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Book Distributor to America’s More Esoteric Readers

December 12, 1993

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) _ Crystals are still big, but next year look for aliens, angels and menopause to top the best-seller lists.

That’s the word from the folks at Bookpeople, the largest distributor of small press titles in the world, currently representing 3,000 publishers and counting, according to Marianne Sluis in the company’s order department.

Bookpeople’s buyers keep their finger on the pulse of America - at least its more esoteric elements.

″We watch burgeoning issues. For example, up-and-coming topics are tattoos, Native Americans and ethnic communities,″ said Sluis.

Where else could you order ″Croatian Cuisine,″ ″The North American Guide to Nude Recreation,″ ″Angels of the Lord: Calling Upon Your Guardian Angel for Guidance and Protection,″ ″The Hieroglyphic Coloring Book″ and ″Voices From the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press?″

It’s also a slightly zany place to work, complete with fanciful sculptures promoting worker safety and an in-house cook who brings around plates of freshly baked cookies on Friday afternoon.

″Because we own this company, we can spend money any way we want to,″ said Sluis, 29.

″Face it,″ adds Gene Taback, president. ″Packing books is not a creative act. You take the books out of a box, you put them back in a box. Having a cook is part of the attempt to make book distribution more fun.″

Bookpeople keeps over 26,000 titles in stock in its office and warehouse in a pedestrian looking business park near the Oakland Coliseum. Once inside though, corporate conventions cease.

A clump of potted spiderplant babies looking for homes fills the reception area, and stocking-clad employees stretch on the carpet of the order department as they talk books with customers.

The order department takes pride in being knowledgeable.

″If you catch them on a slow day you may be able to talk them into showing off their bird calls and yodeling,″ laughs Sluis.

Lest anyone think Bookpeople has no standards, she unearthed a cardboard box full of titles the company chose not to sell this year.

They included: ″Men Are Animals and Deserve to Die,″ ″Yoga for Pets,″ ″How to Marry a Doctor″ and ″Train Your Dog to Eliminate on Command″.

Bookpeople sells all kind of books to all kinds of bookstores, but it retains a strong counterculture element going back to the company’s earliest best seller, ″The Whole Earth Catalog.″

When Shirley MacLaine made reincarnation acceptable in the United States, she opened the floodgates of a publishing genre that hasn’t dried up yet.

″We have the do-it-yourself-religion market pretty much staked out here at Bookpeople,″ said Taback, 48, whose sister conned him out of graduate school in 1971 to take a job at the company.

Bookpeople functions as a middleman for bookstores. Instead of hundreds of accounts with small and often obscure publishers all over the world, they can have one account with Bookpeople.

When a store’s best-seller list includes things such as ″Mutant Message,″ a strange tale of UFOs in Australia by a very small press in Missouri, not having to order directly from the publisher is useful. The company ships 15,000 books a day.

The business began in Berkeley in 1971 when the owner of a small book distributor wanted out and offered to sell the company. None of the employees had enough money to buy it alone, so each threw in a little and they ended up with a worker-owned company.

Building a $25 million a year company took awhile, said Taback.

″Our early adventure was to see who would give us credit. We gradually built up faith with our publishers, the kind of faith which can only be attracted by paying bills.″

Bookpeople now employs 34 people.

Being a worker-owned company with hippie antecedents means many things, including lots of meetings and stints on the company’s board of directors for all employees.

It has its good points, Taback says.

″Our goal is to make as much money as we can and then give it to our employees.″