Herman Irwin gives a thousand books a day to jail mates

The Johnny Appleseed of books

"Hi, I'm Herman Irwin, the book man. I acquire books. I sort them and I bring them to the people who can appreciate them. I'm in jails, prisons, literacy groups for children, seniors, people in recovery — in short, anybody who wants to read and learn. I would love any books you might have kicking around, or if you hear of anyone who wants books — no strings attached — just call me. I am Herman the book man."

Herman starts writing my article for me, his arm raised in the heat of composition: "I've met a lot of people in my life, but no one has that glow about him ... Herman! Herman! Herman!... That little Jewish bald guy from Chicago...."

Eight years ago, Herman retired from his appliance sales and repair company in Chicago and moved with his wife, Bunny, to San Diego to spend his sunset years on a sunny beach. Instead, he located a need in his new community and became a Johnny Appleseed of books. His one-man program gives a away a thousand books a day, seven days a week.

Herman is short, tan, solid — even his little paunch looks solid. In Italy they'd call him a bull. He's dressed for the heat in Bermuda shorts and a fiery red shirt. His features are big and his manners are direct, from caring to confrontational. Like other obsessed people I've encountered, Herman is fortunate to have an easygoing mate who adores him. Bunny didn't want me to miss Herman's wall of engraved plaques, testimonials, and citations. "Oh yeah," he mugs, "I got her bullshitted.

"Whatever I do, I do flat-out. I was able to retire at age 55. I'm 63, but shit, man, I can outwork three 20-year-olds. I'm very physical, focused, on time."

We are in Herman's van, driving a load of books down to the prisons and jails in Otay Mesa. There are four facilities here. "They all have world-class libraries thanks to the generosity of the people of San Diego," Herman says."About 80 percent of my material is donated, 20 percent I buy."

Where did you get this idea?

"A prison teacher complained that the inmates had nothing to read. No easy reading, no paperbacks, no magazines. Now, here's the Catch-22: they have walls full of hardcover books, but the law says you cannot circulate a hardcover book, so sure, you've got a library, but you can't get to the books.

"I have books within the modules in every jail, in every prison, in every juvey hall, in every probation center, in every work furlough. Anyone who thinks the written word is dead, passe — man, they got to get into the jail system, they got to get into the homeless areas, into City College where I bring six to eight hundred books every day.

"I have 123 libraries. Used bookstores have been awfully good to me. Friends of the Library have been awfully good to me. A group called the Nice Guys — possibly the greatest group I've ever met — put their money where their mouth is. They sat me down and said, "Herman, what do you want?" "We are riding in their gift: a Plymouth Voyager, extended body, doors on both sides, heavy-duty all the way around: $27,000. Herman tells me they even picked up the DMV. "They're business people who party hard and raise money within the group to support individuals who do not take government funding, kids who want to go to college, someone who needs a wheelchair.

"People do care about other people. I focus on good people in all strata: money doesn't mean squat. I have never said no to anybody on any book I can possibly get, because people do not say no to me. When I give books to you, I say, 'Rule number one with Herman is that there's no rule number two.' No reports, no nothing. They call and say, 'Herman, we need books,' I said, 'Fine, I'll see you tomorrow.'"

How do you pay for your program?

"I devote eight to ten thousand dollars a year of my own money to it. I don't spend it, I invest it. I'm cost-effective if I keep one man or woman out of the jail system. Not only does it cost a lot to prosecute and incarcerate one individual, but then you make that individual's family dependent on the system to support them. So who's the fool? I think we are. I'm a great law-and-order man. I believe, 'Don't do the crime unless you can do the time.' But a lot of people inside are not criminals, they're stupid. They did a stupid act. They went behind a grocery store and took a six-pack of beer. How much is a sic-pack worth, a couple of dollars? Call me, I'll be delighted to reimburse the grocery store, but no.

"I'll give you another classic example. A guy finds a shopping cart along here, and for 90 percent of the homeless, that's their primary means of transportation. The first offense, that's a misdemeanor. Second time, that's a felony — they can be incarcerated 12 to 18 months. You have a jillion shopping carts kicking around the city. Make them available to people who have to get around with their things. Do not crowd the jails with victimless crimes."

Herman pays for his program to avoid being controlled from above. He prays, "Please, government, do not get in my face. I don't want you, I don't need you. I'm anti-leading-by-consensus, anti-cover-your-own-ass, anti-deal-by-memo." About any politician he will say, "You know he's bullshitting because his lips are moving."

Herman points out the beauty of a jet taxiing past us. We are climbing Otay Mesa, five square miles containing one of the largest penal colonies in the country. The area is wasteland from one point of view, virgin Calfornia desert from another. A hawk circles above us; a dog lies dead in the road.

We drive past Donovan, the state prison that houses 6000. It looks like a city on a hill, except this city is bleak, gray, without a single visible human or bit of green. The Mexican border is a mile and a half down the road. We drive around a bend through a dead space of fences and barbed wire and park in a lot between two jails. East Mesa Detention Facilitiy and George F. Bailey Detention Facility. Behind Bailey is the city jail commonly referred to as Wackenhutt.

Herman shows me the gardens and gazebos at East Mesa. Helped by deputies, the inmates have constructed a park with waterfalls, rock gardens, jacaranda trees, and a nursery. "People want to make things better, they want to create and take pride within themselves," Herman says. "None of this chain-gang bullshit."

The first Santa Ana of the year fans a fire on the hillside. The whole sky is pinky-gray, and huge clouds rear up overhead. Women — prison staff — are having coffee on the patio, chatting and laughing. Thick ashes fall from above.

Herman introduces me to a counselor from Bailey and some staff. "Inside, the counselor is almost God. He's the guy who can run your paperwork, he's the guy that can make things happen for you. I've get to meet a counselor who is less than 110 percent. They come to me on their own time to get books. So there is love, there is compassion, there is interplay."

We are unloading boxes onto a gurney. Today Herman is a celebrity; yesterday he carried the Olympic torch a kilometer through San Diego. Everyone we meet asks him to recount the experience. They all want to know what the torch was like, and Herman explains in detail. Wife Bunny won him the honor by writing a paragraph describing him to United Way. For the first time, I get to handle the books, and I'm surprised by the variety: Jane Austen, Milton, Michener, Danielle Steel. We get a Coke. Hot wind is sheeting off the fire.

The counselor tells me Bailey is a mixed bag. Inmates range from lightweight criminals who violated probation by failing to do their work project so murderers — and everything in between.

Herman provides almost all the books for the facility. Some inmates that attend Bailey's high school equivalency classes have gone from illiteracy to reading and writing. The teacher uses Herman's books to get them started. Regular textbooks don't engage them, but Herman's books do.

The counselor describes the inmates' lack of privacy. Individual modules hold 64 at a minimum, and when an inmate says he can't cope, the only thing officials can suggest is to enroll in a class, find religion, find a book. An issue of Reader's Digest will keep a prisoner busy for days, I'm told. It gets him over the hump, keeps the tension down. It's an escape.

Before Herman's library, the counselor tells me, inmates were banging their heads, going stir crazy; the noise level was intolerable. After the books arrived, the staff said, 'Hey, did everybody go home? It's so quiet!"

Sometimes Herman talks to a class of inmates. "I show them how to develop their own businesses. "You're a landscape gardener, you're an upholsterer. I was a washer-dryer repairman.' Their eyes are focused on what I'm saying. I make a difference because I don't talk bullshit.

"Body language is critical. I say, 'You're a man, you don't have to keep proving that every day. Somebody gets in your face, laugh at them and let it go. I believe in them — that's the key. I have a short shrift for people who say, 'I'll take care of that,' and they don't follow through. They're on my shit list, and nobody wants to be on that. Your word always must be your bond, especially when you're dealing with people who are very vulnerable. You got to walk the talk. Isn't that a good expression? Man, you walk the talk."

Herman had his first business when he was eight — a newsstand in front of a movie theater. He left high school and took over an appliance store when he was 16. If he's learned from books, he's learned from the street in equal measure, and his disjunctive parts make him a genius at what he does.

Herman believes in books, but more remarkable is his faith in the power of personal contact in a society that is increasingly skeptical about such encounters. "Some black dudes wanted Goines — a black author who writes this one dies and that one got shot by this pimp, I asked 'Why do you read this shit?" And they said, 'That's our real life.' I bought them a couple, three books by Goines — what did it cost me, five bucks? But the fact that I would buy them this material, it freaks them out.

"These people in the jail system have been told they are shit all their lives, but when Herman comes in and gives them something to read, it says they're worth something. I'll never meet 98 percent of these people face to face, but I'm constantly bringing them books. Why? Because they're going to be my neighbor, your neighbor."

What do inmates ask for most often?

"Number one request is poetry. Number two is westerns."

WE CHECK OUR IDs and I surrender my tape recorder. We’re hauling books to Bailey’s library. Herman tells me that when they had a shakedown, what most angered the inmates was that the deputies did not treat their books with respect. “These were guys doing time for murder. They were into a book, and then these deputies came in and threw [the books] around and pushed them with a broom — ‘Hey, that’s our stuff!’"

We are escorted back to a small library that Herman has personalized with a dedication to his father. A brass plaque reads, “George F. Bailey Detention Facility Library, Door to Truth and Love, In Memory of Harry Herman, 1993.” (The library at East Mesa is dedicated to Herman’s mother, Minnie, “The Lover of All People.”) An inmate is watching the library, and everyone but Herman is tense about our unexpected contact with the inmate, including the inmate, who averts his eyes. Herman engages him immediately, asking about the library’s needs and uses. Need more books? More are on the way.

THE GARAGES HERMAN RENTS next to his condo in San Carlos are crammed with books. As we load up the van for a trip downtown, I start to window-shop. A first-edition Tennyson. An exquisite Thumbelina pop-up book from the ’40s. “I have a three-year-old son who’s into Thumbelina,” I hint.

Herman gives me the book. “When you read it, tell him it’s from Herman the Book man and that I love him.” Reading my expression, Herman adds, “I don’t know him, but a child can’t have too much love."

We are back in the van on our way to the shelters, all in the same downtown area — St. Vincent de Paul, San Diego Rescue Mission, and the Neil Good Day Center, operated by the Alpha Project for the Homeless. “The homeless are avid readers, and I’ve got to be here at least twice a week. The Neil Good Day Center is a drop-in resource for the homeless named after a gay activist that people adored. It’s run by Robert McElroy. He has my complete admiration and respect. His concepts are very simple: you detox somebody, let them know you care enough about them, you train them to get a job, and you work within the community to get those jobs up and running. And that’s what the man does.”

The homeless shelter is crowded, but it does not sweat misery — it’s well run, lively, and clean. “Hello, I’m Herman the book man.” Herman’s on.

A young man a third Herman’s age and twice his size puts his face in Herman’s and says, “I don’t believe you carried any Olympic torch." He thinks he’s giving Herman a hard time. When Herman asks his name, the guy says, “Bullshit” Herman’s face cranes up to an inch of the other guy’s. He barks good-naturedly, “Is Bullshit your first name or is Bullshit your last name?”

The other dude backs off with “My middle name,” but he’s wearing a loser’s grin.

People approach Herman and make specific requests, especially for sci-fi. A weathered blond with a smashed-in face takes Winnie the Pooh out of his knapsack and shows it to a man reading a newspaper. Nearly everyone is settled in with a book. “I guess I’m the ultimate recycler,” Herman says. “He’s homeless, he’s on the street, he’s lower than whale shit, but you bring him something to read, and the vibes, man — I love them, I thrive on them.”

Later I ask Robert McElroy to describe the effect of Herman’s program on the Neil Good Day Center. “For this facility, Herman is a godsend. He went on vacation once. We ran out of books, and the morale of the whole place ran down. You can see it on the streets: because of Herman, people are sitting around with a book instead of a 40-ouncer. He busts his butt. And he doesn’t just dump boxes of books here. Herman gives from his heart. He knows everyone by first name, and he asks individuals if they have a special order. He’ll pay out-of-pocket to buy Bibles and any kind of religious book, or to buy technical books for the people at Casa Raphael [a live-in recovery program] who are taking classes at City College. We even pass the hat, collecting nickels and dimes for his fuel.

“Herman is the epitome of an angel in the flesh. He’s Jewish and I’m Christian, and we meet in the middle. He inspires me. Every time I want to quit, he makes me want to stay.”

HERMAN AND I SET DOWN about 600 books next to D Building at the downtown campus of City College. Herman is keyed into his constituents: he’s always looking for simpler books because so many students at City use English as their second language. He also scouts out books in Spanish and Vietnamese. "I’m working as fast as I can and as hard as I can,” he explains as we walk across campus. "Inside the last year, I’ve given the art and graphic art department a complete library.” Herman had been amassing these art books for years, waiting for the right school to place them. He’s also given libraries to the music and law departments at City College.

He recognizes a homeless boy and calls to him, “I want that hat! Wanna sell me that hat? Whatcha need for that hat?" People who know Herman start picking through the lot of books. “There are people here who were raised behind the Iron Curtain, and they’ve left everything there. One young lady from Romania said, ‘I had this book in Romania and I couldn’t take it.’ Her eyes lit up, and you could see in her face that each book was a treasure, and I could see the delight she had in the written word.”

Herman has an unshakable belief in the power of a book to do good. I was taught as a child that when I dropped a book with God’s name in it, I should kiss it. How would I know if a book contained God’s name? I was instructed to kiss it anyway, just to be on the safe side. This reverence for books I associate with the Jewish culture I was raised in, and it is no surprise that Herman is also Jewish, that he also comes from a home where books were honored. I do not kiss books anymore — some I love, some I hate — but Herman has convinced me of the value of his program and his love for the people who use it.

“I’ve learned to count on the loving and caring people of San Diego. If anybody wants to contribute a couple of bucks. I’m not opposed. Donations, donations of books. If somebody owned a gas station and said, ‘Herman, you can come in and gas up once a week.’ Have some books? Bring them to me. Don’t make me go out and schlep them.

“Last time I was at a jail in Chula Vista, one of the guys said he’d like to have something by Shakespeare. Okay, I found Shakespeare. But the book was hardcover, and you can’t have hardcover inside. I say, ‘Here’s your Shakespeare,’ and I see his face fall. I say, ‘Oh, hardcover?’ and I rip the cover off the book. ‘Now you’ve got a softcover book, nobody can take it away from you.’ I destroyed the book, but it was more important for him to say, ‘Shit, man, the guy did that for me?' "

Herman Irwin can be readied at 582-4188. — Robert Glück

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