A former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor, Steve Wasserman returns to his roots in Berkeley to leave his mark on independent California publishing.
Ed not: This article has been modified to reflect corrected errors.
To say Steve Wasserman is a bibliophile, an avid reader, and a disciple of the written word isn’t quite sufficient. The executive editor and publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley, Wasserman reads voraciously and widely, and houses his awesome, 15,000-book library in his west Berkeley workspace.
“I’m a snail who’s hostage to an oversized shell,” he jokes during a tour of his library. Unlike most personal collections, Wasserman’s is intrepid and surprising: Belles lettres, poetry, literary criticism. Black history, civil rights, California history. Fiction from The Arabian Nights to Stefan Zweig.
“This is all wheat, no chaff,” he says with pride. Turn a corner and find Antiquity, Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt, geology and dinosaurs. Civil War, the Holocaust, Vietnam. Art, dance, architecture.
“Books are like Aladdin’s lamp,” Wasserman enthuses. “You don’t rub the lamp, the genii doesn’t come out. And a book that lies on the shelf is in something of a coma. Writers need readers to complete the work.”
An exceptionally bright man, Wasserman, 67, speaks eloquently and at length — in sentences as precise and as beautifully composed as the published work of an accomplished writer. There’s a watchful, canny look in his eyes. On the day of our meeting, he’s dressed in a retro, semi-dandy style: Purple corduroy trousers, purple necktie, black vest, button-down white shirt, and cuff links. His shoes are two-toned, brown and buff, and a handkerchief blooms in the breast pocket of his wool blazer — a gallant sartorial gesture.
A former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor, Wasserman came to Heyday Books in 2016, when founder Malcolm Margolin stepped down. A small house specializing in California history, the environment, indigenous peoples, and social justice, Heyday under Wasserman’s stewardship has expanded its purview with a more political slant — Peter Schrag’s California Fights Back: The Golden State in the Age of Trump and Don Cox’s Just Another N*****: My Life in the Black Panther Party are two examples — and also broadened its distribution beyond the West Coast.
“We are very much a regional publisher,” he says. “On the other hand, it seems to me a state with nearly 40 million people has lodged itself in the frontal lobe of people’s consciousness the world over. California is at least as much a state of mind as an actual physical place, and there are any number of titles we do that are of interest to folks all over the world.”
For Wasserman, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1970 and the University of California at Berkeley in 1974, the Heyday gig occasioned his first time living in Berkeley since 1977. “I am something of a native son,” he told the news site Berkeleyside at the time he was hired. “I have missed California like the amputee is said to miss the phantom limb.”
He wasn’t looking to relocate but when the job opened, he says, there were several appealing factors: “A chance to return to my natal town; to no longer shovel snow in Connecticut; to allow myself once again to be embraced by the bliss that is Berkeley.” Also, Wasserman’s parents Al and Ann, Bronx natives who moved their family to Berkeley in 1963, still reside in Berkeley — as does his sister Sherry, the founder and vice president of Another Planet Entertainment. Another sister, Rena, is senior vice president for Nederlander Concerts and lives in South Pasadena.
On top of those factors were Heyday’s small-scale “lack of bureaucracy” and the chance, Wasserman says, to “write Heyday’s second chapter and to make a mark on independent California publishing. Plus, Alice Waters promised me I could have back my old table at Chez Panisse.”
Wasserman accepted the position contingent on moving his entire library into the Heyday offices — “I supplied the shelves” — and in July 2016 arrived with wife, Jodi Cahn, a filmmaker and corporate trainer, and their daughter, Mira, now 17. They live in the Thousand Oaks district of north Berkeley. Wasserman also has a daughter, 33, and twin sons, 27, from his first marriage.
“I feel a little bit like Rip Van Winkle,” Wasserman says. Soon after his return to the East Bay, he took his dog, Pepper, for a walk in Codornices Park in the Berkeley Hills and entered a small redwood grove he hadn’t seen in 50 years. “It was a summer day, the sunshine dappling through the trees, and the smell of the redwoods braided together with eucalyptus and oak and that particular kind of barometric pressure that suffuses the Bay Area, which is very light on the skin. None of the East Coast humidity. I stood there, my eyes welling up with tears. It was almost, I’m tempted to say, a Proustian moment.”
Memories awaken frequently: At the corner of Dwight and San Pablo, Wasserman remembers the old Longbranch nightclub where he saw a young Patti Smith in 1975 and heard Toots & The Maytals play until 4 a.m. On Telegraph and Haste, he’s reminded of Moe Moskowitz, the late, irascible founder of Moe’s Books, and appreciates that Moe’s was where he acquired, 50-plus years ago, the first books in his library. “Although I’m not the possessor of a graduate degree,” he says, “Moe’s Books was where I did my doctorate.”
Wasserman has criticisms of the new Berkeley. “Gentrification is making it impossible for a middle-class to cling by its fingernails to these Ohlone shores,” he says, and the racial diversity he knew is diminished. Berkeley’s population was 25 percent African American in his time, but only 8.56 percent today.
“Geography is fate, and timing is everything. I am forever grateful to my parents for settling in Berkeley and not Orinda. I would have had a very different Sixties had that occurred. As it was, I enjoyed a precocious adolescence.”
“Steve was born with his eyes wide open,” says his mother Ann, a former ballerina who at 90 still teaches a dance-exercise class four days a week. “He talked at an extremely early age with what I call 65-dollar words. Around the dinner table when the kids were young, nobody could get a word in. Steve was always talking.”
Loquaciousness came early, as did Wasserman’s acquisition and love of books. “When he was in the ninth grade, he brought over a new friend,” Ann says with a laugh. “I happened to walk by, and as his friend was starting to reach for a book Steve said, ‘Wait a minute. Let me see your hands first.’”
When the Free Speech Movement broke out, Wasserman recalls, “I was catapulted into the middle of it.” With his father, Al, an attorney, civil engineer, and past president of the ACLU Albany-Berkeley chapter, he attended the May 1965 Vietnam Teach-In at UC Berkeley. That same year at Garfield Junior High — now Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School — he helped organize one of the first anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at a junior high school. “We wore arm bands. We handed out copies of the Geneva Accords of 1954, created leaflets, and held a big demonstration. The Chronicle came and covered it. Several people were suspended.”
In his junior year at Berkeley High, Wasserman saw the People’s Park riots erupt south of the UC campus and the arrival of National Guard troops ordered by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. Last year on the 50th anniversary of that event, Heyday Books published The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969, an illustrated oral history that Wasserman edited and for which he wrote the afterword. “Berkeley in the years that I came of age was heady with the scent of night jasmine and tear gas,” he wrote. “It whipsawed, sometimes violently, between clichés, from the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Apocalypse and back.”
Wasserman graduated from Cal with a degree in criminology and found his first journalism job at Francis Coppola’s scrappy, short-lived City Magazine in San Francisco. In 1977, he moved to Los Angeles to be research assistant to investigative reporter Robert Scheer, and the following year became deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section and Op-Ed page. “I wanted to escape the suffocations of Berkeley,” he recalls. “At that time the word ‘ambition’ was not to be found in a politically correct dictionary that everybody seemed to be carrying around with them, because it was thought to be synonymous with a kind of disobliging careerism … something widely derided as ‘selling out.’”
Nonetheless he was ambitious and the Southland offered this important option: “L.A. had a real newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. Sadly, San Francisco did not. The Chronicle was unequal to the intelligence of most of its readers and sadly remains so.”
In 1983 Wasserman moved to New York and began a series of publishing jobs: New Republic Books; Hill & Wang at Farrar, Straus & Giroux; and Times Books at Random House. In 1996 he came back to the L.A. Times as book review editor and helped create the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. He went to the Kneerim & Williams literary agency in Boston in 2005, where he represented such authors as Linda Ronstadt, Christopher Hitchens, and film critic/historian David Thomson, and from 2010 to 2016 was editor at large for Yale University Press.
Although Heyday Books might seem small potatoes after that prestigious run of jobs — and although Thomson, a close friend of Wasserman’s, believes “He should be editor of The New York Review of Books” — Wasserman is content where he is. “If someone asked me, ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to be the publisher of Random House?’ [I would say] ‘Actually, no.’ Because that means you are pretty well removed from the actual getting into the kitchen and working with an author on their manuscripts.”
The editor’s job, he says, “is to tease out or to encourage or cheerlead the author into delivering and realizing the best version of the book that their talents can write. It’s akin to being a vocal coach for opera singers. Famously, singers can’t actually hear themselves as others hear them. And you need someone to hear you.”
Wasserman says he’s never seen a perfect manuscript from a writer, even though he’s worked with the best. “Christopher Hitchens [God Is Not Great] needed very little editing; he was a kind of Stakhanovite of literary production and could write very well even with lots of alcohol. Susan Sontag said to me that for every 30 pages of prose that she was happy with, she went through a ream of paper – 500 sheets. Typing, retyping, trying to get it right.”
At Heyday, Wasserman has 11 staff members — editors and designers; sales, development, finance and marketing/publicity directors — and encourages them to explore the 9-foot-high shelves of his vast library “to their heart’s content” and perhaps feel “inspired just by looking at the tapestry of colors formed by their spines as they’re arranged on the shelves.”
One book they won’t find is Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up with its simplistic prescription for tossing out books that no longer elicit “joy.” Yes, Wasserman occasionally loans out a book, but he never gives them away. “As my late friend John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion’s husband, once said to me, ‘Steve, once you have a book, don’t discard it. Because there’s an unwritten law: The next day you will have a need of that book and won’t be able to find it.’”
Wasserman says he’s read “most” of the 15,000 titles in his library. “The others exist on the far horizon, like Mount Everest. They help to define the landscape and they both beckon and repel me. Maybe one day I’ll have the courage to climb their slopes.
“I have only one regret,” Wasserman says, “that I have only one life to give to my books. So much will have been left unread, ill-remembered on my death.”