Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Dream Quest Books

Back more years ago than I care to remember, certainly beyond last week which itself is hard enough to recall these days, I left the U.S. Army and returned to Chula Vista after a six year absence. At that time, we had one child (born while we were in Germany), thirty was an age still in my future, and I had hopes of finding employment as a photojournalist, which was what I had been in the Army. I did not realize then that we would be blessed unexpectedly with a second child (my daughter is now much older than I was then), that thirty would become an age dimly remembered (along with dinosaurs and pyramids), and that America had entered a period when networking would triumph over experience ("Used to be I would have hired you in an instant," one of the editors at the San Diego Union-Tribune told me, "but now we get all the unpaid interns we want, and we keep the ones we like."). But it does no good to pine for what might might have been, to mope over what did or did not come to pass. We cherish our children, I learned to age gracefully (more or less), and I value a retirement that now allows me the luxury of writing full time. As you get older, though, and the view ahead becomes shorter, it's natural to look back over the longer past trailing behind. When I find myself in a reflective and nostalgic mood, I often think of Dream Quest Books, of tumbling through the door, of the narrow aisles and Tam behind the counter...of the rise and fall of Dream Quest Books.

I have all my life loved bookstores. No matter where I was, I always sought out the nearest bookstore. Whenever a phone book came into my possession, my first task was to look up all the bookstores, jotting down their addresses and phone numbers. Of late, naturally, doing so has become an exercise in futility and frustration, so few are they in number. But such was not the case in the 1970s in San Diego. Although bookstores had already started to vanish from the landscape by then, they were still plentiful. Even Chula Vista, then with a population of less than 50,000 souls had two new bookstores, three used bookstores, a newsstand, several department stores with book sections, and numerous thrift shops that advertised their extensive book collections. San Diego proper had more than thirty bookstores downtown and even more in the neighborhoods, all of varying size and fare, from closet-sized specialty shops (the best magazines came from a place so small two people could not simultaneously look at the same shelf) to multi-floor emporiums. I visited them all, as time and finances allowed, and I was always on the look-out for some bookstore new to me. I did not find Dream Quest Books on my own, however...for that I have to give credit to my mother. She never really did understand my fascination with books and bookstores, but she was an enabler nonetheless, and it was she who one day said, "Hey, I found a bookstore listed in the newspaper...Dream Quest Books. Ever hear of it?" She thought I might be having a heart attack, but I was just responding to the name.

Prior to leaving high school for the cruel world of adulthood, I was introduced to the writing of H.P. Lovecraft by one of my teachers. It was a discovery that permanently changed both my reading habits and my aspirations of becoming a published writer. Among the tales written by the Young Gentleman from Providence was a long fantasy story entitled The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, the record of a man named Randolph Carter who forever quested for a lovely sunset city seen in his dreams. It was one of my favorites, and remains so to this day, and the Dreamlands imagined by Lovecraft became the basis of three of my own stories: The Dreaming Detective, The Adventure of the Laughing Moon-beast, and Professor Challenger in The Secrets of the Dreamlands. My discovery of Lovecraft was at the time less than a decade in my past, so I was not only still greatly influenced by him, but I was filled with the boundless (and often mindless) enthusiasm possessed only by the young. With a name like Dream Quest Books, I had high hopes of finding a bookstore that was as wonderful and as magical as Randolph Carter's twilight metropolis.

Those high hopes rather sank when I pulled to the curb at the address on University Avenue. It was a tiny establishment, part of a long, blockish building, split from the next long blockish building by a dismal trash-strewn reefer-reeking alley lined with dilapidated apartment buildings and carports in various stages of decay. The format of the building was dirty window/door, dirty window/door, dirty window/door, each door leading into a room of no real depth with a smaller back area that business owners could use for storage, crap games or to sell drugs. The businesses tended toward smoke shops, dry cleaners, second hand clothes and tattoo parlors. And there in the midst of it was the shop I sought, with a clean window and a curving line of antique lettering that read: DREAM QUEST BOOKS. Hoping for the best, I made my way past sprawled street people and ambulating hookers and gang-bangers, opened the door, and tumbled into a dimly lit bookcase-filled room

Yes, I tumbled, for I did not realize that there was a slight step-down after going through the door, So the first words that passed between me and bookstore owner Tam Schacht were her asking "Are you okay? Did you hurt yourself?" and me muttering "Uh, yeah, I'm fine. Ouch." By any standards, it was not an auspicious beginning, certainly not an opening guaranteed to lead to a friendship that would last half a decade, until...well, more about that later. Tam Schacht was a lovely Asian girl, a few years younger than me, who loved books and whose ambition for as long as she could remember was to own a bookstore, a dream she fulfilled by floating a huge loan and installing her massive collection of books in this hovel of a store on a stretch of road that could have been labeled "Avenue of Broken Dreams." While not the genteel establishment in the nice part of town she might have yearned for, it was, as she rightly pointed out, "a start."

I told her what had brought me out of Chula Vista and she gave me the guided tour, which did not take long. Although she had worked miracles to put as many bookcases as possible into a small space, enough to make me think perhaps her shop was a little like a T.A.R.D.I.S.--bigger on the inside--it was, by anyone's standards, cramped. As the name of the store implied, she did stock a lot of Lovecraft-related books, including several from Arkham House, but all the books were either science fiction or westerns, romances, mysteries or any other genre. Such a specialized trade can work well in the right venue, but it can also lead to an epic fail, something that Tam thought of every single day. While business was not spectacular--she had then been open a few months--she got enough trade in through the door to meet the repayments of the loan, pay her rent and put food on the table. I helped her that day by spending almost twenty dollars...not a huge amount, but back then equal to more than what $230 would be now. I could ill afford it, but there were so many wonderful things in that tiny store.

I became a frequent visitor at the bookstore, at least once every two weeks, and whenever I stopped by, I always bought books. The same could not be said for all the people who wandered in through the door. When in the store, I was always either browsing or chatting with Tam about books, authors or writing, all productive pursuits. And she did like chatting with me, not just because I was knowledgeable about her field of endeavor, but because I was a writer, even though back in those days I was just starting out and was even more unknown then than I am now. She, too, was an aspiring writer and poet, and when I published my first small press chapbook, Lost Lands, in 1982, it contained five untitled haiku poems by Tam, as well as her poems "Cretan Bulls," "Mayan Nightfall," "Egyptian Ways," and "Rainfall."

I've published lots of small press books since then, but Lost Lands remains my favorite, with its wonderful wraparound cover and interior illustrations by artist Nick Petrosino, and poems from some of the great genre poets of the early 80s. It was, I think, the only chapbook from Running Dinosaur Press, as I named by "publishing house" that was carried in a real bookstore, but, then, Tam had something of a vested interest, didn't she? Back in those days, print was still king. No internet, no email, no on-line stores, no Kindles or Nooks, no worldwide book searches. At the time, word processors were just then coming out, and we spent much time arguing the virtues of the case you're interested, the overwhelming consensus was that word processors were a passing fad and that nothing would ever replace typewriters and carbon paper. Even in the late 70s, as magazines began to vanish and recreational reading started to wane, none of us could see doom which would eventually overtake the world of the printed book. And, by the way, Lost Lands, like all my other books, was a physical paste-up, created with a typewriter and press-letters, printed at the local copy-shop and assembled at the kitchen table. But I digress.

As I mentioned, whenever I went to Dream Quest Books I made an effort to be a good customer or at least entertaining to Tam and the others in the store. The same, however, could not be said about some of the others who wandered in. Tam was very vivacious and gregarious, attended science fiction conventions regularly, and was very active in local fandom, especially S.T.A.R...Star Trek Association for Revival, one of the many sci-fi fan groups in San Diego. She had dozens of friends, and while a few were good customers, most of them seemed to think their friendship with Tam gave them license to sit in the aisles with stacks of books they were reading (rather than buying), to argue loudly with each other about Star Wars vs Star Trek, or run their Dungeons & Dragons quests in any vacant space. They were loud and obnoxious, intensely narcissistic and tended to drive away customers who came in to browse and buy. Tam should have given them the old heave-ho, or at least laid down the law about lounging around and keeping books out of the hands of real customers, but they were her friends. Wanting to keep them as her friends made her overlook their excesses and egregious behavior.

Although Tam had started out small, it had always been her goal to relocate her bookstore into a larger building and in a better neighborhood, one in which street people would not pee on the wall, hookers would not leer at her customers, and where drug busts and shootings were not everyday occurrences. As soon as her second year-long lease was up, she managed to make a move to a two-story house near San Diego State. The difference between the two locales was tremendous. People who came to the new shop no longer had to step over sidewalk drunks, turn down solicitations from haggy hookers, or worry that their cars might be broken into by wild-eyed drug fiends...yes, college and university students were much different back then. For awhile, Tam did indeed see a tremendous increase in her business, as Dream Quest Books became quite a popular destination for the progressive intelligentsia who frequented the area. The fly in the ointment, however, were Tam's fannish friends, for they relocated as well. If anything, the situation worsened---nature abhors a vacuum, and evidently so do fanboys (and girls). Her loutish friends spread out to fill the space available, bringing their arguments, games and stacks of books. In a very short time, customers who came in wondered whether this was a professional business or a frat party with books. After hanging on for three years, each year leaner than the last as the fan-friends multiplied and the paying customers decreased, Tam bowed to the immutable laws of economics. She packed up her books and locked the doors for the last time.

It's been more than three decades since I first stumbled into Dream Quest Books, but sometimes it seems only yesterday. I recall the books I bought there, the spirited chats I had with Tam, the dreams all of us had about becoming famous science fiction writers, and our hopes and fears about the future. I suppose I am at my most nostalgic when I think about how bookstores have declined since then, and I tell myself that if Dream Quest Books had not closed then, it surely would have done so before the turn of the century. Now, Chula Vista has no bookstores, and of the thirty or so that were in downtown San Diego, none remain; the sixty or so bookstores that existed in the various neighborhoods can now be counted on two hands, with some fingers left over, and even they tend to do more business on the internet than with walk-in browsers. So, what's the point of this story? Perhaps it's a cautionary tale for anyone wanting to run a business. But, mostly, I just wanted to let people know there was once a bookstore in San Diego called Dream Quest Books and that for too-short a lustrum it was a place of wonder, gone forever, but still there when I quest in my dreams.

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