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In 1976 a young writer named John Baskin published his first book, an exploration of an Ohio hamlet doomed by a new dam. The New Yorker gave it the highest imaginable praise. Robert Coles, the eminent children’s psychiatrist and author, called New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village a “gift” to readers, a book “which resembles James Agee’s ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ in spirit and in grace of writing as well as in subject matter.” Coles went on to teach the book at Harvard. Baskin feels he owes him everything.
Yet over time Baskin lost his 35-year-old copies of that New Yorker, and this summer he set out to replace them. Searching the Internet for dealers in old magazines, Baskin, who lives in Wilmington, Ohio, came across the name of the Magazine Museum in Skokie and e-mailed the owner, Bob Katzman. “I was in my office on Sunday when the phone rings,” Baskin says. “It’s Bob, who prefers using the actual human voice before it disappears, replaced by electronics.”
Baskin told Katzman what he was after and Katzman called back the next morning to say he didn’t have that issue himself but he’d keep looking. “I made a dozen calls around the USA in search of it,” Katzman tells me. “No one had it. Then finally, I was able to nail down three copies.” He bought them sight unseen, and when they arrived in decent condition he put them in a package he sent to Baskin priority mail, with tracking. “When he didn’t receive them by Friday that week, I called his local small-town post office, got ahold of the postmaster, described the package, and told him to go find it. Because I already knew he had it and what time he got it. Within five minutes, he had it in his hand.”
Says Baskin, “From Chicago, Bob did what we in Wilmington had been unable to do. Next time I’m in Chicago I hope to buy him lunch. Amazon should hire him to do customer relations.”
I tell this story to establish that all of human history is not yet at Google’s fingertips; there is still a role for humans to play in retrieving the past. The legend boldly asserted on Katzman’s store window—”Where Print Still Lives!”—puts him on the right side of any old-school journalist; likewise his disdain for electronic commerce. Katzman performs a still useful service and gets results that can seem little short of miraculous. When he came to me several weeks ago and asked for a story, his line of work is one reason I eventually decided to write one.
Another reason was guilt. Katzman, 61, with a daughter in school and a wife who’s chronically ill, told me he’s on the edge of ruin. He suggested, if I heard correctly what was not quite spoken, that the Reader had almost a moral duty to help: because we’d written about Katzman several times over the years, we’d made a commitment to him we could not now shirk.
A 1977 cover story, “A Newsboy’s Improbable Dream,” hailed Katzman’s chutzpah. Back then, in addition to a string of newsstands (a business he entered in 1965 at the age of 15), the feisty young entrepreneur ran a little distribution company, Gulliver’s Periodicals Ltd, that got its start because he wanted his newsstands to carry a gay magazine, Blue Boy, that the giant Charles Levy Circulating Company wouldn’t handle. Push came to shove and eventually an antitrust suit Katzman filed against the giant. He reminisces, “It was a fight worth having and I have always admired the Reader‘s guts in taking a chance on me.”
In 1980 Levy “agreed to distribute all the formerly undistributed gay magazines I’d gathered together” and paid him to shut down. After settling accounts with the publishers he represented, “I ended up with nothing.” On the other hand, getting those gay pubs to their readers had been a “civil rights issue . . . one of the most important things I’d ever done in my life.” Even though today “no one, especially the existing gay community, remembers me for doing that.”
Another of our stories, in 1993, focused on the Grand Tour World Travel Bookstore Katzman was running at the time in Lakeview. When the Reader looked in again in 2001, Katzman was peddling vintage magazines and posters in Morton Grove. In 2005 Katzman told our culture columnist, Deanna Isaacs, that his business was “evolving precariously.” His wife was ill and had lost her job; because of his own salivary gland cancer, he’d been through one surgery after another and there were more ahead; he’d had to put his house on the market. The one bright spot meant more to his ego than his pocketbook: in his sideline as a self-published author he’d sold some 700 copies of his multivolume life story, Fighting Words.
Now, Katzman tells me, everything’s even worse. He shut down the Morton Grove store two years ago, “tried to find work, learned I was essentially unemployable, was offered a smaller cheaper space [in Skokie], and in despair” reopened there 20 months ago. “I have yet to draw a paycheck.”
His e-mails appealed to ancient bonds: “A very unusual relationship between two semi anti-establishment organizations, I’ve always felt. Your alternative newspaper, my alternative enterprises. While I wish your company continued success, I know this is my last act. Our histories are intertwined in the best possible way.”
Ancient journalism evokes vanished eras every bit as pungently as ancient art or music does, and Katzman’s Magazine Museum on Oakton in Skokie teems with it. But Katzman says there’s never much foot traffic on Oakton and people rarely come in.
As Skokie sees it, that’s true and Katzman is part of the problem. Under a program called “Skokie Reinvented,” the village sent visual merchandiser Lori Ann Gum over to the Magazine Museum this year to shape it up. Gum thought the front window was a horror. “I keep telling him ‘less is more,'” she says, “but he wants to make sure everybody knows he has it all.” She changed the window to announce “Bob’s Magazine Museum and Gifts!” so passersby would understand it’s a place to go in and buy things, and she added a cutout of Katzman himself. “He asked why I didn’t do a cutout of George Washington. And I said last I checked it wasn’t George’s magazine museum and gift shop.”
Katzman’s first impression was that Gum was a pain in the ass. He tells me, “LA, as I call her, is admittedly right-wing politically and on a different planet than I am on specific issues. If we were married, one of us would be dead in the morning.” But he softened. “I saw that LA does much of her own carpentry, which immediately trumped the political issues, because I, too, am a carpenter, having built all the shelves in my new store—700 running feet of them—because there was no money to hire anyone else to do that.”
And over time, strangely, he developed “an unexpected kinship with this petite and appealing blonde woman who has a really difficult job.”
Gum likes him too, but she says, “He’s a dying breed. Since the inception of the Internet, people can look [for yesterday] in the comfort of home.” She tried to talk up Craigslist and eBay, but Katzman likes face time.
The day I drove up to Skokie (at his insistence), Katzman had good news—someone had actually come in and bought something that morning. Kristen Graff works for a software company down the street, and she was on her way to the drugstore when the promise of “hundreds of movie and specialty posters” caught her eye. “I thought, ‘Why not?'” Graff says. By the time she left she’d bought five vintage posters and Katzman had thrown in a sixth, a poster of the original Supremes that she gave to a DJ friend.
Katzman likes to get to know his customers, and he found out Graff’s mom is Japanese and her dad’s second-generation German. Katzman was intrigued—she embodied the Axis powers and he’s a Jew whose Polish grandmother lost nine siblings to the Holocaust. But time moves on. One of his product lines is the flags of the world (“Assyria to Zambia” says his window), so he rigged up a little wooden stand with both flags flying from it and gave it to her. Now it’s on her desk at work.
Katzman sends out an e-mail whenever he posts a new poem or story on his website, differentslants.com. The writing there taps a vein of ready anger. “It’s frightening how scary it is to survive,” he tells me. “It’s not easy to ask the media to help. This store is so much smaller [than Morton Grove]. I’m liquidating 50,000 posters from all over the world for ten bucks each. There’s no traffic whatsoever. . . . It’s not your ordinary life. That’s why I started writing books, so I wouldn’t forget. I had brain surgery twice in ’04. Who wants to be desperate? If I could, I’d write full-time.”
Kristen Graff, like Gum, might be a kindred spirit. “No one takes the time to walk down the street and see what’s around them,” she tells me. “That’s why I make a conscious effort once or twice a week to walk to lunch rather than drive to Portillo’s. People in my generation don’t take the time to appreciate the values of diversity and the importance of someone’s heritage. I had a girlfriend in high school. She said, ‘No one considers you Japanese. We all consider you white.’ And I was confounded by that. How could that be? We have rice every single day! And I realized the bubble we live in.”
She went back to Magazine Memories looking for something to give a cousin moving to Cologne to teach. “Bob recommended a National Geographic issue on Germany dated back in the 60s. My cousin loved the gift.”
The Magazine Museum, 4906 Oakton, Skokie IL 60077, 847-677-9444, oldmags@MagazineMemories.com, MagazineMemories.com