is Awesome”. Joan Didion snuck in and signed some books. I could swear I sold a magazine to Allen Ginsberg.
There were customers and visitors who came and became my favorite writers. David Mitchell, Michelle Tea, Matthew McIntosh, Jerry Stahl, Amy Gerstler, Adrian Tomine, Kevin Killian, George Saunders. I came up with a title for Cecil Castellucci’s first book and when she sold it I became her official book title brainstormer. The Skylight crew of booksellers were some of the best artists, musicians, and writers I have ever met and our customers constantly informed my reading decisions. At Skylight I have had my world exploded by writers, classic and contemporary and completely new to me.
I fantasized of bringing authors I was enamored of into the store. On the top of the list was Jeanette Winterson. Sexing the Cherry and The Passion were two books that had a real impact on me when I read them in the Nineties. It took 15 years but when she finally read here last year I could barely handle it. Jeanette Winterson was the Beatles and I was the girl who fainted at the shake of a mop top. I had to have whiskey courage so I wouldn’t faint - I was so moved by the fact that one of my earliest bookstore dreams was coming true. At the reading, Jeanette rocked. It was both Please, Please Me and Satisfaction all at once. A shorn-haired woman with big eyes and an open heart was so taken by Winterson and by my gushing sentimentality that I offered her a swig from my flask. We went out for more whiskey after the reading, and now we spend our nights reading together in bed.
I thought I knew the answer - where I was going. I thought Skylight Books was just a stepping stone keeping me above water until my future arrived. But it turned out to be much more than that. Skylight Books was my future. It made me and, hopefully, I have had some influence on it as well. My road ran straight into Skylight Books, our futures, now our present, entwined. Today when Skylight Books hosts someone like Patti Smith or Jonathan Lethem it means I am connected to something that is culturally bigger than my reach. I am part of an impact that reverberates on and on, waves splashing on far away coasts. All the words read, bought, and heard in these walls do not stop at the perimeter. I am connected as well as guided by this giant organism that contains all the writers, readers, fans, stars, booksellers, boat builders, booze drinkers, brain builders, heart breakers, poet kissers, words, ideas, stories…These are the things that make up a beast like a bookstore. And so are you. We influence each other. And influence needs trust. It feels good to be trusted and to be able to trust.
“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” - Merman Melville, Moby Dick
Steve Salardino is a Southern California boy, junior high school heavy metal kid turned long hair punk. Educated by Doonesbury comics, Steve Martin LPs, and Woody Allen movies. Skateboarding to the used bookstores where discoveries of Kerouac, Brautigan, Nabokov, and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers inspired and brought the hunger. A BA in San Francisco, an MFA from CalArts, a spell at Big & Tall Books and Café. “Discovered” by general manager Kerry Slattery eating noodles at a Japanese fast food counter and recruited for Skylight Books a few months before it opened in 1996. Member of the “band” Ukefink (est. 1994). Board member of PEN Center USA. Recently started the website palmtreepalmtreepalmtree.com to celebrate the art of the short story.
(Steve portrait by Rama Hughes.)
Through our Naked Booksellers Program, LARB wants to collaborate with bookstores to tell their stories, and help broaden their website’s reach so that fans of a store who may not necessarily even live in the same town can still support it.Yes people, believe it or not, bookstores have websites, and inside those websites are books you can order.
Read “What We Believe About Bookstores.”