Episode 194 – Bob Eckstein


Virtual Memories Show #194: Bob Eckstein

“This book has three things I love: bookstores, painting and name-dropping.”

Artist, writer, humorist and cartoonist Bob Eckstein joins the show to talk about his wonderful new book, Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers. We get into the origins of the project, how he survived the sheer volume of bookstore-cat stories, how he once got dirty in the back of the Strand Bookstore, getting introduced to art by Sports Illustrated, a great lesson in comic timing, getting a late start in cartooning but making up for lost time, marrying his biggest enemy from art school (and eloping to Iceland), becoming a champion of bookstore culture, and more! Give it a listen! And go buy Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores!

“I got paid the same amount of money doing pieces for the New York Times in 1982 and 1983 as I get paid now.”


We also talk about the collapsing economics of illustration, cartooning, and pretty much every other field Bob pursues, doing seven years of research on The History of the Snowman (in which he discovered some amazing stuff) and accidentally shooting down a TV project based on it, how Footnotes taught him that people’s real story isn’t always the one they think they’re telling you, his exultation at selling his very first submission to The New Yorker and his puzzlement when he didn’t sell another one there for a year, what makes for a good bookstore, the benefits of eavesdropping, and more! Now go listen to the show!

“Every bookstore is thousands of peoples’ dreams, either fulfilled or unfulfilled. Everyone’s life project is on the shelf. And it’s where people’s dreams are going to get triggered.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

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About our Guest

Bob Eckstein is an illustrator, writer and cartoonist. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among many other publications. He is also known as the world’s leading snowman expert and is the author of the holiday classic, The History of the Snowman. He lives in New York City.

There’s a much more extensive (and funny) bio of him at bobeckstein.com.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at stately Virtual Memories Manor on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Eckstein & Rufus T. Firefly Roth by me.

Bigger Than Tina

On the heels of yesterday’s announcement about Faiz K.’s new baby, another dutiful VM reader has great news to share: my favorite Australian is getting hitched!

No, not Jacko! He’s washed up!

No, not Michael Hutchence! He died under weird circumstances!

No, not Paul Hogan! What happened to him, anyway?

The Australian who’s getting married is none other than Tina B.!

Pictured here at Petra, which is nowhere near Australia! Good luck to her and Brendan (the wedding’s not for another 13 months, but hey)! It just goes to show you, dear readers: Love conquers all, including the Coriolis Effect!

(VM Bonus: Tina took two of the greatest photos of me ever: looking cute, and shitscared.)

Update: After Tina’s protest (see comments), I found a pic she sent of her and Brendan at Lord Howe Island. I’m just glad she remembered that I have those terrible pix of her table-dancing in a C&W bar in Nelson, NZ. Fortunately, no photographic evidence exists of me throwing down to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck:

You stay classy, San Diego. I’m Ron Burgundy?

We made it back from San Diego, dear readers! My friends’ wedding was wonderful and joyous, and I got to embarrass myself when I was called one to do Just One Thing: introduce the new couple.

I stood by the gate that led into the reception in the courtyard of the church, got everyone’s attention, and announced, “It’s with the greatest joy that I introduce Ian and Jessica Kelley!”

At that moment, the delivery truck for Raphael’s Party Rentals pulled up outside the gate. Ian & Jess were not in this pickup truck, and the photographer was not excited about taking pictures of the bride & groom with Raphael’s truck in the background.

So the wedding planner asked the truck to move. I waited till I definitely saw the happy couple a few steps from the gate, and said, “It is with slightly less spontaneity but just as much joy that I introduce Ian & Jessica Kelley!”

And everything worked out. There are even pictures, if you don’t believe me. (Amy will post hers soon, and they’re SO much better than mine, so check back at her site for them.)

High School Booze-ical

The weekend high school mini-reunion plans changed quickly, so I took a half-day at work Friday and headed down to Pennsylvania for an evening of shooting the breeze over dinner & drinks.

I took the long way down from northern NJ (287, 206, 95), so as to avoid the Garden State Parkway and get a chance to stop in Princeton. I’ve always enjoyed Princeton, though I don’t think I’ve been to the campus more than once (my brother was looking for some Greek texts). This time, I hit Micawber Books and its used section, thought about the piles of books on the floor of my library downstairs, and didn’t buy anything. That was followed by a visit to Princeton Record Exchange, where I picked up a couple of used records (Madonna and Delerium), and got a present for the family who were putting me up on Friday night.

From there, it was off to the races. I got into Media/Swarthmore around 5:30, after the sun was down. I mention this because, due to traffic, I had to drive in from a different direction, and I got utterly lost in the dark. I ended up getting my bearings only when I realized I was about to turn onto the street where my mom lived from 1988 to 2000.

She & I moved down to the area in 1988, just before my senior year of high school. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I’ve managed to stay in touch with many more friends from that single year than I have from the 17 years I grew here in NJ. Before going out to dinner, I talked for a while with my hosts, the parents of my buddy John. They’d always extended kindness my way, including this weekend, when they put me up on little notice.

John’s parents marveled over the impromptu weekend reunion. They said they were amazed at how well this group of friends stayed in touch over the years. I pointed out that it was a lot easier to do so thanks to e-mail, but they felt that I wasn’t giving us all enough credit. After all, plenty of people have managed to lose touch even in the age of e-mail. I conceded, and it got me wondering about what keeps this group of friends together, even when so many of us have moved away, are starting families, have busy jobs, and all the other excuses most people have.

The night’s festivities were in walking/stumbling distance of the house. We had John’s mom drop us off at the restaurant, so we could just amble home at the end of the night. She said, “Now, if you need a ride home at any time, just call me.”

I said, “Don’t worry; we’re not going to steal a car and drive drunk back to the house. John’s a got a one-year-old kid, and if I get one more conviction, it’s my ass.”

She laughed.

About half the crowd was waiting when John & I walked into the Iron Hill Brewery. There was one “outsider” present, but only because one of our guys was trying to cram a ton of friend & family visits into this weekend, so we didn’t give him any guff. For my part, I was hoping to see some Philadelphia friends during this trip, but I wasn’t too optimistic of the prospects for that. After all, I’d been traveling the two previous weekends, and it was awfully important to me to get home Saturday and spend time with my wife.

And that married / single dynamic was evident in strange ways during the night. Once the full crowd for Friday night was assembled, it consisted of six guys who are married — four of whom have kids — and two guys who are single (and, to the best of my knowledge, don’t have kids). The conversation didn’t mysteriously break along those lines, but I realized that the talk among married guys (at least in our set) is a little different than we have with the singletons. It wasn’t “the old ball and chain” sorta thing, just a sense that our crazier stories were behind us.

Similarly, the guys with kids were talking about things that Jim & I weren’t able to relate to. But it was no post-tower Babel; it’s just different frames of reference.

So we had dinner, and we drank (except for one of the guys who doesn’t go much for drinking nowadays, since he got it out of his system at Penn State), and we talked about where we are and what our families are doing, and we goofed on one another in the merciless loving way these guys have, and we looked at baby pictures.

The best aspect of the evening was the ease with which we could all fall into conversation. I don’t tend to be the guy with “news,” but it was nice being congratulated on my marriage by each newcomer during the evening, and asked about the wedding, the honeymoon, “adjusting to married life,” etc.

We traded notes on absent friends, both members of this group who couldn’t make the trip, and the other people we’re still in touch with from school. It got me thinking about some from there whom I have lost touch with, and whether I should look them up.

Speaking of which, the guys were surprised by the story about how my girlfriend from that high school era (1988-89) recently got in touch with me. That was mainly in the “Holy crap! I haven’t thought of her in years! How’s she doing?” vibe. There was also a little of the “How freaked out were YOU?!” line of questioning.

We traded stories about another guy’s high school girlfriend, who’s gone on to become a Lubavitcher Jew. One of the guys in our set couldn’t join us on Friday night because he seems to be going through the same transformation and doesn’t violate the Sabbath anymore. He planned to make up for it by putting together an extensive tailgating bash before the Eagles game on Sunday.

The evening moved from Iron Hill to a couple of nearby bars, with our group diminishing in number with each change of location. We ended up in a cheap-ass, wood-paneled bar that was filled with smoke. It was kinda shocking to me, since NYC and NJ both ban smoking in bars. I have civil liberties problems with this, but I have to admit it’s nice to get home from a night out and not stink of cigarette smoke.

Still, when in Rome and/or Media, PA . . .

The gin quality diminished with each change of venue, dropping from Hendricks to Bombay Sapphire to Tanqueray. You’d think that, by the 7th or 8th G&T, I wouldn’t notice the difference, but you’d be wrong; my gin-snobbery seems to know no bounds.

Fortunately, the conversation stayed entertaining, even as our numbers dropped. In the second bar, one of our guys explained to me the difference in quality of medical marijuana. In the last bar, another guy mentioned that his dad was a Skull & Bones member at Yale. He told us how he and his brother goofed on his dad when a S&B documentary was on TV, and kept grilling him to find out if Geronimo’s skull was really on display in their HQ.

My buddy John later told me how this guy’s dad was a really important figure to them when they were growing up. He was a respected scientist & professor and, besides being a go-to quote for many of their science reports, it also seems he was just really supportive of the kids, and demonstrated an intellectual curiosity that rubbed off on many of them.

Now, I’ve gone on pretty extensively about the way I’ve stayed friends with these guys, and how much their friendship has meant to me over the years. That said, they also have a million anecdotes from long before I got there, years of bonding from childhood on, that I’m just not privy to. And as John related this story about our friend’s dad, it made me wonder how I would’ve gotten along had I been around these guys from the beginning. Knowing me — and knowing what I was like as a youth — I’d likely have been the disaffected, bitter outsider who’d have managed to alienate myself from the whole squad. I was such a retard.

Following all this, John & I ambled back to his parents’ place around 2am. I settled into the twin-bed with the head- and foot-board (meaning I slept diagonally and curled), and woke up at 6:30am when the family dog came by to see who was in the room. Remarkably, I didn’t show much by way of ill effects from the night before, except for my Barry White voice, which is the inevitable result of my trying to be heard in loud bars.

Having gotten my share of gin the night before, I shifted over to my other two drinks of choice — water and black coffee — and got back into conversation with John’s parents. He remained asleep in his old bedroom, pending an 8:30 alarm clock. John’s dad wanted to talk about the election, and the political scene this decade, and it struck me as funny that, over the course of Friday night, that subject never came up once.

The next morning, five of us met up for breakfast at a cheap diner. When I say cheap, I’m talking $2.99 for 2 pancakes, 2 strips of bacon, 2 sausages, 2 eggs, and coffee. In fact, when the bill came, and everyone started trying to come up with change and small bills, I tossed a $20 on the table and said, “Oh, just throw in a tip, ferchrissakes.” Everyone handed me wads of singles instead. Go figure.

Mail call

One of the neat things about extended business trips is the gigantic pile of mail that awaits upon your arrival. I spent most of yesterday’s work-day going through mail, magazines, faxes, and the 154 pertinent e-mails from the week out of the office. It was laborious, but I was glad to get everything off my desks. And, since it was Columbus Day, there was no new mail coming in.

At home, it was a much quicker process. A medium-sized box of mail waited for us. This is the first time Amy & I have gone away for a stretch since we had our “subscribe to every magazine” run during the summer, so the stack of mags was truly impressive. We were only gone for a week, but for some reason, Dwell decided to send two different issues.

But the best thing in the mail was a card from our friends Cathi & Adam. They got hitched about 13 months ago and we’ve somehow failed to give them their wedding present during that span. Despite that, they sent a thank-you card, which included a couple of pictures from their wedding. Which is my roundabout way of introducing the following:

Unrequired Reading: party like it’s 5767

Happy Jewish New Year, dear readers! In honor of Rosh Hashanah, this week’s Unrequired Reading features a bunch of Jewish-connected links and others that have nothing to do with Judaism.

First, we have Michael Totten’s interview with Yaacov Lozowick, author of Right To Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars. He thinks neither of the Lebanon wars is defensible, and provides some good insights into the shifting emotional landscape of Israelis during the most recent war.

If the story about Israel’s use of cluster bombs in the war’s last days proves true, that oughtta get categorized as “really REALLY indefensible.”

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Johnny Knoxville isn’t Jewish , but he gets to celebrate our new year with his new movie’s debut. Here’s an interview with him and Jeff Tremaine, the director of Jackass Number Two.

On Howard Stern this week, Knoxville admitted that he got the idea for getting gored by a bull (watch the trailer) from watching a Tom & Jerry cartoon. We’ll probably see the movie tomorrow, along with a shopping expedition to the new Century 21 store in Paramus, and a White Manna run. Because we’re all about the gracious living.

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For its first season or two, The State was one of the funniest television shows ever (I seem to recall the last season completely melting down in attempts at absurdism that went nowhere, as it its wont). Even though every other series in the world has gone DVD, The State languishes in MTV vaults. Good news: the first season is getting released on iTunes’ video store!

I can legitimately tie this into this week’s Jewy theme because of the great skit in which the cast members were all asked to introduce themselves and make a personal confession, as a way of becoming closer to the audience: “I’m Michael Ian Black. My real name is Schwartz, but I changed it because I’m ashamed of being Jewish.”

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My buddy Ian’s not Jewish, but he IS a chief petty officer! Congrats! Check out the pix from the ceremony!

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Cory Maye’s not Jewish either, but there are probably Jews at the law firm that helped get him off death row, pending a new sentencing hearing. Here’s hoping it’s the first step to springing Maye from prison!

Oh, and the “informant” whose tip led to the botched raid that landed Maye on death row probably doesn’t like Jews. He sure doesn’t like black people.

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Rich people don’t always stay rich. Larry Ellison is Jewish, and he spent a ton of money, but he managed to stay rich:

A raft of e-mail messages and financial documents introduced in a lawsuit that disgruntled shareholders filed against Mr. Ellison and other Oracle executives in 2001, give witness to some of Mr. Ellison’s budgeting practices. (The suit was settled last November and the judge in the matter subsequently unsealed financial documents submitted as exhibits in the case). The documents, first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year, also show how far Philip E. Simon, an adviser who described himself as Mr. Ellison’s “financial servant,” went in trying to persuade his boss to pay off about $1.2 billion in loans. (Neither Mr. Ellison nor Mr. Simon responded to interview requests for this article).

Mr. Ellison’s ledger around the end of 2000 included annual “lifestyle” spending of about $20 million, the purchase of a Japanese villa for $25 million, a proposed underwater archeology project earmarked for $12 million and his new yacht, budgeted at $194 million (news reports later said that the yacht’s final cost approached $300 million).

“I know you view me as a pessimist,” Mr. Simon wrote Mr. Ellison in an e-mail message in 2002, several months after banks began sounding alarms about Mr. Ellison’s debt. “Maybe you’re right, though I would disagree. Nonetheless, I think it’s imperative that we start to budget and plan. New purchases should be kept to a minimum. We need to establish and execute on a diversification plan to eliminate (yes, eliminate) all debt and build up a significant, conservatively structured, liquid investment portfolio.

“I know you don’t like to discuss this,” Mr. Simon added. “I know this e-mail may/will depress you. View this as a call to arms.”

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During my previous visit to Paris in 2002, I visited some of the monuments and shrines that commemorated the Jews that France shipped out for the camps. There’s plenty of other stuff for us to do this time around, as this BW slideshow sez.

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Sven Nykvist wasn’t Jewish, but he was the cinematographer on several Woody Allen flicks, including one of my favorite movies: Another Woman. (Also, he had an affair with Mia Farrow pre-Woody, which makes their subsequent collaborations just plain weird. On the other hand, Amy & I had exes perform the readings at our wedding, so hey.) He died last week after a long illness.

A few weeks ago, Amy was looking through our Netflix queue, and asked, “What is Light Keeps Me Company and why is it in our queue?”

Yes, she married someone who’s interested in seeing a documentary about a cinematographer. All I can say is, like Rembrandt, Nykvist’s work taught me new ways of seeing light. Rest in peace.

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Tiki culture: something that could bring all the world’s faiths together. Except the ones that prohibit drinking, I guess.

Yo-ho-ho and l’shana tova!