There is no bad time to visit a great bookstore, but my favorite time is late on a winter’s day. The sun cowers on the horizon, fleeing the falling darkness. At such times Nature, all cold breath and dagger teeth, has nothing for us, We need our own place, and a bookstore is the most human of places, a house built of words.
Wordsworth said that books were “that light bequeathed by dead men to their kind.” I’ve been finding that light at Ken Gjemre’s Half Price Books since my college days, when 1 stumbled upon his first store in a converted laundromat on Lovers Lane. Now, at 71, he has 43 stores around the country. Sales are up almost 20 percent over 1991, and the chain recently celebrated “20 years of reading together.”
If an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man, Half Price Books is Ken Gjemre, and vice versa. He gives out a poster (made of recycled paper) that states and restates his personal and corporate phi-losophy:”Replace.. .Rebuild,. .Redo.. .Reduce…Recycle.” For Gjemre, sin-if a humanist-Unitarian- ACLU member-Gray Panther can know sin-is waste. This ultra-liberal ultraconservalive has made a small fortune by proving that success means doing more with less.
Looking at Gjemre’s resume, you’d be tempted to stereotype him as the proverbial bleeding-heart liberal. But he’s more the despairing optimist, the unsentimental idealist. He believes that governments can be stupid and bad. Unfortunately, so can The People.
“I don’t have much respect for the unthinking electorate,” Gjemre says in his office at the giant Northwest Highway store. “It’s totally self-centered. Homo Con-sumus, Boobus Americanos, My patron saint is Pogo: We have met the enemy, and he is sure as hell us.”
Gjemre admits he’s an alarmist. God knows the world can use a few. Yet in the same breath he talks of progress. “I can’t quantify it, and there’s the possibility we may lose the game altogether, but there’s a whole bunch of people working their asses off to do the right thing.” he says.
Gjemre also brightened up some after the electorate chose Bill Clinton in November. A founding member of the North Texas Greens, he lauds ÀI Gore’s environmental jeremiad. Earth in the Balance, though he admits he couldn’t read all of it. In one of fate’s grim jokes, the stroke he suffered in 1990 affected not just his speech but his reading ability. On a recent flight back from Washington, D.C.. it took him the whole trip to get through a newspaper, Surrounded by books, he doesn’t read much anymore.
Once a pugnacious debater-he ran for the state House and the state Senate, losing both times-Gjemre now gropes for vanished words, clenching his fists as if trying to pull the lost syllables from the air. Asked about writers who have influenced him, he mentions Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, then stumbles painfully over the name of Thorstein Veblen. whose Theory of the leisure Class helped Gjemre learn to dislike conspicuous consumption. “It’s just a sonuvabitch. but I have to live with it now,” he says of his speech problems, “It’s just a part of me.”
He tires visibly during our two-hour talk, slumping in his chair. His lustrous white hair and beard still give him a leonine air, but today he’s the lion in winter, his mind turning from achievements to regrets. He wishes he had been able to serve in public office. (“Stale government needed people like me so badly. It’s a luusy, pressure-group system.”) He’s built an innovative business that treats its employees like equal partners, with profil sharing up to 34 percent, maternal and paternal leave, and more. But…
“What 1 should have done, instead of screwing around with politics, is led a revolution in American business. I should have written a book or published articles.” He catches himself and laughs, and 10 years fall away. “I wish.. .There’s a whole bunch of should haves.”
But not much time for regrets. His calendar is always full. An American Humanist Association meeting in Minneapolis. Gray Panthers in D.C., Unitarians in Beaumont. Political fund-raisers, a Gay and Lesbian Caucus, an invitation to a Young Communists League meeting. (He may skip that one.) Even semi-retired, he’s still too busy. As a founder of the Dallas Peace Center, which honored him in December for “exemplary activities and a life well lived ” he feels that someone’s got to do something about the recent racial tensions between police and minority protesters.
“I can’t [not] do it,” he says, his voice al most a whisper. “But I really have too little lime for the contemplative. I’ve got to find a little time for Ken Gjemre to just sit around and think.”