Another in a semi-regular series of posts about authors it's been my pleasure and honor to know, during a long career as a bookseller, publisher, and author. This one's about a friend whose name is known and beloved around the world: Ray Bradbury, on his 100th birthday.
The first time I met Ray, in 1980 (though I'd seen him speak before, in the 70s when the San Jose Mercury News ran a series of author speeches that included Ray and Louis L'Amour), I almost watched him die.
He had visited the bookstore I worked at, Books Inc. in San Jose, CA, to sign his short story collection The Stories of Ray Bradbury. This is him on that occasion (I think).
After signing books and chatting with fans for hours, he was finally done and went into the back to use the men's room (our store was big enough to have separate, gender-specific bathrooms for employees--though we switched up in emergencies). The store had a pulley system for employees' bicycles, so they could be brought inside and hoisted up to the ceiling, safe but out of the way, 12 feet off the floor.
Because the workday was over, Doug Stocks started to lower his bike from the ceiling. That pulley happened to be right in front of the men's room door. Ray finished and stepped out, startling Doug, who didn't know Ray was still in the store--and causing Doug to release the rope. The bike started to plummet from the high ceiling, right toward Ray, who was trapped between Doug and the closed restroom door. Fortunately for the world, Doug caught the rope just in time to halt the bike, inches from Ray's head.
Despite that near-death experience, Ray became a good friend.
When I was transferred to run the company's La Jolla store, Hunter's Books, on the California coastline just north of San Diego, I was much closer to Ray's home in Los Angeles, and he was glad to hop in a limo (he never drove) and cruise on down. We had many great signings at the store. Two of the most notable were in 1988. The first of those came after he'd called me out of the blue and said, "I want to spend my birthday at the store." I rustled up a cake designed to resemble the cover of Something Wicked This Way Comes (I had pictures; if I can find one I'll update this post), and he came and spent a good stretch of time with our customers, staff, and fans. The newest book was his mystery Death is a Lonely Business; here's the copy he signed for me that day. My daughter Holly, then around two and a half years old, sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. Raspberry" to him, which tickled him pink.
Only a couple of months later, he returned on Halloween Day to sign The Halloween Tree. Here are the sketch he put in my copy, and the poster (art by the great Leo and Diane Dillon) that he signed on that occasion.
Any time Ray signed at the store was a banner day, sales-wise, but the best day in the store's history was the day his signing coincided with the release of Madonna's erotic picture book Sex. Sex retailed for $50, and we sold dozens and dozens of those--mostly to people who hadn't come to see Ray, but there might have been some crossover.
Ray was always glad to sign his own books, but he would cheerfully sign books by other people if they were brought to him. One day, a customer brought him an Arthur C. Clarke novel--I think Childhood's End, though I'm not certain now. Ray looked at it, laughed, and said, "I'm not Arthur, but Arthur's my son!" and inscribed the book. (Narrator: Arthur is not his son.)
Ray liked to communicate by phone, by mail, and by fax. Any time mail from Ray showed up, it was instantly identifiable, as you can see from the envelope here. In lieu of Christmas cards, he wrote a Christmas poem every year, and he and his lifelong love Maggie sent those to friends. I was honored to be on that list for years.
I visited his bright yellow house in Los Angeles a couple of times, taking books up to be signed on occasions when he couldn't come down. After his death in 2012, the property was sold, the house demolished. But Marcy found me these great bookends made from wood taken from the house. There were only 451 sets made. Each set is numbered and stamped with 451, to commemorate what might be his most famous book. Obviously, it's a treasure, and one of my most prized possessions.
As an example of his sense of humor, on one occasion, when he was older but not yet confined to a wheelchair, he made an appearance at a science fiction event I attended. He was introduced to thunderous applause, and started to walk from the edge of the stage to the microphone at the center. He walked. Applause eventually died down and we all watched, rapt. He walked some more. A slow, cautious step at a time, he made his way across the stage. Eventually, about 2/3 of the way there, he stopped, turned to the audience, and said, "Did you ever feel like everybody was watching you?" He finished the journey buoyed by laughter.
Ray and I had several things in common outside of the book world, too. We were both born in Illinois. He lived for years in Tucson, AZ, and spent a lot of time reading in the University of Arizona library. I've spent days and days on that campus, and my son David graduated from there. We're both globally respected authors whose works are international bestsellers, and--wait, that part's only true of Ray. But we enjoyed one another's company, made each other laugh, and loved to visit together away from the store, including at his regular appearances at the San Diego Comic-Con. His passing left a hole in the world, and in my heart. His enthusiasm--for language, for stories, for life--was unparalleled, and contagious, and I'm glad to have had him in my life. Happy birthday, Mr. Raspberry.