Q&A: An illuminator of local history, nature

Name: Malcolm Margolin
Age: 75
City: Berkeley
Position: Author, retired publisher of Heyday Books

J.: In 2001, you founded a magazine, Bay Nature, that helps give people a better understanding of our region. What is it that you love about the Bay Area?

Malcolm Margolin: It’s beautiful here, but not beautiful the way the Mendocino coast or the Sierras are beautiful. Here, you appreciate the beauty gradually. It’s something in the subtleties, and I think that’s more of an honest relationship, one that takes in the complexity, the nuances, the depth of it all.

A friend once said to me that in India you get married and then fall in love, and in America, it’s the reverse. I ended up in the Bay Area not because I wanted to be here, but because I was stuck here — and I came to love it.
You also founded News from Native California, a quarterly magazine about traditional and contemporary tribal culture written and produced by California Indians. How does magazine publishing differ from book publishing?

With magazines, you have subscribers, you cultivate an audience, you educate. A magazine can be a marvelous community-building enterprise. Books are the stone in the stone soup, more isolated. You are never sure who is reading them.

Malcolm Margolin

You founded Heyday Books in 1974, starting with your book “The East Bay Out,” about East Bay parklands. An independent, nonprofit publisher and cultural institution, Heyday now publishes 25 books and takes part in some 200 events a year. You’ve said that as a publisher, you fight for space in people’s imaginations. What did you mean?

My battleground is the imagination, where you have to keep possibilities alive. Environmental battles, especially, are won and lost first in the imagination, and if we lose out there, if we lose the capacity of humans to do great and beautiful things, if we lose what it is to lead an honorable life — well, then I think we’re screwed.
You were born in Boston and brought up in an Orthodox home. You’ve said being Jewish is part of your identity, but not your religious practice. Can you explain?

I grew up in an Orthodox world, a world where my grandparents lived in the United States for 50 years and never spoke a word of English, a Damon Runyon world of gamblers, bookies and gangsters where everybody had an angle and it was sinful to buy retail. You had to know somebody. All this shaped me. It made me xenophobic, and I longed to get away.
Did you?

I did, but I also brought a lot of it with me, including my sense of scholarship and my outsider quality, where I never feel quite a part of this world that I’m in. Among the values I got out of it were entrepreneurialism and a distrust of institutions. Today, I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, but I don’t eat pork.
What about your beard, which has been described as rabbi-like?

It started out as a hippie beard, and became rabbinical as I got older.
Has Heyday ever published any books about local Jewish history?

Yes. One was “920 O’Farrell Street: A Jewish Girlhood in San Francisco” by Harriet Lane Levy. It’s a great book. Her childhood friend was Alice B. Toklas. And in conjunction with San Francisco Heritage, we worked on “The Haas Sisters of Franklin Street,” about the Jewish philanthropists.
On March 20 you’ll be honored at the Bay Nature Institute’s annual Local Hero Awards Dinner. But what’s next for you, since you retired from Heyday in December?

I’m working on a 15,000-year history of the environment of the Bay Area, from the late Pleistocene to the present. The changes this place has seen are remarkable.
Has it been a gift to be able to mix your passion and your work?

I have always loved what I’ve done, and life has let me get away with doing what I loved. Now I’m feeling completely liberated and enjoying my freedom to no end.
What has life taught you?

We live in a world of tremendous abundance; one so much more beautiful than anybody deserves or understands. We are capable of great things, and anything that diminishes or takes away from our sense of human greatness is an enemy.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.