An episode of the "Seinfeld" sitcom has George telling Jerry he wants to retrieve a book from an ex-girlfriend.
Jerry asks why, if he's already read it.
George looks at him with astonishment: "Because it's a book!"
A book is a thing, but so is a block of wood (or its human embodiment). A book, though, is where ideas live and would be lost if they had no other place to call home.
We all love a book ... because it's a book! It nourishes and inspires us but can also corrupt us depending on what we feed it, because it doesn't choose its own diet.
To me, getting rid of books just to make extra space is to be gnawed at by a betrayal that I know I will regret and be justly punished for. I read from a self-lit Kindle, but only because my wife, Kathy, grumbles if I keep a light on in bed. I have relented, and might someday forgive her.
Dennis Wills is a priest, I guess you could say. His is a religion of ideas: He has his gods, and you are welcome to yours. He operates D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla. It's a bookstore packed with many books you won't find in the library - and the library itself wouldn't be able to find.
It's a small shop run like a mom-and-pop bookstore of old. Certainly not the gloss of Waldenbooks, Crown Books or Borders. But the main difference is, those chains closed their doors while Dennis still opens his at 10 a.m. every day.
Don't assume Dennis is the owner of "The Last Picture Show," trying to save a theater that has no audience. He's abreast of current merchandising practices and knows he's an endangered species, but he's doing exactly what he wants and thinks it's a good thing. Please tell me what other reasons he needs for turning the key each morning.
Dennis is a friendly, intelligent, well-read (of course) man of 69. He seems professorial without the stuffiness. He's not talkative, as in gabby, but rather conversational, and almost courtly, if you recall that elegant word. He definitely is not some gray beard of a blacksmith doggedly continuing to pound out horseshoes.
Books dying? Can't you hear Gutenberg say, "Not after all that work I put in!"
The bookstore on Girard Avenue is without neon and drab. It would not be used to sell designer bikinis in that tony town. It's narrow and darkish. Dennis is at the front counter wearing a baseball cap, Levis and a smile. Books are stacked like they are in our den, except there's no wife to complain, "I love books, too, but ..."
He stocks lots of bestsellers, but he chooses to show me a book of which he just came into ownership. It's a 1950 yearbook from Topeka (Kansas) High School. Dennis says maybe a customer who wants to study postwar hairstyles will give him a buck or two for it. He concedes that it may linger on the shelves for a very long while, but you know what? It's a book!
Dennis describes his inventory. "We don't have room for contemporary bestseller fiction, for example, because those are obtainable at many other bookstores. We tend to carry literature that has passed the test of time, but also a lot of academic categories for the college community: math, physics, history of science, that sort of thing."
As he talks, we meander maze-like through the alley-like stacks that wind into the back of the store. In some places, the books are shelved above my head. Maybe my high school chemistry book will fall on me, but not to worry, it never dented my head back when.
Dennis stops to explain how he can get 100,000 books into a rather small store. "I use every linear inch of space because more books come in than go out."
He swivels his gaze across the books that cover the room like wallpaper.
"I've touched every one, because I've put every single one on the shelf. We have books on many, many subjects. There might be some on chiroptera."
"Bats. We had four or five books on bats."
The marketing rule is that the slower things turn over, the more you have to charge.
"Not necessarily. The value of a book depends upon the subject, the author and the condition. Some things turn over often. High school kids always need a copy of "Romeo and Juliet" or Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Those are things that turn over over and over and over again. On the other hand, I'm sure we have esoteric books on mathematics or physics that will sit on the shelf for a long time."
Moving to his office, which is really just a small room crammed full of inventory with a couple of chairs squeezed in, he tells the story of his odyssey (a nod to Homer). He holds a degree in philosophy and a master's degree from Columbia University in international affairs. He served in Air Force intelligence in Europe during the Cold War, staring at Russians while they stared back at him.
He says he came close to marriage once, but only close. "I'm married to the store," he says, glancing up at perhaps some math texts on the top shelf. "This is my wife and children."
He says he's not a hoarder because "Hoarders keep things. Everything in here is for sale."
One book he would be loath to part with is an anthology with a red cover titled "Ashenden." It's by a noted English author. What makes it really special is that it's inscribed to mystery writer Raymond Chandler, who lived in La Jolla until his death in 1959.
The elegantly handwritten lines say: "For Raymond Chandler who has given the author of this book, both in sickness and in health, many hours of undisturbed happiness. W. Somerset Maugham." It is dated Dec. 21, 1949.
Dennis says, "I paid four or five hundred for it, and today it's probably worth several thousand. But I plan to take it to my grave."
What if someone came in and offered you $10,000 for it?
He studies the question, but only for a moment. "I'd probably sell it. I have bills to pay, and I could use the money. However, something like that belongs in a museum or library, in my opinion."
Just like a gun store, I suppose, Dennis' door is open to customers he wouldn't invite back.
"There was an exceedingly charming anthropology professor at UCSD who used to come in here. Just oozed charm and elegance. He had a cane and big briefcase. He was stealing books from us and from the UCSD bookstore. It took us awhile to realize that until we were tipped off and we watched for him. He was eventually dismissed. I think he committed suicide."
Dennis is not only a seller of books, he is a promoter of writers. He has played host to many literary glitterati at his store, usually bringing them into town, putting them up at La Valencia hotel and even buying their booze. At the events, sometimes hundreds of patrons crowd into his store or the sidewalk outside for readings. Dennis rarely breaks even, but profits are an afterthought.
His value-received is being able to share the likes of Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Maureen Dowd and Christopher Hitchens with those who thirst for ideas.
Vidal was a favorite who, in addition to being an author, was a clever raconteur who could use wit as a butcher does a knife, carving off the fat in stupid ideas. Dennis remembers him as an American Oscar Wilde.
Vidal once said of his enemy, writer
Norman Mailer, when someone asked him what Mailer had said: "As usual, words failed him."
Dennis says, "A few Saturdays ago some guy showed up who worked at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He said that Vidal had once told him when he was in La Jolla to come here because this bookstore is the center of the universe. That was a nice thing to say.
"Gore was here twice, and there are videotapes of his appearances on our YouTube channel. Gore had a good time here. He introduced us to McCallan single malt scotch, which we drank at the Whaling Bar at La Valencia hotel."
Dennis also hosted Mailer at a reading. "We set up a bar (for Mailer) in the back. We had four different kinds of whiskey for him, and he drank it straight. He was entertaining. He was very entertaining."
Oliver Stone, the eccentric producer-director, appeared at Dennis' store and attracted four TV stations, satellite trucks and a police car.
"We had maybe 400 people here, inside and out. The funny thing about it, when Oliver started speaking, he said the last time he was in San Diego he spent 10 days in jail because he was caught at the border with marijuana."
Is Stone just crazy or a genius?
Crazy, wise, flamboyant or boring - if you've placed worthwhile ideas between the covers of a book, Dennis will somehow find shelf space for it. He'd be horrified to hear it, but his contribution is more important than many of those books on his shelves.
Why do smart people like Dennis devote - yea, sacrifice - their years and earning power to pursuits that would cause career counselors to reach for Vidal's single malt scotch?
The answer is not complicated: It's the willingness of a person to put belief above self. But he wouldn't call it a sacrifice.
Is Dennis Wills obsessed with books? Well, of course he is. He wouldn't have it any other way, and neither should we.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.