I am a chronic reader. Hard science fiction is my favorite genre, but left with nothing else, I’d read the backs of all the cereal boxes and irremovable linen tags in the house just to maintain the high of having written words flushing through my brain.
Somewhere in Jr. High School, I found a book that hit almost every pleasure center of my brain. It was; Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (GRS). I continued to love and share this book through High School. In our local library, I found Mr. Stewart had written several other books, and I realized I’d become a collector. He did not publish hundreds of books, but he was thought to be fairly prolific and I started claiming that I had the most complete collection of his works in the whole state based on my thorough research at the Petaluma Library. The internet was not yet invented, so who could check my claim? Despite the fact that I did not care to travel down to UC Berkeley, where Mr. Stewart was a professor and could be expected to have a full set of his titles on the shelf– I thought my claim was fairly safe.
Several of my friends became hooked with me on his works and we formed our own ad-hoc book club well before book clubs were a thing.
Flash forward now to 1974. By this time I had established a rule of never – ever passing a used book store (or any book stores actually) without stopping to check their holdings of George R. Stewart titles and adding to my collection as opportunity and money permitted. And yes, on several occasions I spent my lunch or tuition money on books. My mom decided that if I was hooked on books, there was a low limit to how much trouble I could get into, so she was an easy mark for money to buy a title that I just had to have.
One day, I found a really old used book store, just west of Union Square in San Francisco and this place could have been a book addict’s dream store. Uneven shelves, with dusty, poor sorted books, so only the owner and his staff could find anything you actually wanted leaving grazers like me to wander up and down the creaky stairs to small balconies and nooks just seeing what we could find by chance. I was this close to Heaven and wasn’t even dead yet…
Finally, an equally dusty, thin mouse of a clerk with old wire-rim glasses found me and asked if he could help. I asked about his stock of GRS works, and he put his hands together and answered, “Certainly sir. Please follow me.” I wondered how long it took him to develop his dusty, old book seller presence. He really did it quite well you see…
Anyway, he led me to a darkened corridor where many books were not on shelves at all but in sorcerer’s apprentice style stacks on small tables or stools. He rolled an ancient shelf ladder aside to reveal – “YES” about 2 feet of used GRS books, several that I didn’t (but was about to) own. I’d have to spend some of my tuition money, but mom and dad could be counted on to help. I thanked him and asked if I could peruse the collection. He closed his eyes, put his hands together, nodded and answered “Of course Sir. Then he turned and toddled off.
I had just concluded that I was going to buy 2 volumes from the shelf when a much older and shorter version of the used book clerk found me. He was even more iconic a book clerk than the younger guy – bent and bearded. This guy looked even more used as he asked if he could be of assistance. “Yes, I’m interested in works by George R. Stewart. I’ll be buying these two, but had hoped to see rarer works.”
“Ah,” he responded. “You are a student of Mr. Stewart then?”
“Not really,” I answered. “Just a big fan”.
He leaned in to whisper, “Then I should show you what I have in my office. This way please Sir”
He took me to an amazing room with shelves and shelf ladders that went up at least six stories all full of bound volumes that looked like they belonged in a museum. If touched, they would certainly dissolve into dust – which given the amount of dust I saw, might not ever be noticed..
He carefully stepped around many and over a few stacks of Paul the apostle-era volumes to guide me to a shelf that he had to step up on rung of shelf ladder to reach. For me, the shelf was right at eye level so I did not have to trust the ancient ladder. Looking at the shelf, I noticed a large edition of a GRS title I’d only heard of via a library card catalog. (Millennials: we used to use huge sets of small drawers full of cards to track books. They had a charm that Amazon will never surpass.) I pulled the book out and found, not only was it the rare title I had never seen, but it was also a first edition. I had to have it!
“This volume is excellent,” I said as I carefully eyed its condition. I turned to face him as he clung to the ladder, “but it’s not for sale is it…?) I said in my most I’ll-be-so-disappointed-if-not, voice.
”Oh dear me – no my boy. None of these are. That’s why they are back here.”
He shifted his weight on the ladder to begin his descent and the thing creaked like it was going to collapse right there. I was mentally starting down the path of how I might befriend this guy, so someday he might be willing to let me borrow that book or read it here in the store, when he made it to the floor and said, “You say you are a fan of Mr. Stewart. Have you ever met him?”
What, I thought? Why was he asking this?
“I feel as if I have a disappointed you, but I am unwilling to sell you that book. Would you be a happier customer if I could arrange for you to meet Mr. Stewart?”
“You know George R. Stewart…?” I asked, not sure I believed what I just heard.
“Certainly,” he answered – noting that I was now gripped with hope and expectation. “He’s retired now and living just about a mile up Geary St. and we see each other often.” Handing me a blank index card, he instructed me to, “write your name and address and phone number and I will get it to him for you.”
I was almost afraid to get my hopes up. I had been a fan for what, almost 10 years now and GRS had become much larger than life in my own mind. My friends and I had wrapped a high school bio-ecology presentation around “Earth Abides”. We talked about the iconic hammer the main character used in the story and whether events like the story really would have happened. Wasn’t it interesting how GRS made an old hammer into a main character? We had to have spent hundreds of hours discussing this book alone.
Other friends and I had read as a group and discussed “Fire”, “Storm”, and “Sheep Rock” at length and chewed up their ecological and social issues. Each of these were fictional but rooted in some physical force or place with rich histories and implications to discuss. Anyone who has read ”Ordeal by Hunger,” his definitive historical, fictional account of the Donner Party and their nearly starving to death up near the present Lake Donner on the California/Nevada border still shivers at the memories that GRS had vicariously planted in their minds.
Well, this bookstore owner did indeed know Mr. Stewart, because in just a few days, I had a personal letter from GRS waiting for me when I got home from class. Now – now my hopes were up – and up high.
I wrote him back and a date was set. I took a bus up Geary a day in advance to know where I was going but he lived in a retirement fortress. It was a guarded, towering, gated community of condos and there would be no getting in until tomorrow.
I had a slew of questions I thought I should ask, things I wanted to know about where he got such unique story inspiration and background details of certain story scenes.
When he and his wife opened the door to me– all my prep came unwound and I fell from a well-read literary fan to a nearly mindless groupie in the presence of one of the greatest writers ever. I managed to get the basics out like: my reasons for loving his books and what I’d read and who I’d shared them with and how popular they were in our group and blaa blaa blaa. My latent shy personality had resurfaced at the worse possible moment and I suddenly feared of wasting this meeting, but did not know how to correct a failing trajectory.
The Stewarts were very cordial. Looking back, I’m pretty sure they sensed my discomfort and stepped up to make sure the meeting went well.
We talked about very general things related to his work for a short time and then, when I failed to keep up my side of the conversation, he started filling in the gaps of things I might find interesting.
He succeeded. It was all interesting. He had photos of the places where his fictional stories took place, and fascinating details that I wanted, but failed to ask about.
But the best thing was when he asked, “Mr. Wilson, can I show you something I think you would enjoy?”
“Of course,” I answered. He turned to his desk and opened a drawer for me to look into and there it was – the rustic, beat up but still rugged old hammer from “Earth Abides”. I already knew every detail of the artifact from his book, but seeing it in real life and hearing the story of how he integrated it into the story were worth all the embarrassment I felt for nearly wasting such an opportunity. I felt like such a fan – albeit a very satisfied fan.
I have rerun that interview many times, thinking of how to give a better account of myself.
I became a regular haunting spirit in that book store and spent many afternoons prowling the isles.
The final treat that resulted was when about week afterward, a package arrived for me at home. Inside, I found 2 books Mr. Stewart had published, bearing titles I’d never heard of (how could that have been possible – but here they were) both signed by the man himself – making them instant collectors’ items that I’ll only part with via my will.
Did you ever get the chance to meet your favorite author? Hopefully you managed it better than I managed mine and I hope your writer was a great a person as George R. Stewart was for a young fan that day.
Links to books referenced in this essay, all by George R. Stewart:
Earth Abides: excellent, classic, speculative Eco-fiction set in the hills of Berkeley Calif.
Fire: Event fiction where a forest fire is the main character
Storm: Event fiction where a devastating storm is the main character
Sheep Rock: Location fiction following several stories that happened here
Ordeal by Hunger: the Story of the Donner Party – a must read for California history
Yes, you should read them all – now – in hard bound copies if possible.