Tuesday, September 26, 2023 Sep 26, 2023
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POLITICS Half Priced, Full of Dreams

Ken Gjemre is bookish, a Unitarian, a member of the ACLU, and he won’t take money from PACs. He also wants to unseat the most conservative man in the Texas Senate.
By Dan Baldwin |

In an era when politicians stick on labels like “moderate liberal” and “neo-con-servative,” then change them after every new Gallup Poll, Ken Gjemre stands out in the crowd. Founder and CEO of Half Price Books and Democratic candidate for the District 16 state Senate seat held by the deeply conservative John Leedom, he”s something more than a breath of fresh air. Think of him as a tank of oxygen or a blast from Hurricane Camille.

Walk through Gjemre’s new main store off Northwest Highway, weave through the catacombs of books and boxes of books scattered in front of shelves marked “American Thought” and “Political Science,” and follow Gjemre, sixty-five but with a quick spring in his step, back to his crowded office. There he sits in an unlikely cluster of ob-jets d’art. Several statues-Don Quixote, Rodin’s Thinker, a stooping Caribbean laborer, and of all things, a shark-surround him. If Gjemre were a character in one of his thousands of novels, no doubt Cliff Notes would alert us to the possible symbolism of the statues, which mirror the differing facets of his personality. Gjemre seems to be many things, but on the surface, not a politician.

Or is he? Pluck a book from his shelves. Gjemre’s full head of gray hair and gray beard would put him right at home on a New Bedford whaling ship, so make it Moby Dick, the Norton Critical Edition, a bargain at $1.95. A sophomore’s scrawling fills the margins, but some of the underlinings are right on, especially in Chapter 36, when Ahab asks his sailors to “strike through the mask’1 and look for “the little lower layer” beneath appearances. Do that with Gjemre, and you’ll find layers of complexity not common to the average vote hound.

First, think of the typical, stereotypical Dallas politician. An attorney, perhaps a successful businessman, maybe some dabbling in real estate. Neatly groomed, of course, he/she wears expensive suits to the private fundraiser in the downtown office or the barbecue with the little people. Political orientation? Somewhere between really conservative and really really conservative.

Ken Gjemre hates these ideological name-tags. Try to file him neatly under Liberal, Wild-eyed, and his Quixote sits up higher in the saddle. His shark bares another row of teeth. “I never use conservative or liberal because they don’t mean anything anymore. Both words have been ruined by misapplication in the media. Today a conservative is anybody who’s against progression. But I’m the most conservative guy sitting in Dallas. I do that in my business, I conserve more trees than anybody, I’m interested in saving money by getting rid of excess bureaucracy, and a good education is a tremendously conservative idea. But I can’t be called a conservative because I’m also progressive. I want to be open to new ideas.”

The importance of the job he is seeking and the need for new ideas does not escape Gjemre, as he feels it does with too many voters. The Texas State Legislature sits on a $37,2 billion biennial budget and, currently, a looming $3 billion budget shortfall. It directly affects our lives, arguably more than any other political body. There are oniy thirty-one senators representing roughly a half-million people each. With senate bills needing a two-thirds vote for passage, eleven senators working in consort can bottle up any legislation they choose,

The statue of the Caribbean laborer seems to stoop a bit more, as if sympathetic to the task at hand. Gjemre will face an incumbent who, in 1982, crunched Democrat Ada Smith, getting 60 percent of the vote. Prior to becoming a senator in 1980, Leedom spent five years on the Dallas City Council. Obviously he is locally well connected. Politically he is as anti-government as they come, often referred to as the “Dr. No” of the state Senate because of his no-spend, no-tax tendencies.

This is not an election that will have the voters of District 16 standing in line scratching their heads or consulting The 1986 Almanac of American Politics (a rare find, just $17.48 at Gjemre’s store) for guidance. The battle lines will be clearly drawn. After all, Gjemre is a bookstore owner, which can be made to sound pretty fuzzy-minded in a town devoted to the titans of industry. He’s currently executive vice president of the Dallas Chapter of the ACLU, which has been known to defend some pretty unpopular folks against some pretty large majorities. And in Dallas, one of the breeding pools of the Baptist Church, he’s a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church-not a credential usually found on the vitae of successful politicians here.

“[The ACLU] is easily the most misunderstood organization in America,” he says. “I don’t see how anyone could not support it. It is a group designed to protect the Constitu-tion and the Bill of Rights. You notice they never lose a case. That’s because they’ve got the Constitution on their side. The reason I got involved in Dallas was to make the local group more active.”

Still, Gjemre is optimistic. He believes he has more name recognition than Leedom. and he believes the demographics of the 16th District (“a microcosm of America”) favor him. Leedom, he adds, lives near the district’s northernmost tip, “completely removed from the heartbeat of the district. I really feel these are my people.”

Gjemre’s optimism is shared by his political consultant, Bruce W. Barrick. though it is tempered by the realism his job requires.

“I think Ken can win,” Barrick says, “but my gut feeling is that the incumbent has the advantage in name recognition. We’ll run a very grass-roots campaign. A lot of door to door. A lot of canvassing, We want to bring Ken right to the people in the district.”

Of the four statues that represent his varied selves, the most important may be The Thinker. Gjemre is a man driven by ideas. Asked to name the books that have had the most influence on his life, an obvious question for a man who has owned literally millions of volumes, Gjemre’s snap answer is “the last one I’ve read.” After thinking it over, he speaks of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class told Americans of their Jove for conspicuous consumption; and Philip Wylie, whose scathing Generation of Vipers flayed the hide off most American institutions, starting with motherhood. He quotes frequently from the Bible and Shakespeare. And of course, like a good Unitarian, he puts Emerson high on his reading list.

“You have to understand that in all I do, there are two driving forces. One: I hate waste. That’s the main reason I’m in the business I’m in. The other is unfairness. Why a person can be denied an education and the right to a productive life because of the color of his skin or any other reason is beyond me.”

Gjemre was born on a farm in Indiana in 1921. He was an eight-year-old farm boy when the market fell one dark Friday in October.

“I can remember going to the bank on Fridays with Dad so that he could borrow money for his payroll. He went bankrupt but was able to buy his farm back. I can remember selling some produce in town out of my garden and making $5. My dad took me to the bank and introduced me to the bank president and they made a big deal out of it, On the way out he told me, ’Son, always get to know your banker.’ You could say I learned the value of hard work.”

Like many young men of his day, Gjemre graduated from college (Purdue, degree in science) with his diploma in one hand and his military orders in the other. He ended up in Europe as a field artillery forward spotter, a job with a very short life expectancy, but he won a Silver Star for battle gallantry. He was present that day at the Elbe River when Russian and American soldiers met, an event that has profoundly affected his life. Last year, he attended the fortieth reunion of their meeting at the Elbe, held in Torgau. East Germany. After the U.S. State Department pulled out of the event in protest of the shooting death of an American on East German soil, Gjemre was made spokesman for the American contingent. He addressed an audience of thousands, calling for better relations between the superpowers. Later, he was part of a private meeting with two of Gorbachev’s advisers, in which he made the point that the mere threat of nuclear war is “a crime against humanity.” Recalling the reunion, he says that the nuclear balance of terror has produced “a generation of children who have the cynicism born of not knowing whether they’re going to live in the next year.”

After the war, Gjemre became a husband, father, and businessman. Business often took him from New Orleans to Dallas, and the city made a strong impression on him with its vibrant, hospitable climate for entrepreneurs. In 1962, he was offered a job here with Gibson Discount Stores. He snapped it up immediately.

By the early Seventies Gjemre was an executive with Zales. But he soon grew dissatisfied with “spending my days trying to figure ways to sell people things they didn’t want and probably couldn’t afford.”

So, waste and unfairness spurring him on, Gjemre opened his first Half Price Books in 1972, filling an abandoned laundromat on Lovers Lane with every kind of book and magazine, from Harlequin Romances to biographies of Schopenhauer and training manuals for raising docile Dobermans.

Half Price Books made money its first month of operation-and a good thing for Gjemre. Ironically, on the very morning the ribbon was cut at his first store, his personal assets were frozen due to his impending divorce. It was a beginning and an end.

While Dallas was discovering Gjemre’s new idea, he was depositing his earnings each day and. following his fathers advice, introducing himself around the bank. Within three months he was borrowing money to open a second store, and the rest is prosperity. Half Price Books now has twenty-three stores in seventeen cities and more on the drawing board. Last year gross sales were over $7 million.

He is the titular CEO of the company, but Gjemre admits that he has turned over most of the duties to his staff. By now, the Half Price empire has a momentum of its own, spawning spinoff operations such as Half Price Software on Mockingbird. Much of his time is now spent at conferences of the many organizations he belongs to, among them the World Futurist Society and the Institute on Religion in the Age of Science. He was appointed as the Metroplex representative to the White House Conference on Small Business that was held in August.

And of course his time is spent putting his entire brain trust together-the idealist, the laborer, the shark, and the thinker-to plan strategy for his bid for the Senate. It will be his third attempt at public office, Ten years ago he lost to David Cain in a primary for state representative (a seat Cain still holds) and failed in an attempt to gain a seat on the Dallas County Community College District Board of Trustees.

To win this one, Gjemre will need money. A campaign expert in another state senator’s office says that a not implausible figure for an urban state Senate race is $250,000, but that a close, hard-fought race could run to $325,000. Gjemre’s initial goal is $40,000, modest by any standard,

Bruce Barrick says that’s fine for starters, but much more will be necessary. And filling the coffers can be a problem when the candidate is refusing any money from political action committees (PACs), the meal ticket for most of today’s campaigners. Gjemre expects Leedom to haul in at least $100,000 in PAC money. The issue is one Gjemre is very sensitive about, and one that reflects his many sides.

“Outside of education and the budget/ economy, PAC money is the number one problem in Texas. Let’s face it. It amounts to bribery. Groups are buying votes. It’s more unfairness. It’s worse on the state level because the money is right here, the PACs feel instant results. Pius the media hardly pays attention to state politics.”

PAC power may be Gjemre’s major bete noire. If he could pass one bill not related to education or the budget, he says, he would outlaw PAC contributions. Common Cause recently revealed that total PAC contributions to state senators in 1985 were almost $1.4 million, comprising 47.6 percent of all campaign dollars. While total contributions have increased only 8 percent since 1983, PAC money has jumped a whopping 64 percent-a clear sign that pressure groups are pulling more strings than ever in Austin. What makes the figures all the more depressing is that the 1985 funds were raised in just seven months; Texas law forbids fundraising while the Legislature is in session. As for Leedom, he received $30,750 from PAC men in 1985, when he was not even running for reelection. That was enough to rank him ninth among the thirty-one senators. His PAC total made up almost 55 percent of his total contributions, putting him tenth in that category.

Currently the Gjemre campaign is accepting no more than $200 for an individual contribution and $400 for a family. He put the lid on families when he noticed that some families of five or six were donating two hundred dollars per member, even the children.

Gjemre backs continuing education reform, and believes it’s both right and prudent for Texas to educate the children of illegal aliens. “If you don’t, you’ll be spoon-feeding them in twenty years.” he says. He believes that some of the state’s education problems can be solved by raising teacher salaries to create more job competition and by getting many administrators out of the office and back in the classroom.

He believes the key to revitalizing the state economy and reducing the budget deficit is the creation of incentives for small business. He thinks the state should set up capital formation programs from which the profits become available only to other small businesses (for new investment). When he proposed this idea in Washington at the Small Business Conference, he drew good response.

“Small business is the oil that lubricates the machine,” he says. “For years big business has been benefiting by our work. But not only in financing. Small business has been the training ground for every executive everywhere. Their first job, maybe in high school, maybe in college, was in a small business.”

Gjemre’s other prescription for economic health is to get rid of waste by cutting excess bureaucracy. He cites his own business as an example. “We’ve got twenty-three stores, and this is the first suite of offices we’ve had,” he says. “I just never thought we needed them, but my personnel manager finally talked me into it. We had three stores before we had a desk, let alone an office. That kind of attitude carries over into a lot of areas, including government.”

Gjemre followed the Legislature’s special session with keen interest, but by late August he had seen enough to be critical of John Leedom. “The Senate is acting responsibly in following Mark White’s plan to put in a temporary tax increase that will self-destruct when the budget expires. Leedom is the only senator voting against it. He seems to be going against the current.”

Spoken by one who should know. But win or lose, life will go on for Ken Gjemre and his symbolic statues. It is hard to say which has been most influential for him, but he’ll need them all to beat the entrenched Leedom. He’ll need to dream the impossible dream with the Man of LaMancha, sweat ! with (he workers, stalk and strike with the shark, and above all think: about books, old and new ideas, and how he can move his whole cast of characters to Austin.

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