Art is Love is God
Rebekah Weikel in conversation with Tosh Berman.
I met Tosh Berman in June 2010 after taking a job in the publicity department at West Hollywood’s premier bookseller, Book Soup. This “department” consisted of my boss and I. At the time, Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena had just purchased Book Soup. Both stores were undergoing structural changes, leaving my boss to split her time between the two locations. Most days, I worked alone in the office with one other person, Book Soup’s book buyer at the time, Tosh Berman.
The office was above the store, a fixture since 1977 on the “Sunset Strip”, a steady and seedy Los Angeles tourist destination. Spacious and airy, the office’s steel-framed windows lay open while we worked, filtering in the low hum of outside foot traffic and occasional California breeze. If one listened close enough, you could faintly make out the sound of sales being rung through the store’s cash registers below.
“Bookseller to the Great and Infamous”, Book Soup was a celebrity hub. Diane Keaton, Elton John, John Waters were regular shoppers. Paris Hilton would come in, slither through the aisles while whispering on her cell-phone and end up in the Self-Help section while paparazzi snapped her photo through the store windows. Not a day passed when there wasn’t some “celebrity stir.”
Book Soup specialized in celebrity book signings. While I was employed, Janet Jackson, members of Def Leppard, David Lynch, Eric Idle… Lisa Rinna all sat in the author’s chair, a Sharpie in hand, while staff handed them book after book, each opened to their title page for the sake of time and convenience. If a book was tied to a celebrity – whether a memoir or a photo retrospective – Book Soup booked it. Mile long lines made up of shrieking fans would form for these signings, snaking around the corner of Sunset and Holloway Drive causing traffic jams and news cameras to take post.
While this chaos generated unending amounts of work for me, Tosh Berman sat quietly in a desk with his back against mine. Fitting himself between tall stacks of paperwork and publisher catalogues, he kept mostly to himself, busied with the task of filling the shelves of one of Los Angeles’ most popular book stops. I’d do my own work, looking over at times to find Tosh, fully immersed in his own world; his head would bob from side to side as he “tipped” and “tapped” away on his computer keyboard, resembling the solitary, intuitive genius of Glenn Gould on a piano.
Book buying is an art form, one that Tosh did quite well. Rare titles made up a good portion of the store’s tall shelves, but were carefully balanced with large-market blockbusters. Tosh knew how to keep publishers happy, all the while managing a dignified selection of university and small-press titles, lithographs and foreign imports. While most bookstores relied on algorithms and sales reports to dictate their inventory, Tosh studied each publisher’s catalogue, cover-to-cover, hand selecting each title based on his flawless taste and innate gift for bookselling.
Tosh took many gambles as a buyer, the greatest being Commedia dell’Arte (Couture Edition), the most expensive book to ever retail at $10,500. Custom-bound with an embossed silk-lined cover, the book introduced sixteen newly released Franz Anton Bustelle porcelain figures redressed by such world-renowned fashion designers as Vivienne Westwood, Christian Lacroix, and Victor & Rolf. Commedia dell’Arte was not up for consignment. Merchants had to pay cash down at wholesale price, no returns. If it sold, great; if it didn’t, you lost… and you lost big.
Tosh bought Commedia dell’Arte for the store making Book Soup the only commercial retailer for the title in America. The book arrived hand-carried in a security case. Gloves were required to touch it. Within twenty-four (very tense) hours, the book sold: A regular – a well-known English musician – entered to pay by credit, leaving his driver to maneuver this extravagance into the trunk of an illegally-parked black SUV while the musician waited behind its tinted windows. Paparazzi sat meters away with cameras, making sure not to breach the agreement made about what constitutes “private property”.
Tosh’s presence lit up the store in a way that no major-league superstar could. Though he didn’t garner the same “stir” as they, Tosh was a character – had character – and was well-known in local literary circles. He was easy to spot in his signature striped t-shirts and black-rimmed glasses, and had haunted the halls of Book Soup for nearly twenty years. After Book Soup’s original owner, Glenn Goldman, died of cancer in 2009, Tosh became “the face” of Book Soup. He was heavily tied to its past and gave regular customers the needed assurance that the bookstore would continue on, tastefully, despite its great loss.
I got to know Tosh quite well during my two and half years at Book Soup. Throughout each work day, we’d lean back in our chairs and take a few minutes to chat, mostly about the usual – books – while also discussing the ups and downs of both being publishers of small presses.
In 2008, Tosh published the first title under his TamTam Books imprint, an English translation of I Spit on Your Graves by French provocateur, Boris Vian. Despite TamTam’s focus on 20th century French literature translations, its catalogue presents a small selection of just enough miscellanea to reveal the ulterior loves of the man behind the curtain: The music of Sparks and the work of his wife, artist Lun*na Menoh.
I came to admire Tosh as not only a good man, but as one of few people to uncover the secret of real “success”: Do what you love and do not waste time on anything less.
A man that values leisure, most of Tosh’s free time was spent on city transit with his nose in a book or at a local restaurant during happy hour with a glass of wine. On many occasion, I remember lunching with Tosh in a booth at Mirabelle (now closed after 43 years), a plate of tuna tartar between us, as we swapped stories about our lives and family. It was during such respites that I learned how deep Tosh’s love ran for his work and parents, things which frame him. Tosh spoke about losing his father, one of California’s greatest artists, Wallace Berman, at the age of 16, his mother of whom remains a dear friend to this day, and of course, his wife, Lun*nah… one of the few “real geniuses” Tosh counts meeting over his lifetime.
Tosh retired from Book Soup in the summer of 2012 to better focus his time on his book press. I left my position at Book Soup not too long after to do the same.
I spoke with Tosh about his work as a publisher, Boris Vian, growing up a Berman, and The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding, a poetry book Tosh penned in 1989 and that my press, Penny-Ante, has recently put back in print.
Rebekah Weikel: Why publish?
Tosh Berman: Well, the only thing, and I mean the only thing, I liked about elementary school was when the teacher allowed us to bring an object to class and explain to the class why we liked said-object. Publishing to me is pretty much the same thing. I look at the world and wonder why some people are unaware of this subject matter, or who this or that person is. What I try to do is uncover that mystery to what I presume is the general public, the main subject matter of my press being Boris Vian, a key figure in the arts scene in post-war Paris.
RW: You’ve now published seven Boris Vian titles in English, the latest and final being Red Grass, otherwise known in French as L’Herbe rouge. Red Grass is a different Vian than the Vian who wrote Foam of the Daze. More miserable than melancholy; there’s a certain sourness, a hostility and dwelling on the idea of death.
TB: Yes. I think there’s always a sense of sadness in Vian’s work, but this often times gets hidden by his humor or the surrealistic qualities in the writing, but Red Grass is indeed a very sad book. While writing Red Grass, Vian was reeling from rejection, both in the literary world and romantically. There were problems in his marriage, which eventually led his wife to take-up with Jean-Paul Sartre, someone Vian admired. Foam of the Daze wasn’t really embraced until May 1968 [and was published much earlier in 1947]. He started with very high hopes as an author and I believe ended feeling mostly a failure. Yet, his work is remarkable and genius-like.
In his lifetime, he was mostly only known for a scandal surrounding his book I Spit On Your Graves, his place in social circles, and being known as the Prince of Saint Germain-des-Prés. His singing career wasn’t much of a hit at the time either… though, in my mind, he was sort of like the Velvet Underground: Technically a failed outfit, but something that goes on to influence many. Plus, there is the bigger picture to look at in regards to what was happening with France or Paris at the time. The Occupation must have had an effect on Vian and his world. Terrible times.
RW: Your father, Wallace Berman, self-published a handmade folio journal, Semina from 1955 to 1964. How might his work with Semina inform your own path as a publisher?
TB: If I got anything from my father, it would be the “show and tell” aspect of presenting something unknown to another person. I don’t think my dad felt as if Semina were a public piece. He distributed Semina to very specific people he admired. If he hand-gave it to someone, it meant he thought that they were really interesting. I, on the other hand, present TamTam books to the public, but of course, due to the subject matter and the niche market, it will never really reach the masses. That said, I am quite happy to reach a dedicated audience over the alternative. Wallace never thought of a crowd or the masses, only individuals. He felt Semina was perfect for a specific person. He couldn’t care less about the world outside his orbit.
RW: I read your book, Tosh: Sparks-tastic: Twenty-One Nights with Sparks In London. You touch on the struggle you sometimes encounter as the head of your father’s estate; that it’s a full-time job and one that demands your memories of him by curators, which can be overwhelmingly sad at times.
TB: Yes, but it’s impossible for me to separate myself from my father. First and foremost, I am proud to be his son and I am proud that he’s my father. I will always be associated with my father due to his legacy, and this of course is fine, but I think it’s important that I pursue my own identity. Wallace was a huge presence, on people in his life and now in the arts world, so of course I am one of the few left that are privy to the details – “what it was like,” and so forth – but there are complexities in a father and son relationship, and the fact that so many are curious about his work, his life, and his family is quite a chore to handle. But I never tire of talking about him or my family. They’re fascinating.
RW: Let’s talk a bit about your family as a unit. I think what becomes increasingly clear as one gets to know you is how tight the bond was between you three.
TB: Yes, growing up, I didn’t really have an outside life outside my parent’s world. It wasn’t until I became a teenager and discovered what it was like to drive down the freeway with a car full of girls that I realized I had a life outside the family structure, but even that distancing was an illusion, because I think it’s ultimately hard to divorce oneself from one’s origins.
My parents took me everywhere: Adult parties, bars if they would allow me in, and I went along to music shows as well. As a youngster I was very much a part of their unit; almost gang-like, really. Saying that though, I was very much raised in a traditional home. I always had a father and a mother in the house, probably more so than other households… though in my case, which at the time was a bit untraditional, I had a dad that worked at home, so he was always there.
As a child and teenager, I pretty much had their full support and love to do what I wanted. There was no pressure for me to go to school even. My father had no understanding of the school system whatsoever. College didn’t mean anything to him, so I think I had a certain freedom that I don’t think many have… and a family’s love and support, which pretty much freed me from the restrictions of society’s constructions.
And you were a bit similar you have said?
RW: To a certain extent, yes, but under much different circumstances. I had a great deal of freedom, but it was only because I proved mostly wholesome early on. My mother often let me stay home from school, but only because I’d opt to spend the day at home with her reading or studying up on subjects. Defiance hadn’t yet dawned on me… The “family as a unit” though, is something I identity with greatly. My parents were my friends. They seemed odd. I felt odd. It made sense we stuck together.
You mentioned in a Los Angeles Times interview with David Ulin that you dream about your father often. I’m curious how this affects you. A good or bad thing?
TB: The dream issue is not a black and white thing with me. It really depends on a lot of factors. I dream about my father almost every night. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is perfectly okay… only once do I remember that I was talking to him in a dream and I realized [in the dream] he was dead, which depressed me when I woke and stuck with me for quite a while. Though normally when I dream about my father, he is just a character that runs through the dream’s narrative. I don’t think it has either a positive or negative force in my life.
RW: Do your dreams have any impact on your writing?
TB: Sure. Creatively though, it’s not so much a person, but more often the situation of a dream that inspires me. Also, location is very important. I often dream of cities that turn into other cities. Like, for instance, I take a bus from my home in Los Angeles and end up in Tokyo. That happens a lot in my dreams, and I kind of use that in my writing.
RW: There were a handful of dreams you wrote down in Sparks-tastic. One stayed with me: A house weeping; Windows as eyes, shedding tears. There is a certain kinship to your writing and that of Vian’s, a dreamlike current that runs subtlety under, emerging periodically. Could you say this is largely attributed to your early exposure to the Surrealists as a child?
TB: I was very much raised around French Surrealist literature, or at the very least the roots of Modernist poetry such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Overall, the Surrealists had a huge affect on my writing and thinking. To me Surrealism is sort of like the blues. It is the basis of modern 20th Century music, and Surrealism led me to all the other “isms” that are out there. DADA literature became very important to me, especially Tristian Tzara. With respect to Surrealism, Andre Breton’s Nadja was big… and, I don’t know if Guy Debord would admit this, a huge influence on Situationist-thinking. Vian was very much schooled in Surrealism and the Letterist/Situationist things that were happening when he was alive. In fact, he sort of jokes about Letterism in Autumn in Peking.
I feel very close to Vian’s writings, due to the fact that music plays a big part in his work and other references to pop culture. Whenever I write, I think of Vian, as well as the Japanese writer Osamu Dazai.
RW: Contesting your statements, I’d like to remind you that your father did push you in one direction. Beauty school fail-out?
TB: Yes, as I approached the end of my high school years, I had to figure out how to “do something.” My father thought it would be a good idea if I went to beauty school to learn to be a hairdresser. This wasn’t out of left field, but rather very practical. My uncle, Donald, my Mom’s brother, is a well-known hairdresser in Los Angeles. My parents theorized that I would go to beauty school and become Donald ‘s assistant. I don’t know if Donald knew this or even approved of this plan, but nevertheless, I went to beauty school.
Newsberry School of Beauty was located in the Topanga Plaza in Woodland Hills on the bottom floor. From 8:30 to 5, I went to this school to study beauty. I thought I understood “beauty,” but soon realized I did not know how to “make beauty.” The first thing one learns is how to work with a mannequin head doing spit curls and the fine art of hair washing. The beauty school was one large room, and in the back, away from the view of the paying customers, is where we practiced on these dummies.
It usually takes two weeks to learn the basics of shampooing, hair-curling, and basic haircutting. After those two weeks, the students move to the main floor to work with customers. I, on the other hand, remained in the back room for much longer still struggling with a mannequin head.
Out of pity I believe, my teachers eventually put me on the floor. This – and all parties would agree – was a huge mistake. Numerous times I poured water down on various women’s backs and I often times left the bleach on a tad too long. The only thing I could do is give a facial. I was pretty good at this… although I did poke a customer in the eye once. After a while, I was called to the back room where all the instructors were waiting, and they basically told me that I would never make it as a hairdresser. So, they told me to leave. I was heartbroken, because I really tried to do the work, but just couldn’t for some reason. My first tragedy.
RW: Let’s talk about The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding, now reissued by Penny-Ante. The original edition surfaced out of Japan in 1991, limited to 250 copies.
TB: That book was written during a combination of despair and adventure. I was in a situation where my mother-in-law was dying and I had to be in Japan to support [my wife] Lun*na [Menoh]. I had pretty much given up my life in Los Angeles to live in Japan, and not only that, but live in [Mojo-Ko,] a very small town. I didn’t know the language or the culture that well. The only thing I knew about Japan was Kurosawa films, Mishima’s novels, and the Japanese group, Sadistic Mika Band. I didn’t even know how to use chop sticks!
RW: You’ve said The Plum acted as a journal of sorts…
TB: Yes. Some of the pieces were originally written in Los Angeles, but then I went on to completely re-write them in Japan, and add additional poems. I wanted the book to become a kind of journal, where all the work pertains to the period and experience. I had always written poetry, but very bad poetry. Through the combination of not really being able to talk to anyone – this was pre-internet – and not hearing English on a day-to-day basis, this book is what came. It was everything I observed at that time, filtered through my experiences.
I always had a “collection” in mind. I’ve never written a poem to stand alone. I’ve always written poetry intending each poem for part of a collection. Like music, I am very much an albums-orientated person; I don’t like individual songs that much. I think a book of poems should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but as Jean-Luc Godard once said: “Not necessary in that order!”
RW: Speaking of albums, there are several references to musicians in The Plum. Cole Porter, Petula Clark. Music is clearly something very important to you. You picked-up this love early, yes?
TB: Yes, I learned a lot just by hanging out with my dad in his studio when I was a teenager. He would share his music with me and it was often as a young tot that I would go through his record collection. He had very strong, progressive taste in contemporary music of the time. Even though he was jazzier, he liked pop music too, so through him, I got a taste of songs that were played on the radio, but everything was filtered through his sensibility. He brought the Beatles and Stones albums into the house. I remember he also had the first Fugs album put out by Folkways Records… I think he got that as a gift from Allen Ginsberg, as well as the first Velvets album.
So while my dad worked, I was his private deejay. I knew the music he liked, which was jazz, and these 45rpm singles, like The Kinks, The Foundations, and so forth… “Game of Love” by the Mindbenders is one I remember being played a lot and quite a bit of Motown as well. So, a love of music is something we both shared.
While I was in Japan writing The Plum, Lun*na’s father purchased a boombox for me. Unlike the U.S., Japan is full of rental shops that not only rent[ed] VHS – remember this was 1989 – but also CDs. So, for ¥200, you could rent a CD and go home to make a copy of it on cassette. Japan sold blank cassettes that fit the time of an entire album. I spent a lot of time at the rental CD shop in Moji-Ko. I remember coming across Yellow Magic Orchestra. YMO didn’t impress me as much as Omni Sight Seeing, a solo album by one of its members, Haruomi Hosono. I taped this CD from my boombox. The album, even when I hear it now, brings back the memory of life in Moji-Ko as well as writing The Plum In Mr. Blum’s Pudding. So, Hosono was on my mind at the time, who not only incorporated music from Japan, but also from Europe, the Middle East, and even American jazz, which, at the time, really got me going on my book. If Hosono could mix cultures on his album, then surely I could mix locations and images in my book of poems.
RW: The production on the original The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding is quite unique.
TB: I was given money in Japan to produce a book. Lun*na designed the original cover after much chit-chat about the style I wanted. The original book’s cover is made up of Japanese rice paper, so it’s very delicate and placed in a plastic cover to protect the paper from elements. It could only have been done in Japan. The printing press wasn’t far from me. I still love the book… it’s kind of bittersweet to read. The original edition is published by “Cole Swift & Sons.” I chose the name in honor of Cole Porter and Jonathan Swift. I was re-reading Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels while I was writing The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding.
RW: In an email you sent to me about the book, you said you felt very isolated during your stay in Japan.
TB: Yes. It’s always hard when you’re in a new country, especially when you don’t speak the language. But I think, too, it was just a very sad time considering the circumstances of Lun*na’s mother being ill. We were based in Mojo-Ko, a suburb of sorts outside Kitakyushu. Mojo-Ko was a port town that was once an important and large shipping area before World War II. Very close to Korea. There was often consistent travel between Moji-Ko and Busan with respects to its merchants, but after the war, the area lost their shipping business and became a somewhat exotic area outside Kitakyushu. So, after moving [from Los Angeles] to this somewhat desolated area, I didn’t hear from anyone aside from a few letters from my mother in Los Angeles. It was almost as if I died, and I wasn’t in anyone’s mind or hearts anymore. I felt abandoned and I wasn’t sure where life was leading me or how long I’d be in Japan. It dawned on me that my life or past in the United States might be left a memory. It was with this in mind that I started to write and put together The Plum In Mr. Blum’s Pudding. I wanted to produce something I could be remembered by.
I often felt like an alien. I was the only foreigner in the area, and I remember children would either stare or draw a picture of me to show off to their parents or friends. When I walked around Moji-Ko, which was on a consistent basis, I felt very much like “The Man Who Fell To Earth.”
RW: You said something to me once over a lunch… that you didn’t “need people” necessarily, that you’re quite fine on your own, without engaging. It struck me, mostly because I find that you’re so well-received in social situations.
TB: This really comes down to me being an only child. I didn’t have a lot of friends on a day-to-day basis, so I was very much a loner. Though, I would say I had fine social skills, but I don’t think I learned any from being at school, say, necessarily. I think it was partly my parents and probably from watching movies as a teenager. I was attracted to the Cary Grant-style of actor and I think I attempted to adopt his behavior or style over the years.
I like people very much, but I don’t have a strong ‘need’ to be with people.
Generally, there are people I know who refuse to go out – to a show or a film – by themselves. They couldn’t possibly think of it, whereas I love going to shows and movies by myself. I’m not really one to leave the house and go to an event for the social aspect. I go to the event or show plainly to see the work… to engage with the artist, musician, or director, one-to-one. I don’t mind going to events with friends, but it is a totally different experience when you go on your own. It’s you… together with the work.
RW: The work is your friend?
TB: Exactly. The work is your friend.
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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Rebekah Weikel works as the editorial director at Penny-Ante, which has published works by authors Stewart Home, Momus, Jarett Kobek and Masha Tupitsyn. The new edition of Tosh Berman’s The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding includes an introduction by arts critic Kristine McKenna and an afterward by one-time Book Soup employee, Ruth Bernstein. She is based between Los Angeles and Melbourne.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 1st, 2014.