University District Museum Without Walls Oral History: Stephen Herold (author and historian, former owner of the Id Bookstore)

  • Posted 3/16/2010
  • Essay 9335

This is a transcript of an oral history by Stephen Herold.  He is the former owner of the Id Bookstore, an anarchist bookstore in Seattle's University District during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was part of the Helix circle.  Herold was interviewed by Dawnee Dodson for the University District Museum Without Walls in March 2009.  The Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee, draws together the history and life of the University District through a variety of formats, including temporary exhibitions, community events, and oral histories.

Stephen Herold

I've been approached any number of times to do exhibitions and shows and talks about the Ave and the scene and -- it's so dynamic. And of course the interesting thing is that probably a full half of all of our modern intellectual, social, personal ideas came out of what we developed in the sixties and seventies, but nobody knows it! And so they see the superficial -- they realize that we did a show -- they would say, "Oh, tie-dye and beautiful poses, so that's what it was like ...." No! It all came out of the head, in here! And those things were really manifestations of people trying to express how they were feeling intellectually, morally, socially, and it made sense to us and we looked forward to what we were doing. Now, it's like taking a desiccated body out of the desert and saying, "Please, sing and dance!" Well, you can't, because you've taken all the life out of it.

And for us it was the life that we were pursuing, the ways in which we could amend and change our life and the society around us so that we felt it was more human and humane and responsible and all those things, and so there was a lot of gathering together. We discovered that before, you hoped and prayed that the people with power would do something -- you might write them a letter, you could go talk to your congressman, and he'd say, "Oh, thank you, Mr. Jones, I'm sure we'll remember everything you said ...." Five seconds. And so we realized that if we got together and did it ourselves, we could actually move things, and we experimented, and it worked! We were experienced.

It all started back in the fifties with the Supreme Court and the steps of the Little Rock, Arkansas, high school. And it galvanized students like I had never seen in my life. If you hadn't been there, you wouldn't understand how important a change it was. In the 1950s, this was dear-old-shut-your-mouth-land. You toed the line. I mean, for example, the big clothing thing when I was in junior high school were pants called "peggers." They came to a narrow cuff and you had to get your shoes off and then wiggle to get them out, and you wore them low, and skinny little belts.  The schools were hysterical. "Communism!" And so they had guards at the doors and you had to pull your pants down over your shoes if you were a boy. If you couldn't, you were sent home and kicked out of school until your parents apologized for you and you had proper pants. That's how narrow this world was. In those days, everything was repressive.

But it was almost all about little issues. How people saw you -- "clothes make the man" -- and how people talked about you. Really monumental issues, you could bring out and talk about. Now it's much the other way around. You just can't bring up and talk about anything, because that kind of hush-hush neighborhood talking has extended now to political correctness, to language, to politics, to everything, and "We can't do that, because that's not nice, you know." And then what are we doing? We want it so desperately behind the scenes -- look at these political campaigns, these nasty smear campaigns. The Obama girls, you know. We're doing it; it's just that we hire thugs to do it for us. And it's kind of interesting that all that were the roles that I think we have abdicated personal responsibility and personal involvement in our lives and our communities. Until we take that back, we will never have the society that we say we have and we dream of having. It just won't happen.

The Bookworm

And I knew about this little bookstore called the Bookworm, on 43rd, and it had been run for years by a whole chain of managers for the owner, who had a real-estate shop next door. And he had the bookstore because he loved books, and wanted it next door so that, in the evenings, he could wander in and say, "It's my store," and take a book off the shelves and take it home. A big thrill. He told me some wonderful stories about selling books like James Joyce in the 1930s. Mmm, was that difficult!

A lady named Beatrice Cutts was hugely significant in the University District and everything that happened there. Not just books, but the whole social scene, and nobody knows that either. She had been managing it, and decided that she didn't want to do this, and she started buying the good books for herself out of her pocket, and the bad books for the owner. And then one day she moved around the corner, opened a thing called Puss 'n' Books, and changed bookselling in the District forever. So, another family friend had taken it over, and I noticed that the store had kind of gotten rotten, but all of a sudden it had gotten kind of nicer. And so I stopped in and I said hello to Sally Delay, who was the girl running it. She'd been the clerk-assistant manager -- well, it turned out the manager hadn't showed up for a week or two, so she just kept showing up and opening it. The owner came in and said, "Where's the manager?" And she said, "I haven't seen him for weeks." "Well, I guess you're it, then." And that's how Sally Delay took over that store.

She was making five, six dollars a day -- I mean you can't even make coffee for that. But what she had done is, she'd gone through the shelves and picked all the nice-looking books you could find, put them in the window, cleaned it up, dusted -- it looked like you'd want to go in and look. There's only 10 books in the window instead of 400. So I complimented her on that and her first response was "Do you know about books? I don't -- please help me." I had lots of free time -- I'm a graduate student, you know, you go to class three hours a week and you don't go get drafted for Vietnam. So I started dropping by and helping her, and within about two weeks I had the sales up to $35 a day from $5 or $6, and then up to $100. And I had seen what's going on in San Francisco, and Sally really liked rock music and heard of the posters, so I arranged to have posters shipped up here, and we got 'em all over the walls, and we got all kinds of head-shop stuff, 'cause no one was doing that, and it became a phenomenon.

Id Bookstore

The people that had started the Id Bookstore -- I'd been down there a lot and they knew me, 'cause all the political groups met there. And I remembered it well because the dog of one of them had chewed my only winter coat to pieces under the table while we were talking about the socialist agenda. They came one evening and said, "Can we have coffee with you and make an offer?" And I said, "Hmm!" So Sally and I went and talked to them. And they said, "We have seen what you've done with this bookstore. It is the best revival we've ever seen of a bookstore. Would you like another bookstore?" And I said, "Wow, what's the deal? I know about the Id." "OK," they said, "we can't run it anymore. Our spouses, our kids, our jobs, are getting in the way, and we don't want to see it die. If you will take it and promise you will keep it open as long as you possibly can and not just break it down, we'll give it to you."

That's pretty hard to turn down. And I had a lot of free time, and I was looking for another job. My campus job had gone away. And so we agreed that we would do this if they would let us pay them back what they'd put into it. One of them had made the bookshelves himself, but he'd bought materials, he'd bought the books, so we worked out a number, about $1,500 (which was a lot of money then) and we agreed to pay them back 10 percent of the proceeds. The first thing I did was, since that was not the place to be at that time, I was looking for a location, and I found one on 41st, which was commercially terrible, but it was us. Moved it out there one rainy, rainy weekend, and that's when I met most of the most exciting people I ever met on the Ave. We were struggling to get stuff in there and it was cold and nasty and everything, and two or three of them walked by, like Doc Eskenazi, and said, "Oh, that looks terrible! Can I help you?" That's the kind of thing that we got from people then. And they spent the rest of the night helping us move and went out to Tai Tung at 3 in the morning for a quick dinner, and they stayed to help and make this thing work. Sales jumped again, we were by the university, we became well known, we became almost infamous.

Under Arrest

In April of '67 -- we got the store in November of '66 -- I went to walk in the store after having lunch and I saw my poor clerk, who was a classics major -- he was specializing in Hellenistic Greek and Latin -- with eyeballs about the size of a dinner plate, and a bunch of guys, and I said, "Ooh, this looks interesting." And I walked in, and five cops came over, guys who had eaten too many dinners for many years, and grabbed me and said, "You're under arrest, you dirty pornographer," and they tried to close the store down. They arrested us for Lady Chatterley's Lover. In 1952, the Supreme Court had held on the basis of redeeming literary and artistic merit that that was a prime example of a masterpiece that was clearly free from any prosecution, and it had been laughed out of every court in the country, and Seattle hadn't gotten the message yet. And of course, being on the ACLU board of directors, this galvanized a lot of opinion. We had this huge outpouring and hysteria broke loose, and that was the event that turned the Ave into a political dynamo.

Until that time, it had been people going out there and going to the Pamir House and the Eigerwand and playing chess in the window and sipping some of that funny strong coffee from San Francisco and, you know, being an intellectual. And I and most of my friends were much more proactive. We were historically grounded, we were politically grounded, we had been through the wars in the South, we knew about this thing, and we brought people together. Well, one of my fellow professors at the university, John Spellman, organized a mass protest. Our landlord was Pacific National Bank, the man who had done all this trouble for us was one of their new guys from the police department -- they gave him a nice job. John had a run on the bank, they had a march up the Ave, 2,000 people closed their accounts, the bank went into hysterics, mass protests -- and from that time on, mass protests followed any negative act. The bank backtracked, they fired the man, they offered us free rent forever if we'd stay there, anything just to get the bad publicity to go away. And so, sometimes, as we found out, negative things and frustrated protest can lead you to very good outcomes. And, you know, we took that lesson to heart and were pretty consistent form that point on.

And so these things, that's how that kind of wove in, and at that point, the Id was probably the thing that welded all this together. There's a bunch of these young kids like Walter Crowley and stuff started hanging out there. Walter was still in high school and he wasn't getting much traction, and so we gave him some expression, we hired him to do artwork, we displayed his artwork, we had him do writings for us, we put him on some of our publications -- and then he and Paul Dorpat and a couple other friends of ours went and started a newspaper called the Helix, and they brought me on as an art director and a writer and various things. And I think that it was when institutions like that started rising, this'd be '68, '69, we started getting a voice, we started getting identity, we started getting self-expression. And I think that's when things started coalescing, and you started seeing much more focused things. The University District Street Fair started then. Just boom, out of the blue, we created that out of nothing and it's still going on -- it's not the same, but certainly, at least, the semblance of it goes on as an institution.

Free University

Organizations were started and founded and things slowly, other things that had been there for the same underlying social reasons, gained a new impact. One of the things, we started a thing called the Free University of Seattle, across the street, upstairs above Orange Julius, there was a space, and Miriam Rader, who was the real force there, her father was a professor who had been savaged by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and she had inherited that political liberalness and outspokenness, and said, "If you can educate people, and -- you can't get classes in political protest! You can't get classes in Southern folk stories! They're not taught in the universities and they're taught as kind of cutesy, at a distance!" So we started this thing for vibrant classes on important current issues and things, so I started teaching calligraphy there, 'cause no one else had heard of it. I came up to the state of Washington after being one of the pioneers of that, and no one knew about it, so I started teaching it and within about five years, I had a couple hundred people doing it. And there's just all kind of initiatives out there, music classes and political activism classes, and how to organize a book group and stuff.

The university felt really threatened by that. We had to move a couple times because they pressured landlords to get rid of us, and finally they started the Experimental College in order to kill the Free University, and they started offering classes cheaper, and they started refusing space on campus to the Free University. So finally it just went away, because it had done what it intended to do. And so that's another side of looking at this that I encourage people to look at, which is what were we intending to do? We were not intending to start an institution, like another university. We were starting something that worked on an educational level and model in order to show people it could be done, and how to do it, so they would go and do it themselves. We were much more earnest not at doing things, having control of things, of seizing power, like previous political groups had, like, say, the anarchists, you know, the socialists. But we wanted to empower people to take over their lives and do it themselves. But I think that, in the long run, we were spectacularly successful. We changed American laws, we changed the ways we look at things, we changed the way that people feel about things. Now you see that things lose their impact. Well, we ran a protest march in 1968 or '67, the world took notice, it was front-page news. My God, we marched down the freeway. We closed the freeway! Just write that now, maybe this'd be Homeland Security coming in and getting you traitors off the street, you know!

In some ways, I'm sad that it all closed down. We had an option in '72 to close the doors, to revive it. We'd had huge shoplifting, my staff had been less than helpful. I had to think about whether I wanted to have three of them arrested, in fact, it was so bad. Now these are pillars of the community, but, you know, in those days Steal This Book as a book title meant just what it said. We had 300 copies stolen. And we decided for a plethora of reasons, change being one of them, staleness being another, that it was time to close -- let people eat their hearts out and, you know, think about it. And, of course, we spawned a whole bunch of new bookstores, like Red and Black, for example, and Left Bank Books -- they were started by our staff and customers in response to the fact there wasn't an Id Bookstore anymore. We couldn't do it as hippies -- we tried, we got it going. But the next generation -- we went off in the woods. We had communes, some people did, we had, we started a whole town. We had a mayor. We had a road committee. We had all these things. And after a while we got tired of it, gave it up.

No More Hippies

Six to eight years later we came back. And of course, it worked for a reason, there was quite a depression. The Vietnam War, like the Iraq War, bankrupted us, and there were hard times. I could live for $350 a year on the river; it'd cost me three times that in town. I was doing poorly. And we came back out in '78, '79, and we thought we'd come to Mars. We did not recognize society. There were no hippies, there was no involvement and action; we'd gone through Dick Nixon and getting rid of him, and a nothingness president who was just "not rock the boat," and everyone was wearing three-piece suits, and they were dreaming of getting rich quick in less than 10 years by screwing everybody, and then never work again. And we said, "What happened? These people were wearing tie-dye with me eight years ago, and now, they're all these brokers!" And this is where these economic problems come from. Something happened in there and we lost control of our lives and our society. We gave it up for the sake of -- gain?

I'd love to see young kids today getting out and finding ways to be relevant. Unfortunately, I think things like the WTO, it shows the frustration, it shows a level of organization that certain political action groups have put together, but I don't think it's effective anymore. We need new ways of being effective; we need new ways of dealing with things. Documentary films, I think, are one of those ways. We can certainly see this with some of the more popular ones that've come out in the last couple of years. You could say, "Well, gee, everyone was dissing it and saying how bigoted all the stuff was," but it got people talking -- it made them pay attention; they had to go see it. It's like the cop that, one of the cops that busted us, they said, well, "How do you know this is pornographic?" "Oh," he said, "It was racy, your honor, it was so bad I had to come back and read it six times to make sure it was as bad as I thought it was!" Well, we saw where that one was going!

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You