The wonder of Wahrenbrock's Book House

A long shelf life

“In the ’50s, you and Vernon had access to some great libraries. The expanded Shakespeare. The 11th Britannica, leather-bound. The bulk of the books ended up in the James Copley library."
  • “In the ’50s, you and Vernon had access to some great libraries. The expanded Shakespeare. The 11th Britannica, leather-bound. The bulk of the books ended up in the James Copley library."
  • Image by Joe Klein

When you ask how Wahrenbrock’s Book House got its start, the story most often told is this. It was summer 1935. Vernon Wahrenbrock had just graduated from Pomona College. Jobs were scarce. Using books that belonged to family and friends, Wahrenbrock amassed a small stock and opened a store at the northeast corner of Ninth Avenue and Broadway, downtown. He had so few books that to fill shelves he would stand one book up, lay two books down, stand one up, lay two down, and so on, around the shop.

Wahrenbrock's Book House (now at 726 Broadway) is San Diego's oldest book shop.

Wahrenbrock's Book House (now at 726 Broadway) is San Diego's oldest book shop.

A former Wahrenbrock’s employee, Joe Herweg, says, “The buy that got Vernon Wahrenbrock in the book business was from some fellow out in Point Loma. This fellow, so the story goes, was at the end of a three-day party. Vernon went out there, and the guy asked, ‘What will you give me for my books?’ And Vernon said, ’Everything I’ve got in my pockets.’ The guy said. ‘Well, how much is that?’ Vernon said, ‘Sixteen dollars.’ The guy took the $16. Perhaps because he was in a weakened or inebriated state.

Jan Tonnesen, Chuck Valverde, Chuck Valverde, Jr. “I went out in the back country — to Spring Valley — and went into a garage where the books were stored. I heard a kind of rustling. The hair just stood up on the back of my neck. And I looked around, and there was a mountain lion, caged up in a kind of flimsy pen.”

Jan Tonnesen, Chuck Valverde, Chuck Valverde, Jr. “I went out in the back country — to Spring Valley — and went into a garage where the books were stored. I heard a kind of rustling. The hair just stood up on the back of my neck. And I looked around, and there was a mountain lion, caged up in a kind of flimsy pen.”

“So Vernon started loading up the books and bringing them back to the store. First thing he did was unpack a set of encyclopedias and fix them up in the windows. He put a sign up that read ‘For Sale! Take me home. $22.50.’ By the time Vernon got back with the second load, his wife had sold the encyclopedias, they had gotten their $16 back, plus some profit, and they were in the used-book business."

Tidying shelves as we walk past poetry — Auden. Berryman. Chaucer, Cicero, Coleridge. Dante. De La Mare. Dickinson, Donne — Chuck, Jr., smiles, asks. "Do you know how many pressed flowers we find in books?"

Tidying shelves as we walk past poetry — Auden. Berryman. Chaucer, Cicero, Coleridge. Dante. De La Mare. Dickinson, Donne — Chuck, Jr., smiles, asks. "Do you know how many pressed flowers we find in books?"

Fifty-four years later. Wahrenbrock's Book House (now at 726 Broadway) is San Diego's oldest book shop. Vernon Wahrenbrock. in his mid-70s, semi-retired, and living in Escondido, sold the store in 1965. In that same year, Chuck Valverde became the store’s manager and is now its owner.

Tonnesen groans. “Nietzsche is so depressing. Steer clear of Kierkegaard too. He’s even more depressing than Nietzsche."

Tonnesen groans. “Nietzsche is so depressing. Steer clear of Kierkegaard too. He’s even more depressing than Nietzsche."

A weekday afternoon. Four people are working — Chuck Valverde, his son Chuck, Jr., Jan Tonnesen, and Richard Allen. The cash register drawer clangs shut. Chuck, Jr., slips four used paperback Westerns into a sack, hands the sack to an elderly man. "GRUMPY OLD FART” is printed on the man’s billed cap, but he’s grinning as he tells Chuck,Jr., about the four Westerns, "Them’s to be my weekend."

Bill Tollefson: "The Union then was just around the corner on Third Street. Donald Freeman, the TV critic who was fascinated with the books of A.J. Liebling — he thought Liebling was the greatest writer of all time — he was in all the time."

Bill Tollefson: "The Union then was just around the corner on Third Street. Donald Freeman, the TV critic who was fascinated with the books of A.J. Liebling — he thought Liebling was the greatest writer of all time — he was in all the time."

A woman who could not have been more than ten when Elvis Presley nodded off to his final sleep buys The Day Elvis Died. Chuck, Sr., asks, "Do you have Elvis the Soldier?” She does, she says, loudly, to be heard over buses roaring down Broadway. The woman doesn’t have, and wants, All Shook Up: Elvis Day-by-Day. Chuck, Sr., — whose six-foot height, broad shoulders, and eyeglasses lend him an appearance half lumberjack, half professor — says he hasn't seen a copy come through recently and offers to order one.

The telephone rings (the 11th call in 30 minutes). Chuck, Sr., answers. "The Blacksmith‘s Source Book? Give me a moment. I’ll check." He heads down through the shop; threads between shelves that rise from floor to eight-foot ceilings; zips past sections set aside for films, psychology, prenatal care, hobbies, rivers, deserts, caves and caving; steps over a box out of which books spill; edges past a customer who has open in his hands The Shooter’s Bible. He disappears into a book-lined alcove at the back of the store, 100 feet away.

At the front counter, a heavy-bellied fellow around whose sunburned arms tattooed blue spider webs wreathe, needs "books on the subject of Scientology" No sooner has Chuck, Jr., dispatched the fellow down a side aisle than a woman walks in, asks where mysteries are kept. She’s directed upstairs, to the second floor. She gasps. “You mean there’s more?"

A rangy 19-year-old, taller than his father and darker complexioned, with black curls loose on his neck, Chuck, Jr., can remember being in the book shop from the time he learned to walk. But he still finds intimidating the sheer numbers of books here, some quarter of a million volumes.

“People who’ve never been in before." he tells me, “will stand at the counter and look around and say something like. I'm overwhelmed!’ And then you say to them. Have you seen the second floor? The third?’ "

From the back of the store, a woman carrying Bird, Charlie Parker’s biography, approaches the counter and asks Chuck, Jr., if he has Art Pepper's Straight Life. He suggests she speak to “our jazz and blues expert, the man with the green beard standing in the art books.” Jan Tonnesen (whose long beard is pale auburn) is fitting new volumes onto the oversize art book shelf.

“Over here” calls Tonnesen. He is lifting a stack of art monographs. “Every one of these things,” he says, "must weigh four pounds.”

Emerging from banks of shelves. Chuck, Sr., says, “Hi there. Bob! Be with you in a minute.” to a suited gentleman studying the titles of books stacked spine-up on the 50-percent-off table. Chuck, Sr., pushes a shock of greying hair off his forehead and picks up the telephone. “We don't have The Blacksmith‘s Source Book. What we do have is The Complete Guide to Blacksmithing and Practical Blacksmithing. Okay. I’ll leave them here at the counter for you.”

Blacksmithing books rubber-banded together, Chuck, Sr., joins Bob. Bob collects materials about Baja California and wishes to add to his collection. Ten years ago. he’s saying, he bought a first edition of Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez for $100. Noting that The Sea of Cortez in its first edition now can’t be purchased for less than $200, Chuck, Sr., says, “A book I liked about Baja was Forgotten Waters: Adventure in the Gulf of California. Have you seen that?"

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha gripped in both hands, a scrawny teenager asks Tonnesen if he can help him find something to read in philosophy. “Nietzsche and Sartre." he asks, "are those guys pretty good?"

Tonnesen groans. “Nietzsche is so depressing. Steer clear of Kierkegaard too. He’s even more depressing than Nietzsche. Sartre is an existentialist. And existentialism is to me just an excuse to sleep late. 1 don’t know where to tell you to start. Read Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy, which will give you a good overview of Western philosophy, or Bertrand Russell’s Wisdom of the West, which is perhaps better.

“I warn you, though. Those Germans and Danes, their winters are long, they got too much time to think."

"Hesse,” the teenager says, “he didn’t bother you, did he?"

"Hesse," Tonnesen laughs, "no, he didn't bother me. He's loads of fun."

Chuck Valverde, Sr., was 28, working for the University of California, helping set up university bookstores, when the opportunity came to go into the private book shop business. Now 55, he’s spent half his life here. He approaches a middle-aged woman who, for several minutes, has been walking back and forth between dogs and art history. "You have that wandering look in your eye, lady.” She’s lost, she says. Several minutes later, Valverde returns to the counter, the woman — beaming now — with him, and rings up her purchase, Irving Stone’s Lust for Life.

"Our organization of books here may look completely baffling, but there’s rhyme and reason to it," he says, adding that he thinks a long time before he alters the store’s arrangement. "A customer in a bookstore is possessive. Say the customer is interested in philosophy. They come in. They may say hello or good morning. But basically, a regular customer who’s interested in philosophy walks right to the philosophy section. That’s his section. If we move that section on him — we could move it to a shelf two feet over — we’ve got one upset customer. Because we’ve destroyed a routine. He may not come back for a month."

Books rise up on either side along the marble stairs that lead to the second floor. Twelve volumes of The Writings of George Washington. Eleven volumes of John Fiske’s Historical Writings. Two more steps up, there is James Truslow Adams’s March of Democracy in 7 volumes. The Great Events by Famous Historians in 20 volumes. Another step up is Documents of German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945 in 6 fat dusty volumes. At the top of the stairs is a Thackery set, bound in green cloth, spines stamped with gold flowers.

The second-floor window looks out over Broadway. Under that window are three shelves packed with books by and about Winston Churchill. From the cover of The Gathering Storm, his dear old bulldog face looks up. Nearby, a brown bookcase holds four shelves about the Kennedys — from PT-109 to The Warren Commission Report on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Along the second floor’s east wall, bookcases are seven shelves high. Top shelves hold books about Chicago. Beneath Chicago are books about New York. To the right of New York and beneath titles about Canada are books about the Arctic. Even the titles make me cold; The Polar Regions, Arctic Doctor, Northern Exposure, Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo. Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams.

Chuck, Jr., joins me in the horror section. We examine Crabs on the Rampage and Revenge of the Crabs, on whose glossy covers crabs extend giant claws that drip blood. On the cover of an H.P. Lovecraft collection, a ghoulish male holds open his cloak, revealing rotted flesh. “Probably one of our best sellers,” Chuck, Jr., says. “All kinds of people — long hair, short hair — like horror"

We walk through the second floor's back half. “Fiction is the hardest section to conquer. We’ve got ’em shelved double deep, but still we never find enough room."

Tidying shelves as we walk past poetry — Auden. Berryman. Chaucer, Cicero, Coleridge. Dante. De La Mare. Dickinson, Donne — Chuck, Jr., smiles, asks. "Do you know how many pressed flowers we find in books?"

Does he imagine following in his father’s footsteps? He doesn’t know. “At 19,” he says, “how can you know?" For now he is enrolled at City College and works here part-time. He likes the store and customers, but there's so much, he says, that one has to learn. He stoops to gather up off the floor two volumes of Leon Edel on Henry James and places the books back onto the shelf. “I guess you could say, though, that it’s a strong possibility I might do this."

Thirty to forty percent of Wahrenbrock’s used stock comes from other book dealers and through bids on libraries offered by auction houses. The rest is bought from private sources. As often as four times a week, in response to calls offering personal libraries for sale. Jan Tonnesen, Chuck Valverde. Sr., or Richard Allen buy books. Tonnesen has invited me to go with him to make a buy. Driving down 805 in the shop’s Dodge van, Tonnesen, 38, says that he’s lived in San Diego since he was nine, that he went to high school in La Mesa, then attended college for several years. He has worked for five years at Waldenbooks and for the past ten at Wahrenbrock’s.

Typically, he says, each member of a bookstore staff will have areas of special interest. “You really don’t become an expert in more than a few topics, but after a while, you get to know a little about everything. You pick up a lot by osmosis.”

At Wahrenbrock’s, Chuck, Sr., specializes in history and Western Americana. “And Chuck's really the guy who started the rare-book department in the store. There was nothing like that there before." Richard Allen, a painter, is the shop's poetry expert.

Tonnesen's interests include general fiction, science fiction, and mysteries. He collects books on tattoos and tattooing, on beers and brewing. A musician. Tonnesen collects books on the blues and blues musicians. “And I love vintage paperbacks — leggy dames, juvenile delinquents, the more salacious the better."

Would Tonnesen characterize Wahrenbrock’s customers? “Everyone from three-piece-suited GOP lawyers to street people and all points in between, including the illiterate, because - even they stop in at times. Some of our customers do all their shopping by telephone, and some of these by-phone shoppers, as far as anyone knows, have never been in the store.

“We also cater to private collectors, particularly collectors of war histories and Western Americana. Buyers for other book shops visit us. We’re aggressive buyers, and they know that they can come here and always find something new.”

As we near the Clairemont address, Tonnesen explains how buys from private sources are made. "The way we work it is, I look at the books and make a judgment as to what’s a quick sale and what’s going to sit forever. Then, generally, we pay about a third of what we’re going to sell the books for and then make allowances either for those books that aren’t going to move or aren’t going to move for a long time.

“You can never tell from what the person sounds like on the telephone what the books will be. There was an apartment in Ocean Beach we went to. The husband had died, the wife wanted to sell his books. The front door opened only a few inches. Books blocked the door. We squeezed our way in. On every surface, books were stacked. On the floors of every room. In closets. On furniture. Even on the bed. The wife slept in a chair in the living room. The husband had been a poet. He collected poetry. The whole time we boxed it up, the woman cried.”

Today’s book seller, a white-haired woman — Mrs. B. — lets us in the front door. She has come from the Midwest to supervise the sale of her brother's house and the disposal of his belongings. Until a month ago, the brother had been at home, cared for by a live-in companion, a middle-aged man who emerges from the kitchen and greets us. Her brother, Mrs. B, tell us, is in a rest home.

“We had no idea who to call or where to call,” Mrs. B. says. “So I called your public library, and a lady down there told me to call your bookstore.”

The companion adds, "Wahrenbrock’s is the only bookstore I can remember as always being here. I’m 53 now, and it was there, downtown, when I was in grade school. I remember catching the bus on Broadway, and I remember seeing Wahrenbrock's.”

Mrs. B. directs us through the hall, shows us the rooms in which books are shelved, then leaves us. Tonnesen pushes back the bill of his navy blue cap, his eyes narrow. A humming, almost a purr, starts in his throat, his fingertips brush books’ spines. “A nice uniform set of Conrad here, which he didn’t complete. It may have been a book club edition. No great shakes. We sell them in the store for two dollars apiece. An old edition of de Tocqueville, 1851. A cloth binding, embossed boards, dusty, in terrible shape. An old Jane Eyre, a Modern Library edition of Marco Polo. A book about the refurbishing of the Truman White House, with photographs. A collection of Milton. Not much asked for anymore, old Milton. He’s no Charles Bukowski.

“Now here’s something interesting. Melville’s Omoo.” He opens the volume. “Mmmm. Published in 1847, could possibly be a first edition of that book.

“Well, gosh, here’s a nice set of Harvard Classics. Let’s see if all the volumes are here; 50 or 51 in that set. Sometimes there’s a 51st volume, a reader's guide to the other 50.

“His tastes were rather broad, which is nice. Bea Lillie’s autobiography, Gertrude Lawrence’s Mrs. A. I wonder if this fellow wasn't involved in theater.

"And here’s an Americana encyclopedia. 1956. Virtually useless. Too old to be useful, too young to be collectible.

“Looking at people's books, it’s kind of being a voyeur, and I don’t like that aspect of it; but I think, ‘I’m here, why not find out?’

“Looks like he read modern Greek. Modern Greek, the Easy Method. Six Greek dictionaries. Italian/English dictionary. Italian Berlitz. German/English dictionary. Books in French and books about French, probably he was something of a linguist.

“I’d guess he was an engineer. He has a lot of older engineering texts. Here’s a Handbook of Physics. Seems he was also a sailor. Here’s Sailing and Small Craft Down Through the Ages.”

We walk down a carpeted hall to a small bedroom. Physics, engineering, math textbooks are on shelves on one wall. "School textbooks are nothing special to us, unfortunately "

Next to the textbooks is a set of small books, Masterpieces of the World's Best Literature. “This,” Tonnesen explains, “is what was considered to be, in 1910, the world’s great literature and which now, 80 years later, is not. It’s a set that shows up with some frequency. It may have been offered in a book club or as a little gift edition. Grandma wants to give the grandson a collection of literature for $5.00, and here it all is, jammed into one. Quaint and charming, and that's all the value is.”

In the Modern Library edition of Yeats’s Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, Tonnesen shows me that $2.25 has been penciled in lightly on the upper right-hand corner of the first free endpaper. “This is Joe Herweg’s hand I’ve seen several of Chuck’s hand already in some of the books in the other room "

How did he recognize that Herweg priced the book? “All booksellers seem to have a little quirk of their own. I can look at almost any book sold here in town and tell you where the book was sold. I’ve bought and resold books which I've sold several times."

We have progressed to the shelves in the living room. On one set of shelves sit 13 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. From another shelf, Tonnesen pulls A Book of Kells, published in 1927 with 24 color plates. Tongue tip pressed on his bottom lip. Tonnesen leafs rapidly through the book. "I count 24! Good!"

Mrs. B. from the sofa addresses Tonnesen. "May I ask you a personal question? Is your beard awfully hot in summer?"

“I’ve had it since 1972, so I’m pretty used to it by now.”

“Is your hair red, too?”

Tonnesen takes off his cap. “What hair?”

“The good news and the bad news ... is this.” Tonnesen tells Mrs. B. “There are a lot of books here, a lot of good books here, many. The older encyclopedias I wish I didn't have to take. They are almost worthless to us, too old to be useful, too new to be collectible. And, there are a lot of books here that are going to be duplicates for us. The most important set, as well you know, is the Oxford English Dictionary. I’d love to say, I’ll pay for that, and let me suggest on the others.' but I think you are more interested in selling everything in one fell swoop." Mrs. B. nods agreement.

“I had already discussed with Chuck the value of the OED, on which the offer is $250. What I would offer you for the rest of the books, including the encyclopedias, would be another $250, which would be $500 altogether."

"Sold."

“You’re too easy. You’re supposed to dicker with me."

While Tonnesen boxes up the books and takes them to the van, Mrs. B. talks. Her brother, indeed, was an engineer and. she says, “an avid reader. He had wanted that Oxford English Dictionary for many, many years, and his wife one day said, 'Just get them.' He could sit all day and read and still be reading late into the night. And now, the poor guy, he's almost like a vegetable."

At the shop the next day, Tonnesen is on his knees before the boxes of books bought in Clairemont, "Sorting. Figuring out what we are going to do with them. Some are badly worn. So I’ll just take good old white glue and big rubber bands, fix them up so that people can read them.

"There were a few nice surprises in there. A 1905 title — Football for the Player and Spectator. The Omoo did turn out to be a first edition. But it will need a lot of work and repair. We'll have to send it out to our bindery. It will take two, maybe even three hundred bucks to fix it up.

“I’ll have to wait and see how it looks when we get it back from the binder before we can price it. The book itself, the first book edition, in extremely fine shape would sell for between $1500 and $2000. But even after it's repaired, this will not be salable for that much."

I ask Chuck Valverde, Sr., if he has a memorable book buy story, and he tells this: “I went out in the back country — to Spring Valley — and went into a garage where the books were stored. I heard a kind of rustling. The hair just stood up on the back of my neck. And I looked around, and there was a mountain lion, caged up in a kind of flimsy pen.” I ask what happened then. “I left."

Question answered. Valverde turns to Tonnesen. “Jan, what if I clean out the front window for that Oxford English Dictionary you bought?” Tonnesen nods a yes; but no sooner does Valverde turn to begin than a buyer from a Los Angeles book shop announces himself. He's come to pick up a signed copy of Langston Hughes's Weary Blues.

Buyer dispatched. Valverde unburdens a perspiring white-haired man loaded from waist to double chin with titles about World War II. He says to Valverde, i'm just kinda reminiscing about my war.”

Waiting in line behind the purchaser of World War II books is a man with a silver flat-top haircut. In his carefully manicured hand, he grips The Opium War. Addressing no one in particular, he says. “Myself, I like the small, odd colonial war."

A man in slacks and sport shirt stands over Tonnesen. “You remember those Thin Man stories? We were having a little argument over next door at Joseph’s Deli. Who wrote ’em?”

“Dashiell Hammett.”

The man smiles. “Thank you.”

“Did you win?”

“No."

“Too bad,” says Tonnesen, standing up to place Modern Greek, the Easy Method next to Wahrenbrock’s collection of Greek dictionaries.

“Too bad "

0n the third floor, Wahrenbrock's keeps the shop's better books, modern first editions, and antiquarian materials. There one afternoon, former Wahrenbrock’s employees Joe Herweg and Bill Tollefson reminisce about their days in the shop.

Joe Herweg, in his 70s now, moved to San Diego in 1947. Herweg, who had had a book shop in Honolulu before the war, soon found Wahrenbrock’s. “I walked in and said to Vernon. ‘This was a bad day for you that I found this shop, because I am going to have to give you some competition.'

“Vernon had never had any competition. Over on E Street were all these dinky little shops. There was a little book shop there. An elderly lady — a gallant little old lady — was running it. Her husband had run it, and he’d died on the job. Her sons weren't interested. One day she called me and asked if I’d like to buy the stock.”

So Herweg went again to see Wahrenbrock. “We went out to lunch, and I said to Vernon, 'If I were you. I’d hire me before I open a book shop.’ Vernon said. ‘Well, let me talk it over with my wife.’ He hired me that night.”

Bill Tollefson, now in his mid-50s, joined Wahrenbrock’s in 1962. “Truth be known. I will confess I needed a job. My wife found an ad in the paper: ‘Alert man needed to work in bookstore.’ I said, ‘Sounds like a good job for me.’ ”

Tollefson: “All the old fiction — titles from the 1880s, 1890s and turn of the century — were kept downstairs, against the back wall. I read James D. Hart’s The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste and every title in there, except for the very rare ones Vernon had on those shelves. You could touch them, you could read them. It was a fabulous education.

“For about 12 years, Joe, you and Vernon were the book kings of San Diego There was not a lot of competition because no one could compete. Many different book shops would open, but no one else had the magic, no one else had the knowledge, no one had the excitement.”

Herweg: “Vernon Wahrenbrock was a very bright — very bright — well-educated man and a very, very good businessman, but not a bookman. But me, I'm a lousy businessman, but I’m a bookman. I love books. So it worked out perfectly for us.”

Tollefson: “Vernon was interested in Western Americana. But he wasn’t a big reader. He got so involved in the business of business that I don’t know that he found enough time to read. But he was fascinated with certain aspects of San Diego and San Diego's history.”

Herweg: "The whole Vernon Wahrenbrock family went back quite a ways."

Tollefson: "Vernon’s father was a postman here at the turn of the century. He was a very spry man, big and strong. At 85 he was out re roofing his house! He came in the store often and always gave me his political opinions — which didn't happen to be mine.”

Recalling a favorite story about Wahrenbrock, Tollefson relates, "Vernon was able to garner a copy of Winston Churchill’s River Wars — two volumes. A section was missing from the first volume, so Vernon noted ‘frontispiece missing’ and asked $80 for the two volumes. A fellow from the Abbey Bookshop in L.A. came down and bought the two volumes, just gobbled them up.

"Years later I was talking to that guy. He said to me, ‘How stupid that guy (Vernon) was. To sell me that Churchill for $80. I turned around and sold it for $400.’ I said to him. ‘Well, yeah, but the frontispiece was missing.' To which he replied, ‘That was the original first edition. That was the way it came out. That stupe in San Diego didn’t know that. I go down there all the time and buy books.’

"But Vernon always said, ‘Let ’em find a sleeper. It keeps ’em coming back. We’re here to turn the merchandise. We are businessmen. We don’t have a top-dollar market. Let these guys come in.’

“He was a supreme businessman first, a bookman second. He could have been good at rags, in shoes. He was honest, he believed in giving good service, he was very fair, and there were countless numbers of little old ladies who loved him. Because these ladies will call a book shop in midafternoon and need a book. ‘You know, the one with the red cover. I don’t remember the writer’s name but the story was about...’ With that you would have to go find a book. Generally, Joe Herweg or Vernon Wahrenbrock would dig that book out. They handled those books every day. They knew them as friends.”

Herweg: “I loved giving books away. A fellow would buy a book, and I’d say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I got another book here.’ And I’d give it to him. I’d say, ‘This is a gift. If you don’t like it, pass it on to a friend or bring it back to me.’ Any jackass can sell a book, but to give a book away and still stay in business. Ah!”

Tollefson: “That’s sneaky.

“In the ’50s, you and Vernon had access to some great libraries. The expanded Shakespeare. The 11th Britannica, leather-bound, and with its own traveling case so you could take it on a steamer with you. Just a wonderful collection of everyday books that were easy to sell and were in great condition. The bulk of the books ended up in the James Copley library.

“Dick Riley, then, was buying lots of books for Jim Copley. Copley had said. ‘I've got to build a library. There are certain things I know I need. What do you think I should do?’ So Dick Riley, poor man, had this wonderful job to go and buy books. Riley would come down and spend hours at Wahrenbrock’s, buying books, and Mr. Jim Copley would pay the bill. You had the best of all worlds there!”

Tollefson continues, recalling that in 1965, when Chuck Valverde, Sr., had become the shop’s manager, and “Vernon was on his way out of the business but still there. Chuck and I made a tremendous buy together. We spent $25 for a Civil War diary. I was the instigator. Chuck was still very cautious, trying to see how things worked. The book’s seller sold me on the book. I sold Chuck. And then we sold each other. And we bought this wonderful $25 Civil War diary that we knew, we knew, the moment we had this book our names would go up in lights in the antiquarian book seller circles; why, people would be battering down the door for this wonderful piece. As things turned out, it took us about a year to sell it.

“About that time downtown was on its way out. They were about to declare a moratorium on downtown then. But it hadn’t been declared quite yet. The Union then was just around the corner on Third Street. Donald Freeman, the TV critic who was fascinated with the books of A.J. Liebling — he thought Liebling was the greatest writer of all time — he was in all the time. Nelson Fisher, who was the great Del Mar handicapper, would come in. Hans Conried and Red Skelton came in.

“Dr. Szekely, the husband of the founder of the Golden Door, visited us often. ’Dr. Zeke,’ Vernon Wahrenbrock used to call him. A jovial guy, Dr. Zeke. He was probably five-nine, five-ten, but a real Mister Five-by-Five, quite heavyset. Around that time, Ford had just come out with their Econoline vans with double doors.

Dr. Zeke bought one. The double doors would open, and there Dr. Zeke’d be in a great huge armchair, sitting in the back of that van, out in front of the book shop. Someone once said to Dr. Zeke, ‘You starve those people who come to the Golden Door, and look at you.’ Dr. Zeke was supposed to have patted his belly and said. ‘This is not fat, this is very good living.’

‘‘There was a wonderful celebrity who used to come in. A universal traveler. He knew about the hollow earth. ‘The poles are not really the poles, they are entrances to the inside of the Earth.’ Because he had been there. He had done all sort of metaphysical things. He had done astral projection — the art of leaving one's body and going around the universe. ‘You should never come back to your body too fast. You come up against your spine and you can have a headache for three days!’ ”

In 1966 Bill Tollefson left Wahrenbrock's and went to work for Barnes & Noble as a salesman. “I never found a bookstore the caliber of this one, that had the depth and breadth of titles. There were lots of specialists, but no one could compare to the volume and quality of books this store had and still has. There are titles here that I handled, and they are still here. Someday the right person for the right book will come along, and it will be here.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad