Go to the Book Arts Jam on Oct. 16

Not all books are meant to be read. Some are made to be admired. Those who appreciate the process involved in book-making, or who prefer books with accordion-pleated pages and odd-shaped covers over the conventional rectangular format, should come to the ninth-annual Book Arts Jam at Foothill College on Oct. 16.

The free event, co-sponsored by Bay Area Book Artists (BABA) and Foothill College—which offers classes in print and book arts like letterpress printing and bookbinding—will give attendees a chance to observe the creative processes and products utilized and created by local artists, binders and printers. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., over 50 artists will exhibit and sell works like miniature books, journals, specialty paper and zines.

Below are interviews with two of the artists who will be part of this year’s Book Arts Jam. First, Santa Cruz native Suzanne Weinert, a book jewelry maker as well as a binder and artist of miniature books, and then Elaine Benjamin, who runs the book arts studio Blue Chair Press in Blue Lake, CA.

Artist Suzanne Weinert shows off one of her miniature books.

Suzanne Weinert
Tell me about some of the things you’ll be exhibiting at this year’s Book Jam:
I will be selling all of my book jewelry, and my miniature one-of-a-kind and edition artists’ books. I am excited to introduce a new line of book earrings which include text inside! (details below).

Will everything in your exhibit be for sale?:

How did you become involved in book arts, and what do you like about using books as an art medium?
I have been making books ever since I was a child. My parents, Peter and Donna Thomas, are book artists as well. I love working in miniature (under 3 inches) because  it is so easy to transport and store miniatures. Of course, I also love the feeling of miniatures. It is such a treasure to hold a small book in your hand.

Book pins by Suzanne Weinert.

How did you get the idea to make book jewelry, and how long have you been doing these pieces?:
The idea for book earrings and book pins actually came from my parents. However, I have been making and selling book jewelry for a few years now.

What materials do you use to make your book jewelry?:
To make my book jewelry I use basic book binding and jewelry making supplies. The jewelry is covered in colorful marbled papers, and I use my father’s handmade paper for the book block.

Do you ever include text in the tiny jewelry books?:
I have handwritten in a few of my book necklaces (it is much easier to write in them before binding!) Also, I have just made a new line of earrings which hold text from the index of an old atlas. I am experimenting with the idea of text inside. I am excited to see what people think of the atlas text! I will have those earrings at the Book Jam this year.

What’s the smallest book you’ve ever made?:
The smallest book I’ve ever made was the same size as the book earrings (3/4″ x 1/2″). It was a gift to my husband, and it was impressive because I actually wrote inside of it and did illustrations. It hurts my eyes to work so small though! I’ll stick with slightly bigger from now on.

Have you been to the Book Arts Jam before? What do you think of it?
This will be my third year at the Book Jam. It is my favorite show of the year because everyone who attends seems to be so darn excited about books. I hope for high energy that day, as I will be just one week from my due date! Keep your eyes open for the huge belly.

Elaine Benjamin
Tell me about some of the things you’ll be exhibiting at this year’s Book Jam:
The book I’m most excited about this Book Arts Jam is one I just finished, “Vincent’s Quilt.” I wrote the story about ten years ago but just hadn’t come up with how to illustrate it until now. It’s an imagined story about Vincent van Gough using many of his words and phrases, actually paying homage to his incredible writing skills as well as his art. My new book last year was a little flag book titled “I Am” and it just used one of van Gough’s quotes: “I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.” Any artist (or dancer or musician) who is passionate about her work recognizes the feeling!!

How did you become involved in book arts, and what do you like about using books as an art medium?:
My art degree had an emphasis on printmaking. Just before I graduated (as a re-entry student in my mid-40s), another Humboldt County artist, Shereen LaPlantz, was exploring book arts and invited a few of us into her studio for “playdays.” Some of what we learned and created became part of her book “Cover to Cover.” I love the medium because it combines art and craft as well as text.

Vegetable art book by Elaine Benjamin

What are some recent projects you’ve been working on?:
“Vincent’s Quilt” is my biggest project. The images bleed all the way to the edges and it was really tricky to work with signatures with that element. I’ve also been experimenting with writing stories on dried gourds. The words wrap around the shape and the reader has to turn it to continue, allowing the dried seeds inside to shift and rattle and add to the story.

As a book artist, you are essentially taking the traditional book format and expanding it into something more creative. How do you determine the physical shape/format each piece will take?:
The content almost always comes first. If it’s a long story, then I need to go to more of a traditional structure (usually coptic binding). But for something that just wants to showcase images, it’s hard to beat a concertina. At exhibits, it’s the concertina that stands out and catches someone’s eye.

Book Arts Jam: Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills, California. Free / Parking: $2.


Oakland’s Book Zoo Relocating from Telegraph to Glen Avenue

I met with Erik Lyngen, owner of Oakland’s used bookstore the Book Zoo, last week, to talk about the store’s relocation from the car-heavy intersection of Alcatraz and Telegraph avenues to the more pedestrian-friendly Glen and Piedmont avenues at the beginning of October.

At the time of our interview, about a week before he closed up the old space, it seemed like Lyngen had quite a task ahead of him: moving the thousands of books that lined and filled and spilled off the walls of the Telegraph Avenue shop. But Lyngen said he planned to bring only about 20 percent of his current collection to the new, smaller spot on Glen Avenue, and has since been selling off the bulk of his stock for just a dollar a book.

Just some of the thousands of books that spill over the floors and walls of the old Book Zoo.

“This has been a time to sort of flush the toilet or something,” he explained. “Some of these books have been here since seven years ago when we opened—and that’s ridiculous.”

Listen to the interview below for some of Lyngen’s thoughts on moving to a new neighborhood and saying goodbye to the old.

The new Book Zoo, located at 14 Glen Avenue in Oakland, opens either Oct. 9 or 10. E-mail info@bookzoo.net for more information.

Reading is a Right

A banned books window display outside Pegasus Books in Oakland.

Today is the last day of Banned Books Week, where bookstores, schools and libraries across the country celebrate the First Amendment and the right to read.

I think most of us can remember being in a grade school library, flipping through a dictionary or scanning a teen romance novel for especially dirty words or salacious sentences that were otherwise not taught in the walls of an elementary, middle or high school classroom. As I remember it, these “bad” words and phrases mostly evoked giggles and snorts from me and my classmates, but were really no more vulgar than the language used outside of class (language arguably picked up not just from the pages of books, but from the speakers of TV sets and the mouths of older siblings).

Ultimately, for myself and those other kids who preferred reading over reciting random expletives, books with arguably “mature” language and ideas—like Judy Blume’s “Are you there God, It’s me, Margaret” and Robert Cormier’s “I am the Cheese”—were invaluable stories that made us better readers, thinkers and book lovers.

According to the American Library Association, the majority of book censorship requests are made by concerned parents, usually against texts in schools and school libraries and primarily over content involving sex, profanity or racism. The ALA recorded 460 challenges to books in 2009, but said about 85 percent of attempted or successful book censorship goes unreported each year.

In recognition of Banned Books Week, the ALA, along with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, put together an interactive map of reported attempts and successful challenges of books across the country from 2007 to 2010. The map is an eerie indication of how often numerous books—including really wonderful classics like “The Catcher in the Rye”—face potential censorship.

Though not every attempt to ban a book is successful or even taken seriously by literary authorities, “challenges are as important to document as actual bannings, in which a book is removed from the shelves of a library or bookstore or from the curriculum at a school,” the ALA announced in a recent press release.

“Attempts to censor can lead to voluntary restriction of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy; in these cases, material may not be published at all or may not be purchased by a bookstore, library, or school district,” the organization explained.

Though the banned books map reveals a much higher density of censorship cases on the eastern half of the U.S., beginning with a noticeable smattering throughout Texas that sweeps over to Florida and up into Maine, books on the West Coast have sparked some controversy as well.

The map reveals only one documented attempt to ban a book in the Bay Area in the past three years (the next closest case was in Lodi, in the central Valley). According to the map, in 2007 two parents in the Mount Diablo Unified School District challenged Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” for “its descriptions of adolescent pill use, suicide and lethal injections given to babies and the elderly.” The Concord school district was hardly the first place the novel’s content was disputed: It ranked 23 on the ALA’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of 2000-2009.

In a letter written to the editor of the Bay Area News Group in Nov. 2007, Claire Karpen, then youth coordinator for the National Coalition Against Censorship, urged the school district to keep Lowry’s award-winning book on its shelves, pointing out that the book was merely part of the district’s grade six optional reading list anyway.

Check out this blog post on the website Suvudu.com for a lengthy explanation of Lowry’s book and some of the controversy that has surrounded it.

Part of a banned books window display at Pegasus Books in Oakland.

Reading Without Seeing

Not everyone reads words with their eyes. For those who are blind or visually impaired, reading is accomplished through gliding the fingertips over a series of Braille symbols.
Even if the majority of us either don’t notice or can’t read it, we encounter Braille pretty regularly. It’s posted on placards at ATM machines, pay phones and bus stops: little plastic dots, forming what seem to untrained fingers to be incoherent patterns and shapes. Sometimes I catch myself thoughtlessly running my hands across the cryptic bumps while I deposit my paycheck or wait for the bus.

I recently came across the website of an Oakland woman named Lea Redmond, whose online store Leafcutter Designs is filled with creative projects and products both for sale and perusal. Redmond has expanded on the standard Braille medium of raised paper and plastic dots, using materials like mustard seeds and sandpaper to spell out letters and words in the Braille alphabet. She sells these custom works on her site for about $30 a sentence, and will construct texts out of any medium requested (I imagine this excludes liquids or other similarly unsuitable materials).

Braille work by Lea Redmond

What follows is a brief e-mail Q&A I did with Redmond about her Braille works. Though she said she’s only actually constructed a handful of the pieces (and never for a paying customer), I was still curious to hear more about her project:

When did you start making Braille out of unusual materials?
A few years ago.

Do you read Braille yourself?
A couple years ago, I memorized the Braille alphabet, but I’m very rusty with it right now.

Artist Lea Redmond

How did you come up with the Braille idea?
There is a beautiful passage in a Barry Lopez book (River Notes), in which he talks about laying on the beach with his eyes closed and feeling the grains of sand between his fingers as if they were Braille (I’d quote it, but loaned the book to a friend last week!). I simply thought this was beautiful and lovely. I’m really into both words and materials, and how they are both language, so combining the two into one via the form of Braille is really exciting to me.

How long does it take to fulfill a typical order?
I can easily spend a few hours on just a couple of sentences.

What are some of the different items you’ve used for your works?
Plastic wiggly eyes, mustard seeds, sandpaper dots, clay, grains of salt.

What’s the strangest medium you’ve used so far?
I guess the wiggly eyes—they are just so weird. And I like the irony of their being eyes, yet you’re supposed to be reading it with your eyes closed.

And the most difficult to work with?
The most difficult Braille piece I do is a little performance piece involving salt. It is an intimate piece for just one “audience” member at a time. It begins with a salt shaker and curious interactive questions and statistics about the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

I shake salt on the table at one point and use a needle to arrange the grains into the Braille for “these are actually stars.” Before I tell them what it says, I ask them to read it and insist they read it with their finger (thereby messing up my tedious labor for the last 10 minutes with the needle).

After sweeping the salt on the table into a galactic, spiraling shape, I gather it together and put it in a small container with a tiny scroll that says, “You are a descendant of stardust,” and give it to my audience/participant. I say, “This is not for you; you are for it.” (A favorite line from the movie Everything is Illuminated.)

What is your favorite material you’ve used?
Besides the salt performance, which is to me the most exciting, challenging form, I really liked my sandpaper dot piece. I transcribed the Barry Lopez passage into sandpaper circles, so that you have the experience of touching sand as you run your fingers over the dots. I like this. I sent it to Barry Lopez as a gift. ♥

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After our interview I tracked down the Barry Lopez passage Redmond said was the inspiration for her project:

“I have been here, I think, for years. I have spent nights with my palms flat on the sand, tracing the grains for hours like Braille until I had the pattern precisely…”

Used Book Floor-Scores in Rockridge

Part of my book collection.

Like anyone with a modest book collection, I’ve amassed my books from all kinds of people and places. Some were assigned to me in college classes and were interesting enough to hold onto. Others I paid full price for at bookstores with money maybe better spent on food or rent. But a lot of the books I own are those I’ve found while walking around Oakland and Berkeley (which I do a lot of since I don’t have a car).

Low-traffic residential areas around town have proved to be goldmines for discarded books and magazines, which are regularly piled in boxes on sidewalks with the word FREE scrawled somewhere in the vicinity. Maybe the previous owners of such freebies tried to hawk them at nearby bookstores with no luck, or maybe they just wanted them out of their sight. Either way, I’m always happy to take a book off someone’s hands if it looks interesting enough.

Below are some of my favorite and/or most recent scores—coincidentally all from Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, which seems to have new boxes of free books every time I walk through it.

Contemporary Architectural Drawings: Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library
I found this book just yesterday in a box on the corner of 63rd and Colby streets on my way home from Cole Coffee. It was wedged between a bunch of old Nation weeklies and some old skate shoes. I’m not  especially interested in 20th century architecture, but my boyfriend grabbed this one up for the cool line drawings and sketches inside. He might use some of the images for future poster art—but this one may just sit on my book shelf and get dusty…

From Girls to Grrrlz – A History of ♀ Comics from Teens to Zines: Trina Robbins
I found this book about a year ago while jogging up Claremont Avenue. Because I still had to finish my run up the big hill before I headed back down and in the direction of my house, I hid this gem in some bushes so no one could snag it before I came back. It’s kind of awkward to run with a book in your hands—and probably dangerous too, if you’re trying to avoid paper cuts—so after retrieving it from the foliage I walked briskly back home with it.

I had a zine from the time I was about 15 to 17. It was called Octopi are Jellyfish and I’d be surprised if any copies still exist (this is probably for the best). So naturally this book, filled with histories of ‘90s riot grrrl comics and zines, plus a history of girl-centric comics stretching all the way back to the the ‘40s, sparked in me some sentimental memories of days spent doodling, typing on my typewriter and Xeroxing copies of my little book to trade and sell with other zinesters. This book retails for up to 130 bucks on Amazon, so I was very lucky to find it for free.

Life in Russia: Michael Binyon
All the President’s Men: Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Ten Days that Shook the World: John Reed
I can’t recall the exact Rockridge street where I found these books about a month ago, but whoever put them in front of their house has great taste! Most free boxes, if they have anything inside besides outdated magazines and textbooks, offer only one or maybe two books worth lugging home.

But this was an especially fortuitous find: I discovered all three of these books in the same box. This was right before school began and I started taking a history class about the Russian Revolution, so I scooped up “Ten Days that Shook the World” and “Life in Russia” thinking I’d use the paperbacks for follow-up reading after the semester. Unfortunately—and maybe it’s because I wasn’t endowed at birth with a natural understanding of socialism, Bolshevism or Marxism, nor did I take much time to better comprehend them later in life—the class lectures were terribly esoteric and I had to drop the course about three weeks into the semester. I’ll still read these books though, and maybe even decipher some of what it was that my teacher was talking at me about.

And of course I picked up “All the President’s Men”: I’m a journalism student.

Book Lovers’ Book Blogs

I spent the last week or so combing the web to see how Bay Area bloggers and news organizations are covering the local book scene, and found enough literary blogs to fill a pretty sizable tome. Turns out plenty of readers, writers and retailers alike are using blogs as forums for announcing upcoming local literary events, sharing book reviews and drumming up support for independent bookstores.

Obviously I could not list each and every bookish blog that I found, nor did I find every one out there. But what follows are some highlights and observations from my search.


Not Your Mother’s Book Club, a club started by Books Inc., holds monthly book parties geared toward teenagers at Books Inc. stores in San Francisco, Berkeley and Palo Alto. The group’s blog features author interviews and upcoming book club events. Proof that this book club is a pretty rad resource for teens, and definitely not “your mother’s book club”: NYMBC once had Judy Blume, the wonderful and sassy and sometimes-controversial writer of young adult fiction, as a guest speaker (Blume, by the way, has a blog of her own).


The Bay Area has some wonderful independent bookstores, some of which have some pretty cool blogs to boot. The Northern California Independent Bookseller’s Association has an extenProxy-Connection: keep-alive
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ve list of local bookstore blogs from stores across the Bay Area.

Pegasus Books, a new and used bookstore with spots in Oakland and Berkeley, has a blog, of sorts, featured prominently on its homepage with videos of book readings and lists of newly available rare books.

Green Apple Books, on Clement St. in San Francisco, has one of the most updated and entertaining blogs I found in my search. Green Apple turned me on to Litquake, a week-long literary fest coming up in October, which will feature writers like Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle and an event called “Words and Waves: an Evening of Surf Lit.,” among other things.

The Book Zoo has a blog/news page designated mostly for sharing news articles written about the shop, as well as some video footage of a past in-store show. I noticed a big “moving sale” sign in its windows when I rode my bike past the other day, though I see no mention of the relocation on the store’s site. It could be that the owners have been too busy packing up their inventory to announce the location change online, but I suspect the store relies less on blogging and more on its patrons’ word-of-mouth, along with the store itself, to get information out.


The Chronicle has a nice interactive book section devoted to books. It’s filled with regularly updated reviews, best-seller lists and book-related columns and features—some of which also appear in the paper’s print edition. John McMurtrie did a cute story on bookstore cats last month. I love bookstore cats. So much so that I saved the article so I can remember the names and favorite foods of all the local bookstore felines.

Lastly—and I know this is technically a New York-based blog—but Book-by-its-cover.com is a beautifully designed and absolutely engrossing website that I think any arts-related blogger could take inspiration from. The author, Julia Rothman, does author and artist interviews (some with Bay Area folks) and shares pictures and stories of some of the cool books she’s collected over the years. It goes way beyond the template-y format of most blogs and is saturated with detailed color photos of books. Now to find a local blog in this vein…or start my own!