Reflections

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The time I bought half-interest in a newspaper from a man with wooden teeth

Part One: Talk about the best laid plans … this one wasn’t.

In June 1980, I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley where I had been editor of the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian. That experience convinced me that newspaper people were a sick breed, and that I ought to be one of them.

By rights, I should have gathered my clips and gone looking for a job at the Nowhere Gazette, working long hours for low pay and learning bitterness.

But I’d been what was then called a “nuke nut” who feared Armageddon might be nigh, and before then, I thought I’d try my hand at publishing. It also seemed to make sense to find some arable land, outside the blast zones and fallout patterns. Putting it all together I decided to become a gentleman-farmer and publisher.

That I knew little about this community where I was fixing to commence newspapering wasn’t troublesome. I was 25. What could go wrong?

But where? The north coast city of Eureka, and the neighboring college town of Arcata, looked too small to be targets yet big enough to feel cosmopolitan. They had a food co-operative. That I knew little about this community where I was fixing to commence newspapering wasn’t troublesome. I was 25. What could go wrong?

My partner was a young woman who had $10,000 from an insurance settlement, who dropped out of college to join me. I borrowed $10,000 in match funds from my siblings. We rented a live/work flat in a Victorian house with curved lead windows and a turret. We bought a typesetting machine to produce text and ad copy for our newspaper. I promised my partner that we’d become newspaper entrepreneurs, and not typesetters, and my siblings that we’d pay them back. One of those promises I kept.

By August 1980, we were ready to launch. All I had to do was go out and sell ads. But as I turned on the car to get going, I heard a jingle on the radio inviting people to shop Friendly Henderson Center. I realized I had no idea where that was, and the preposterous of my plan struck me hard and all at once.

I killed the engine and walked back to the flat to ask my partner, “What next?” We were 270 miles north of San Francisco, with a typesetting machine and a layout table. We could open a shop to do graphic design, brochures, company newsletters and whatever. We could become typesetters. That way we could at least pay back my siblings.

That provoked the first of many heated discussions which we finally settled 35 years later in divorce. Meanwhile, by October 1980, friendly people had helped us get out the word that we did good typesetting, and cheap.

Soon, this positive word of mouth brought to our shop a a man whose remarkable persuasiveness was undiminished by the fact that he removed his wooden teeth and set them on our counter to lick his gums for lubrication before replacing them to explain what he was about (to be continued).

(This is the first part of a story I first published in November 2006. It appears here in an edited form.)

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