Local Chiller Brings Books to the People
words NOAH DEWITT
It’s a grey, dripping afternoon on the cusp of countryside in outer Eugene, Ore., and Arthur Ezra Tishman sits in “The Hole,” a cluttered book warehouse in the basement of his home. Forty-four stocked bookcases, each roughly 4’ by 5’, span most of the space. In a separate room, boxes of books stack up to eye level, and little piles of literature are strewn about an office area in the corner of the basement.
The telephone on the desk rings. Tishman abandons the task at hand (gobbling the final bites of a Subway turkey sandwich with everything on it except lettuce) and swivels in his chair to tap the speakerphone button. “Ezra the Bookfinder, how can I help you?” he says.
Tishman tracks down hard-to-find books for a living. The calls trickle in every day from obsessive collectors and lay readers alike, sending him on an internet hunt for out-of-print editions, thread-bound anthologies, and antique children’s books. He’s a literary sleuth, the Sherlock Holmes of the yellowed page. Portland’s Powell’s Books, which many people turn to for rare reads, has been referring customers to him for 10 years.
Tishman’s business, Aardvark Books, also entails selling from his online book catalogue as well as vending page-turners for cheap via Gertie, his bookstore on wheels. Inspired by Parnassus on Wheels, a 1917 novel about a horse-drawn book carriage, Tishman bought the 30-foot-long blue and white bookmobile on a whim in 2005. On weekends when rain isn’t in the forecast (in Eugene, this is somewhat rare), Tishman packs Gertie full of cheap books, many of them classics like Twain and Steinbeck, and opens up shop on the streets of Eugene. In short, he says, he unites books with their people.
In today’s case, an older woman with a quavering voice is calling in search of an out-of-print gospel songbook that she remembers from her childhood. Before giving the specs on the book in question, she asks Tishman how things have been.
“Blessings, blessings,” he answers. “I feel like I’m a blessed person.” After a childhood of adversity, decades of vocation hopping, and a close call with a brain tumor in 2001, Tishman, 60, has come to recognize every moment of life as a blessing.
Tishman was born in 1950 and grew up the eldest of five in Pittsburgh. Thrown out of the house at 17, he skipped 60 days of his junior year, and his grades suffered. But when a foster family took him in, he finished high school on a high note and achieved a full-ride scholarship to any school of his choosing. “Maybe somebody applied for it in my name because they thought I was smart and fucked up,” Tishman says. He chose Goddard College, which he discovered on a hitchhiking excursion through Vermont.
In 1971, Tishman worked producing press releases at the Harvard University news office for a non-resident trimester, which gave him access to the Ivy League school’s famous libraries. One day, he impulsively lugged a box of books to Harvard Yard. He wore pointy rubber elf feet and wielded an Indian taxi horn. Standing in front of the Holyoak Center in his outlandish getup, he honked the horn and without words placed books in the hands of strangers. “There were these books. I was done with them. I wanted to pass them on,” he says.
Although he has replaced the elf shoes with black leather boots, the honker with a bus-sized storefront and the box with a basement-full of literature, 40 years later, the picture is much the same. But between the quirky college kid who handed out books and the professional Bookfinder he is today, Tishman accrued a shocking wealth of experience: He worked dozens of jobs all over the country, married, raised a son named Charles, channeled his poetic muse, divorced, remarried, divorced again, received a Masters in creative writing at Boston University, studied under Indian spiritual teacher Sai Baba, and married for a third time to University of Oregon English professor Lisa Freinkel. Oh, and then there was that time he fully recovered from brain surgery.
Days after asking Freinkel to marry him, he learned he had a brain tumor on his occipital lobe; although it was benign, it could have killed his sense of sight. He had it removed at a research hospital in San Francisco by a surgeon who had been performing the same operation six to eight times a week for 15 years. “I remember he had big fat fingers like mine, and he took nine hours to do the surgery… If I had had someone less skillful, I’d be here in a wheel chair, sipping my omelet through a straw,” he says, seated on his living room sofa. He wears rectangular glasses, braided leather suspenders and a mustache the breadth of his smile.
“That experience reaffirmed my belief that we’re here, and then we’re not. And don’t waste your fucking time. Right?” he says.
So as an able-bodied Tishman sits down at his favorite diner to enjoy an omelet with hash browns and bacon, not through a straw but with a fork and knife, he whips out his smart phone and texts a quick blessing to his loved ones: “In gratitude do I pause before this holy breakfast offering, asking that its bounties, blessings, and energies be translated and directed towards serving and alleviating suffering wherever I find it.” The man loves breakfast.
Everybody has a different version of Tishman, says Larisa Devine, who manages the online business for Aardvark Books. “He’s Art, Artemus, Arthur, Ezra. And it all depends on if they knew him when he lived in Pittsburgh, when he was fishing in Alaska, when he was a mailman in Vermont, or riding motorcycles across the country as a beatnik,” she says.
Devine and Tishman met through her then-boyfriend, Ben Saunders, who teaches Shakespeare with Freinkel at the University of Oregon. She began working for him four years ago, and they soon became good friends. He was one of the only guests at her and Saunders’ wedding, and he was in the room when her daughter Bronwyn was born.
“He’s the type of personality that’s everywhere all at once,” Devine says. “So I organize. I organize him in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t quite call myself his personal assistant, but it’s getting close these days.” When Tishman’s attempts at multitasking aren’t getting him anywhere, Devine says, she will remind him what he was doing, rein him in, keep him focused.
But despite her best efforts, chaos often prevails in The Hole. “A lot of the books in the basement are not even listed online,” Devine says. “They’re just kind of there.” And the influx never stops. Clients and acquaintances contact Tishman periodically with books to sell or donate. Tishman is even named in one client’s will as the heir to his personal library.
Tishman is currently in the process of founding a non-profit called Books to the People, which will give books to “the young, the old, the book-hungry and the book-poor” free of charge, according to the organization’s website. Once he secures funding and 501(c)(3) non-profit status, Gertie will become the permanent vehicle of Books to the People.
Gertie wasn’t necessarily a moneymaking thing to begin with, says Eli Espinoza, 24, who helped operate Gertie for three years and serves on the board of directors for Books to the People. “Being around Tishman and Gertie means understanding what kind of joy comes from doing what you love,” he says.
“I like to tell people I started the business because I owned too many books, but really that’s an oxymoron,” Tishman says. “A person can’t have too many books. Not as long as you share them.”
Fall Issue of Oregon Voice
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