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AL MARTINEZ

A poignant farewell to a radical refuge

March 07, 2003|AL MARTINEZ

The empty building has the ghostly appearance of a haunted house, illuminated as it is by a dim bulb in the rear of the store. There is a terrible loneliness to the vacancy, in stark contrast to the music and voices that flow by outside.

I am at Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, standing before what used to be the Midnight Special bookstore. It's Saturday night. Owner Marge Ghiz and her employees moved out the last of a thousand boxes of books earlier in the day to be stored in warehouses until a new location can be found.

"It's sad," she said as the books were being loaded. "So many amazing people have come through the door." She paused, filled with the emotion of the moment. "And now the door is closing."

For two decades the store has been home to the kinds of books you can't buy at Borders. They were titles that rarely made bestseller lists, political and intellectual tracts that appealed to a kind of literate counterculture that reads not necessarily to be amused but to be informed.

Midnight Special had a liberal-radical slant and attracted customers with a similar tilt. Its back room, once filled with folding chairs, beckoned writers out hustling their new books and audiences asking tough questions. Demands for a new world were raised there, because in the storied back room, the revolution was never over.

Paul Krassner, last of the red-hot radicals, was the embodiment of the kind of people the store attracted. He was co-founder of the revolutionary Yippies and among those who turned Chicago into a showcase for the anti-Vietnam War movement at the 1968 Democratic convention.

On his last visit, in June, he talked about his latest book, "Murder at the Conspiracy Convention," a collection of cultural critiques and political attacks on just about anyone feeding at the public trough. His audience that night was a mixed crowd of young, middle-aged and elderly, many of whom had marched through the streets once and are marching again, demanding peace on the brink of war.

The back room was the kind of forum where a speaker could get it on with an audience never reluctant to bring anyone down to size. I hustled some of my own books there and was pinned to the wall once or twice by questioners who sensed when I was being evasive or simply didn't know what in hell I was talking about.

You make a lot of appearances when you have a new book out, and at most places the questions are about as tepid as bird twitter: Where do you get your ideas and how long does it take to write a book and would you be interested in reading a manuscript, 1,200 pages dealing with sex among the woolly mammoths? At Midnight Special the audience wanted sources and motivation and would stand up, point and demand that you justify and defend your beliefs. It was heady stuff, and you came away better for it.

The owner of the property gave the store a break on rent for years but couldn't afford to maintain his generosity. Ghiz says she was paying only about 25% of market value, which is roughly $10 a square foot. With 5,000 square feet, the rent at Midnight Special would have been increased to about $50,000 a month.

"We could never sell enough books to pay it," Ghiz said. "The Promenade has become 'billboard alley,' where large chains come to be seen. They can afford it." Pause, softer, "We were what democracy is supposed to be, a place of discussion. People were introduced to ideas. And now it's gone."

She is vowing to open elsewhere, but it won't be the same. This place was unique, an anomaly on a block of glitz. I stand before it looking at the words still left on the windows, banners that ask and demand "Whose War Is It Anyway?" and "Stop the Iraq War Before It Starts."

Activist Jerry Rubin works his peace table out front and an old woman pushes an empty wheelchair bearing a hand-made sign that says "War Is Not the Answer." She jiggles a donation jar as she walks, competing with the noise made by a guitarist nearby and tunes from an amplified keyboard a short distance away. Many stop by to read the posters and study the cartoons still in the window of Midnight Special. One woman, almost in tears, turns to me and asks, "Why are they doing this?"

It's Saturday night and the Promenade is jammed. Only that small corner of intellectual contention is ghostly still, and the back room is gone.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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