If you're too young to remember the magic of Tower Records, here's what you missed

SF-Color1979

In honor of Record Store Day, I got on the phone with Russ Solomon, who founded Tower Records in the early 1960s — the late-great chain was also the subject last fall of a terrific documentary by Colin Hanks called "All Things Must Pass." In speaking with Russ, and then my son Tom, age 25, about their recollections of Tower, it became clear that how one feels about the place, which meant a great deal to me, is purely generational. To that end, I interviewed both Tom and Russ, as well as Tower's former COO, Stan Goman.

From my story in Collectors Weekly:

Napster, as Hanks’ film makes clear, was not even the biggest factor [in Tower's demise]. Sure, it allowed people to get music for free, but it would not have been so attractive to consumers if the record companies, with the complicity of chains like Tower, had not insisted on keeping the prices of CDs high and discontinuing the practice of selling singles, which is what music consumers had been buying since Russ and Clayton Solomon sold their customers used 3-cent 78s for a dime.

“The 78,” Solomon says, “which morphed into the 45 in the 1950s, was really the lifeblood of the record business. It was all about singles. When the record companies decided not to make singles anymore, I think that was the beginning of the downfall of the industry. They were taking away what the kids really wanted by forcing them to buy an album.

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Visiting Scarfolk, the most spectacular dystopia of the 1970s

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Since April of 2013, Cory has posted frequently about Scarfolk for Boing Boing. Now, Hunter Oatman-Stanford has interviewed Richard Littler, the creator of this fictional 1970s dystopia. Even in the three years since Cory's first post, the line between Littler's fiction and our contemporary reality has gotten disturbingly blurry.

Here's a snip from Littler:

"Scarfolk is paranoid and cynical, and often touches on themes such as surveillance and the diminishment of civil rights. To a certain extent, Scarfolk is speculative because it plays with the recent political developments and either subverts them or exaggerates them to the point of absurdity, though that’s becoming difficult with people like Donald Trump and the incumbent British government. Increasingly, there are official actions and statements that come across like they’ve already been created by satirists. It’s becoming hard for us to outdo our sources!"

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Minecraft: Blockopedia – for full-on Minecraft geeks, as well as over-the-shoulder admirers

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See sample pages from this book at Wink.

Shaped like a hexagon to mimic the dimensions of a cube, Minecraft: Blockopedia is designed for full-on Minecraft geeks, although those of us who have only watched the game over the shoulders of children and loved ones will find plenty to admire here too. After the briefest of introductions and a quick glossary to help noobs make sense of the stats that accompany each block’s name, it’s off to the races, with page after page devoted to blocks made from rocks, blocks made from plants, blocks that serve particular functions (a ladder), and blocks that do particular things (acting as a switch).

One of the coolest characteristics about Minecraft is how it chooses to observe the laws of nature and physics, or ignore them. Sand, we are told, can be a cave-in hazard, but when it’s smelted in a furnace, it turns to glass. Both statements are true, but don’t go looking for glowstone the next time you’re spelunking – it is only found in a sinister dimension of Minecraft called the Nether. And while sugar cane in both the real world and the Overworld of Minecraft can be used to make sugar, guess where it can also be used to block flowing lava?

Though the format and illustrations in Minecraft: Blockopedia are the book’s most prominent features, it’s still a book filled with lots and lots of, you know, words. Writer Alex Wiltshire mostly plays it straight (“Water is incredibly useful.”), but often he lets the language and logic of Minecraft add color, as in “Sticky pistons are made by crafting a piston with a slimeball…” and “If you dig podzol without the silk touch enhancement it drops dirt.” Got that? Read the rest

The geo-chemistry behind Rookwood pottery

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When most of us gaze upon an eight-place setting of fine porcelain china or a curvaceous ceramic vase, we see exactly that, but when Jim Robinson of Rookwood Pottery looks at such objects, he sees rocks, as I learned recently when I interviewed Robinson about his role as the venerable art pottery firm's glaze chemist.

His interest in rocks and geology came early. “When I was in high school in 1967,” he says, “I had a great professor, Richard Tremblay, who got into plate tectonics just as it was emerging. He explained to us how the surface of the planet was skidding around, powered by these upwellings of magma, and how when two plates encountered each other, one went down into the subduction zone and the other sprouted mountains. Well, I came seriously unglued when I heard that, and I’ve been reading about rocks and geology ever since.”

To put it mildly, this love of rocks and minerals has completely colored Robinson’s world. “I’m looking out a window now at a brick building,” he tells me as we are chatting over the phone. “Every brick building is made out of different clays. Some are kind of taupe gray. Some are really deep rust. Every brick is different because each comes out of a different hole in the ground. That just blows my mind.” More particularly, Robinson’s romance with stone has had a profound impact on his work as a ceramist. “Once you get an image in your mind of the earth and how active it is,” he says, “you start to put two and two together.

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Shoulder to Shoulder – Cycling in the sixties with Jacques Anquetil

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See sample pages from this book at Wink.

When most people think of professional cycling today, the name Lance Armstrong probably still comes to mind. Between 1999 and 2005, Armstrong won a record seven Tours de France, only to have them all tossed out in 2012 after it was revealed the Texan had been using performance-enhancing drugs. Between 1957 and 1964, a Frenchman named Jacques Anquetil won five Tours, also – by his own repeated admission at the time – on drugs. But the trait shared by Armstrong and Anquetil that interests authors Shelly and Brett Horton in Shoulder to Shoulder: Bicycle Racing in the Age of Anquetil is not doping but celebrity. Forget Armstrong (in their book, the Hortons do just that): What John F. Kennedy was to U.S. presidents and The Beatles were to rock ’n’ roll, Anquetil was to cycling.

Anquetil’s story, as well as that of other Anquetil-era racers like Tom Simpson of England, Federico Bahamontes of Spain, and Rik van Looy of Belgium, is told through more than 100 magazine and newspaper photos collected and restored by the Hortons. Each photo is captioned, though not sourced, and accompanied by a short note in the back of the slim volume. We learn, for example, that a 1962 photo of the driver of a support car, who’s leaning out the car’s window to drip oil on the rear gears of a cyclist’s bike during the Circuit des Boucles de la Seine, actually depicts a ruse to give the unidentified rider a chance to lean on the car’s fender for a precious few seconds. Read the rest

Out of the Shadow of Aunt Jemima: the real black chefs who taught Americans to cook

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Featuring reviews of more that 160 cookbooks written by African Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries, Toni Tipton-Martin's The Jemima Code is a much-overdue look at at how African Americans really cooked over the last 200 years, as well as how caricatures of African Americans were used to sell white homemakers everything from "Pickaninny Cookies" to pancake mix. Over at Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix interviewed Tipton-Martin to learn more about this heretofore malnourished chapter in America's culinary history.

Aunt Jemima the Pancake Queen became a national sensation in 1893, thanks to Davis’ ingenuous promotion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The company hired 56-year-old black actress Nancy Green to play Aunt Jemima at the fair. A former slave, Green was eager to leave behind a life of drudgery — as her other career options involved washing dishes or sweeping floors — in favor of the world of entertainment and advertising. With her warm, smiling persona, Green made pancakes, sang songs, and told nostalgic stories about the “good ol’ days” making breakfast for her plantation masters. Her pancakes were believed to be made of love and magic, not culinary artistry or domestic science.

That image of a fat, happy slave — who faithfully nurtures a white family while neglecting her own — lived on for 75 years through the Aunt Jemima Pancake line, purchased by Quaker Oats Company in 1925. Ubiquitous in ads, she promoted easy-to-make variations on pancakes, waffles, and other pastries in promotional recipe pamphlets, and an Aunt Jemima impersonator even received the keys to the city of Albion, Michigan, in 1964.

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Drawn in Stereo captures the art of noise

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See sample pages from this book at Wink.

In my other life as a board member of The Rock Poster Society, the phrase “rock art” just about always equals “rock posters.” For Michael Gillette, though, whose beautiful Drawn in Stereo was published last fall by AMMO Books, rock art encompasses a whole lot more than concert advertisements. Oh sure, Gillette has designed his share of rock posters for bands like Saint Etienne, Colorama, and MGMT, but he’s also created animations for the Beastie Boys and My Morning Jacket, as well as portraits of musicians as diverse as Paul McCartney, Madonna, Jay-Z, and Pink for music magazines and websites like Spin, Mojo, and The Fader. Beyond the music world, his work has even appeared in the hallowed pages of The New Yorker and Esquire (every illustrator’s dream), and he’s been hired by such marquee clients as Levi’s, Nokia, and Sony, for whom he created the cover art for the vinyl version of the “American Hustle” soundtrack.

Drawn in Stereo delivers all of this prodigious output in a straightforward, unhurried manner, not unlike the artist’s work. Or so I thought until I read an anecdote in the book’s interview with Elastica’s former lead singer, Justine Frischmann. In that casual conversation between two friends, Gillette admits to having started and finished some of his deadline-driven assignments in only a day, a trick that requires finishing a wet acrylic-on-paper illustration with a hair dryer before delivering it to “a courier at the door.”

That interview, as well as the organization of the images in the book, loosely tracks Gillette’s journey from England to California, where he now lives with his wife and their two daughters, but the lack of linearity is a plus. Read the rest

East of the Sun and West of the Moon – Norwegian folklore intricately illustrated by artist Kay Nielsen

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See sample pages from this book at Wink.

If Walt Disney gave us the definitive picture of German fairy tales such as Cinderella and Snow White, first published in 1812 by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kay Nielsen helped the world imagine the settings and characters found in the stories of Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. The lifelong friends were inspired by the Grimms, and like the brothers, the look of the stories they had collected came to life many years after they were published in 1841. In the case of Asbjørnsen and Moe, the catalyst was a London publisher named Hodder & Stoughton, which hired Danish artist Nielsen, in 1914, to illustrate a collection of the friends’ Norwegian stories called East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

That volume is reproduced in its entirety, with a gorgeous new layout by Andy Disl, in a new slipcovered book from Taschen. Like the Hodder & Stoughton version, Nielsen’s illustrations are the book’s stars. Unlike it, the Taschen package also includes illustrated essays about Asbjørnsen and Moe’s contribution to the 19th-century’s preoccupation with “indigenous literature,” as well as an overview of Nielsen’s career, which included a stop at Walt Disney’s studio to create the artwork for the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in the 1941 animated masterpiece, Fantasia.

Nielsen’s influences ranged from the Art Nouveau fantasies of Aubrey Beardsley, which can be seen in his earliest work, to Japanese woodcuts and the Ballet Russes, which dominate East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Read the rest

Tales of book-collecting bonanzas

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Needle-in-a-haystack stories are the caffeine of collecting. As the editor of Fine Books & Collections, Rebecca Rego Barry knows this better than most; her new book, Rare Books Uncovered, is filled with more than 50 such tales of book-collecting bonanzas. Recently, I interviewed Barry for Collectors Weekly. She told me about her conversations and correspondences with everyone from legendary rock guitarist turned book hunter Martin Stone — he reportedly sold Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page a copy of the I Ching that had been owned by occultist icon Aleister Crowley — to author and book dealer Larry McMurtry, who typed out his book-discovery story before mailing it to Barry.

This raises an interesting question: When one person finds a rare book, is their gain always at the expense of somebody else? “That can be true,” Barry says, “but among the booksellers I work with, especially those that belong to organizations like the ABAA or the ILAB, there’s an ethical obligation not to swindle each other or people who don’t know any better, like little old ladies selling their husband’s things. Personally, if I were to go to a garage sale and thought I had found a $5,000 book on sale for a dollar, I would feel conflicted. In most cases, though, the more common example is that you see a book you feel like you’ve seen before and decide to take a chance on it. It’s only after you get it home and do your research that you know if you’ve hit the jackpot — or overpaid.”

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The forgotten kingpins who conspired to save California wine

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Last month, Frances Dinkelspiel's new book, Tangled Vines, cracked the New York Times' Best Seller list. It's a great read, since it mostly follows the events leading up to an arson-caused wine-warehouse fire in 2005, in which 4.5 million bottles of wine worth at least a quarter-billion dollars were lost.

Dinkelspiel's account of that inferno, as well as the man who sits in jail for causing it, is riveting, but I found myself even more interested in the author's numerous references to an organization called the California Wine Association, which controlled as much as 84 percent of the state's wine business from 1894 until 1920. That means the C.W.A., as it was called, was in charge of millions of gallons of California wine that were stored in almost two dozen San Francisco warehouses, most of which were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and the fires that followed.

Another two million [gallons of wine] were salvaged from the C.W.A.’s main headquarters, at Third and Bryant Streets, but not before “the wooden tanks and casks came apart in the fire storm,” as [wine historian Charles] Sullivan describes it. The spilled wine might have washed into the streets as it had at other warehouses, but a “plugged sewer line” and the building’s solid concrete walls and floor kept the sloshing wine within the structure. Suddenly, the building itself had become a wine cellar, which enabled the C.W.A. to pump the precious liquid through fire hoses to a small fleet of barges, which were towed to Stockton in the San Joaquin Valley, where the wine was distilled into brandy.

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The politics of prejudice: how passports rubber-stamp our indifference to refugees

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When Hunter Oatman-Stanford began working on an article about Neil Kaplan's collection of old passports, we had no idea his story would be so timely. Alas, the acts of terrorism in Paris, followed by the backlash against Syrian refugees, and then a certain political candidate's proposal to block all Muslims from immigrating to the land of the free, has given Kaplan's collection of old paper new meaning.

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Coin-op cuisine: when the future tasted like a five-cent slice of pie

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For his latest piece at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford spoke to filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz about the Horn & Hardart chain of cafeterias and automats. Despite being limited to Philadelphia and New York (a Boston branch was short-lived), Horn & Hardart was the largest food-service business in America from the 1930s through the 1950s. As it turns out, though, its famous automats were not especially automated, relying on hundreds scurrying cooks and kitchen staffers to fill entire walls of glassed-in compartments with plates of scrapple, deviled crab on toast, and nickel slices of apple pie.

Upon entering an automat, customers would head to one of the restaurant’s “nickel throwers,” who would give customers change to use at the banks of food-dispensing windows. “The most vivid and common memory that people have shared with me is of the amazing nickel throwers,” Hurwitz says. “Especially how, without even counting, the thrower could feel the exact change needed with her fingers. You’d give her a dollar, and she’d throw you 20 nickels across this beautiful marble or wooden counter.” Horn & Hardart’s machines accepted both nickels and quarters, though with such low prices, a few nickels often covered an entire meal: A cup of coffee was five cents; a ham and egg sandwich was ten.

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How America bought and sold racism, and why it still matters

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We've all encountered what people today call Black Memorabilia — a Mammy cookie jar, a racist postcard — but have you ever wondered where these depictions came from, and why they are so common? In her latest article for Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix interviewed Dr. David Pilgrim, author of Understanding Jim Crow, to get some answers to these and other questions. Hix learned that Black Memorabilia was popularized by post-Reconstruction whites to dehumanize African Americans, and that while slavery may have ended in 1865, Jim Crow has persisted in various forms and guises to this day, which helps explain why the presence of an African American family in the White House has not been enough to put America's racial history behind us.

Stock caricatures such as Mammy, Uncle Tom, Sambo, pickaninny children, coon, Jezebel, Sapphire, and the black brute were employed to spread these messages to millions of people. Companies mass-produced these images in every form — including postcards, cleaning products, toys and games, ceramic figurines, ashtrays, cast-iron banks, children’s books, dinnerware, songbooks, tea towels, cookie jars, matchbooks, magazines, movies, gag gifts, salt-and-pepper shakers, planters, fishing lures, trade cards, ads, records, and tobacco tins. If you lived during the Jim Crow era, you’d encounter such caricatures everywhere, in your newspaper, on restaurant walls, on the shelves at stores, and at the cinema or live theater.

“If you believed that black men were Sambos, childlike buffoons, for example, then why would they be allowed to vote?” Pilgrim says. “Why would they be allowed to hold office, serve on a jury, or attend public schools with whites?

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A fictional but physically real world of dolls that heal a beaten man

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See sample pages from this book at Wink.

For much of the 1990s, Mark Hogancamp of Kingston, New York, adhered to a predictable pattern of waking up, going to work, returning home, drinking as much as a half-gallon of vodka, and then passing out. He was a serious alcoholic, as Hogancamp and Chris Shellen make clear in Welcome to Marwencol (Shellen produced a documentary on Hogancamp’s life in 2010). He also liked to dress in women’s clothes.

Hogancamp didn’t know it, but this last fact would change his life when he drunkenly mentioned it to a stranger in the Luny Tune Saloon, sometime before closing in the wee hours of April 8, 2000. Shortly after exiting the bar, he was brutally beaten by the man and four others, who left his broken and bloodied body in the middle of the street. He would spend nine days in a coma and more than a month in the hospital.

After his release, Hogancamp’s recovery was aided, essentially, by playing with dolls. He got into it when he rediscovered his childhood interest in World War II miniatures. The tiny objects, though, were too small for Hogancamp’s shaky, post-recovery hands to paint, so the owners of his local hobby shop suggested he try detailing figures at a larger 1:6 scale. Dressing the figures proved good therapy for Hogancamp, and before long he had moved on to Barbies and action figures, for whom he eventually built a fictional but physically real place called Marwencol, named after himself, a friend named Wendy, and a neighbor named Colleen. Read the rest

The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic reveals a society's struggle for its identity

Books about book covers and jackets have long been a favorite of publishers, in part, I’m assuming, because the subject is at once self-congratulatory and economical. There are books devoted to American modernist covers, Penguin paperbacks, and covers designed by individual artists, such as the recent title on Edward Gorey. The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic, though, which focuses on covers and jackets created in Germany from 1919 to 1933, is unlike any of those tidy projects. Edited by book collector Jürgen Holstein, The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic is comparatively messy, revealing a society’s struggle for its identity after a humiliating defeat in the Great War, but before a new regime would rise up and instigate a conflict that would prove far, far worse.

Filled with 1,000 or so covers from Holstein’s collection, Weimar Republic is not designed merely to be a premonition of World War II. Instead, thanks to its thematic and publishing-house organization, we learn about the role of publishers in Germany, as we witness a young democracy trying to figure out everything from the limits of taste to the emerging prominence of film. Some covers depict Berlin’s notorious nightclubs. Others describe life in newly Soviet Russia. Naturally, considering his stature at the time, Upton Sinclair’s work figures prominently, including a 1930 Elias Canetti translation of Sinclair’s 1911 novel, Love’s Pilgrimage, whose cover features a disturbing photomontage of abortion forceps paired with a rose, the work of the great German artist John Heartfield. Read the rest

The best Burning Man coffee table book

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About two-thirds of the way through NK Guy’s enormous, gorgeous, and thoughtful new Taschen book, Art of Burning Man, the author/photographer makes a small confession: “For all the wonders of Burning Man, it has to be said that not all the art is inspiring. Read the rest

Portraits of the world’s most storied rock guitars

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Most of the guitarists, bassists, and mandolin players in photographer Jay Blakesberg’s just released gem of a new book, Guitars That Jam: Portraits of the World’s Most Storied Rock Guitars, are members of bands that use rock, bluegrass, the blues, and R&B as launch pads for improvisational jams. But one artist stands apart from this group – Willie Nelson – who posed for Blakesberg in 2014 at the Lockin’ Music Festival in Arrington, Virginia with his famously beat-up classical guitar. Nelson calls his 1969 Martin N-20 “Trigger,” after the horse ridden by matinee idol Roy Rogers, but with all due respect to the red-headed stranger, Willie doesn’t quite get the metaphor right. Comparing his guitar, as well as the rest of the Martin, Gibson, Fender, Alembic, Modulus, and Ibanez axes in Guitars That Jam, to a horse is fine, but musicians like Willie, Jerry Garcia, Warren Haynes, Carlos Santana, Trey Anastasio, and Neil Young are polar opposites of the saccharin Rogers. I’d say they are more like rodeo stars, or perhaps elite jockeys, who ride their thoroughbreds, night after night, to the musical equivalent of the Triple Crown.

Blakesberg captures the energy of these artists (plus more than 50 others), the sheer beauty of their instruments, and the intimate relationship between artist and machine, with the sure hand and keen eye that has made him a favorite of rock bands and music fans from coast to coast. Accompanying each photo of the artist in performance with his or her guitar is a statement about the instrument, usually written by the artist. Read the rest

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