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Nestled on Berkeley’s San Pablo Avenue is an iconic fixture in its own right — an independent, nonprofit publisher that has withstood the general test of time and the specific circumstances of publishing industry challenges and COVID-19. That fixture is Heyday Books, founded in 1974 and still going strong in 2022.
Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman comments, “There was no question that two years ago, on the onset [of the pandemic], we, like most businesses in the country, really suffered an initial hiccup, to say the least. … But in the last two years, we’ve enjoyed the most robust sales in the company’s nearly 50-year history. Turns out that the kinds of books that we publish are really books that people want to own.”
Over the course of its almost five decades, Heyday has published more than 250 titles; it currently puts out 18 to 20 titles a year — a mixture of reprints and new releases. Most of the books in that steady publishing stream are nonfiction, and many focus on California, stemming from Heyday founder Malcolm Margolin’s fascination with the state’s landscape, Native cultures and history.
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Wasserman shares about Margolin’s initial California encounter, “When Malcolm got to these shores and looked out across the Golden Gate and saw the sun beginning to set, he said, ‘I need not travel any farther. I’ve reached the promised land.’”
Having driven across the country in a VW van and eventually settling in Berkeley, Margolin was inspired to learn more about where he lived — the environment, nature and Indigenous communities, such as the Ohlone. The interest in becoming better acquainted with California’s past in connection with its present subsequently led to Margolin’s self-publishing of his own book, “The Ohlone Way,” as well as to his establishment of Heyday.
Wasserman notes, “Very quickly, Heyday began to publish books celebrating and defending nature and the environment. It had a special interest in California’s more than 100 tribes, and it had a particular interest in the ways in which these Native peoples resisted the effort to exterminate them and had sought ways to preserve their culture through tactics of resilience and survival.”
Margolin retired in 2016 and is now Heyday’s publisher emeritus; the publishing company is now co-led by Wasserman, who’s been in the publisher role for six years, and Gayle Wattawa, general manager and editorial director.
Says Wattawa of Heyday, “I’ve been there 18 years now. And I mean, I love it. … It’s just a really, really cool place with very cool people. We do books that just make you feel like work has meaning.”
Heyday continues to publish California-focused work, with standouts such as Leanne Hinton’s books on California’s Indigenous languages, artist Tom Killion’s Mount Tamalpais prints and note cards, John Muir Laws’ nature-themed guides of the Sierras and Obi Kaufmann’s bestselling California field atlases.
Kaufmann’s “The Coasts of California: A California Field Atlas,” released in April 2022, features watercolor illustrations and maps as well as detailed information about the coastline. It is the third in his series of field atlases; the fourth installment, on California’s deserts, is in progress.
Wasserman comments, “Each of these books are about 500 pages, several 100 drawings, color throughout. … He’s just a remarkable talent, and we have been extraordinarily pleased to provide a home for this remarkable work.”
There’s also Heyday’s renowned Berkeley Roundhouse program — celebrating its 10th anniversary — that draws attention to California Indian cultures and history via Heyday Books and the quarterly magazine, News From Native California, in its 35th year.
Says Wattawa, “The program has been wonderful — very well supported in the community, by writers. And a California Native [Terria Smith] is leading the program.”
Heyday’s expansive catalog includes genres such as “Politics,” “Social Justice,” “African American Studies,” “Asian and Asian American Studies” and “Latinx Studies.” Notably, Heyday recently published Atava Garcia Swiecicki’s “The Curanderx Toolkit: Reclaiming Ancestral Latinx Plant Medicine and Rituals for Healing.”
Wattawa explains, “It’s all about curanderismo and all these Latinx heritage ancestral urban infusions and healing and energy, and it’s really cool. [Latin American studies] is an area we definitely want to do more with — Latinx writers, thinkers and artists.”
The titles Heyday publishes certainly have a multitude of readers in California, but their popularity — and purchases — also extend beyond the Golden State, thanks in large part to their national distribution through Publishers Group West.
As Wasserman shares, “That’s one of the things that I was keen to put into place because I always thought that California was not only a physical place, but it was also a state of mind. … There is something widely known as the California Dream — a dream of enfranchisement and equity. And I thought that the potential readership for the books of Heyday was far larger than just the readers who happen to live in the state of California. So now our books can be found in bookstores all over the country, and even internationally.”
Both Wasserman and Wattawa are looking forward to celebrating Heyday’s 50th anniversary, as it signifies the opportunity to continue adding to its publisher catalog and expand its readership ever further. Fifty years is also a milestone for any organization to reach, especially for a publishing company.
Wasserman notes, “In this world, it is very easy to kill off things. It’s very hard to give birth to things, much less institutions that can survive the challenges that are presented over time and circumstance. And this is particularly true for publishers because we live in an age where the art of reading and attention spans are under siege by all the distractions of the industrial infotainment industry.”
But there’s just something about a physical book, particularly one that both the author and the publishing company put considerable time and effort into, as well as thoughtfulness toward, that continues to resonate with readers.
As Wasserman assesses, “People can sense that the object in the hand is a pleasure that is really unrivaled. And it’s not just a mere conveyance of information, but it’s the notion that within these pages, we are offering something that looks like hope. That finds a genuine echo of enthusiasm among many readers, and certainly enough readers to support our staff to keep us in business. And actually, not only to help us survive, but also to thrive.”
For more information about Heyday Books’ forthcoming releases and upcoming events, visit https://www.heydaybooks.com/.