By GERALD HASLAM, Contributing columnist
Bakersfield and I are about to lose an old and valued friend. Russo's Books has been heir to an independent bookstore continuum that, when I began publishing over 50 years ago, stretched into many Valley towns. Maxwell's Books in Stockton, Fig Garden Books & Gifts in Fresno, Babcock's Books in Bakersfield, among others, welcomed readers and writers alike.
As a result, my initiation into the world of published authors came in the 1970s when Bill Rintoul introduced me to Mrs. Connie Babcock, the legend of 19th Street. Although I was then living and teaching north of the Bay Area, I still considered myself a Kern County boy, so acceptance in my hometown was important to me. I also then hoped to join the old guard of Kern County authors I admired -- Ardis Walker, Frank Latta, Arnold Rojas, Frederick Raborg, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, and Rintoul.
Living out of the area in those years, I missed the sequence of events -- the closing of Babcock's, the opening of Book Mark, its transformation into Russo's -- that by 1988 led the latter to become the area's leading independent bookstore, but the change seemed smooth at the time. Tony and Mike Russo certainly pumped new literary life into the region, generously promoting readings and signings, clubs and classes.
As a result, the store was soon an important part of that aforementioned string of literary venues in the Valley, welcoming small presses and even self-published locals. Authors of new books could count on Russo's to promote their work, even if they lacked connections to the major publishing houses.
Truth is that publishing is one of the professions fueled not merely by talent but also by connections and cronyism, making it tough for outsiders to break in. Over the years, many authors from the New York Times' and Los Angeles Times' bestseller lists have appeared at Russo's, and they will continue to find local outlets, but newcomers and voices from alternative presses who have also appeared at Russo's are likely to suffer.
The town was already growing rapidly to the west when Russo's became Bakersfield's major independent bookstore, so the Russo family moved to the Marketplace, just a javelin's throw from the state college. From that site, they not only celebrated the old guard but encouraged new and local authors via writing groups and book clubs recognizing that real people writing about real lives, not publicists, create classics.
That, in turn, made it easier for newcomers to establish their own audiences, so a new generation of Bakersfield authors emerged. It included Lee McCarthy, Ann Williams, Chris Brewer, Larry J. Martin, Nancy Edwards, Nick Belardes, Don Thompson and, from a distance, Frank Bidart. The chain bookstores contributed, too, of course, but Russo's special concern for the local culture of writing encouraged more than a few of those good authors.
The first time I did a book signing at Russo's, for instance, I was second banana to my best buddy in the writing business, James D. Houston, already well-established as co-author of "Farewell to Manzanar." Jim and I had in the late 1970s co-edited "California Heartland: Writing from the Great Central Valley" (which one Bay Area reviewer mislabeled as "California Heatland").
That day one of my Garces classmates approached the autograph table and I introduced him to Houston who, like me, had been a mediocre small-college athlete. Jim immediately asked, "Could Gerry play football?" My classmate appeared trapped but he slid out of danger by replying, "Well, he was fast," leading to much laughter. Jim said, "That guy was pretty fast himself, avoiding my question."
That is only one of the happy memories I have of Russo's. I've done many signings there since, and the store has always been buzzing, a focus of literary activity. Today, with younger authors the caliber of Manuel Munoz, Melinda Moutsakis, and Maria Maretich emerging, Bakersfield appears ready to become a major literary destination. Many nationally known writers agree, and they frequently associate Russo's with Bakersfield and vice-versa. The town in which I grew up has become a city, and it is difficult to imagine it without an independent bookstore.
To say that the book business has changed since I began writing for publication in the 1950s is to understate matters. It's like saying that society is churning or that my pals and I have aged. Perhaps the move to an electronic store by Russo's will prove beneficial for all; I hope so. In the long run many transitions that bother old-timers like me will likely turn out well. But Russo's will no longer be available as a social center, a cracker-barrel where authors real or aspiring gather and discuss projects. The absence of such a favored locale is not apt to be to anyone's advantage.
Like many of my peers, this writer will miss Russo's.
Gerry Haslam, a Bakersfield native, is the author of many short stories, essays and books, both fiction and nonfiction. He lives in Sonoma County.