Meditating at the bookstore

Gregory Wood, owner of Forest Books, is also a student and teacher of Zen Buddhism.

Gregory Wood, owner of Forest Books, is also a student of Zen Buddhism.


A magic act of sorts happens in the neighborhood every weekend.

Forest Books, a small treasure house of used and rare books at 1748 Buchanan, on Japantown’s Buchanan Mall, transforms itself every Saturday morning into a quiet spot for Soto Zen meditation. From 9:30 to noon, bookshelves are rolled back, shoji screens set up, pillows brought out of the children’s reading nook — and proprietor Gregory Wood, a student and teacher of Zen Buddhism, leads a zazen, or seated meditation, in the dimly lit space.


Things are really cooking at Browser Books

PERHAPS YOU HAVE noticed something unexpected coming out of Browser Books lately — the smell of soup cooking, or shrimp scampi sauteeing, or fragrant onions softening in a skillet.

That’s an added benefit of the new cooking demonstrations Browser Books is now sponsoring each month. Randy Denham, a retired caterer who two years ago began working in the bookstore on weekends, is in charge, cooking in the store and serving up samples.


Coming home rattled



I’ve been a resident of Pacific Heights for almost a century. I grew up in the 1920s, living with my folks in an apartment on Pacific Avenue. Then I bought my own place on Washington Street in 1959, raised four kids there with my wife Nancy — and we’ve lived in that home ever since.

There were really only two major interruptions to my neighborhood residency: going to Stanford, and going to war. While college attendance had expanded my horizons and given me new perspectives, going to war changed everything.

“The war has changed me in ways that will take the better part of my life to understand, let alone make peace with. Don’t ask me how. If you have to ask, you’ve never been to war.”

Those are the opening lines of my just-published book, Battle Rattle: A Last Memoir of World War II.

Being in WWII was the major event of my life. The experience still haunts me to this day — even 70 years after the fact. This is why I spent countless hours in my study on Washington Street sitting in front of a computer to write my memoir.


It all started with a tomato sandwich



When I was 6 years old, a feisty little thing with a mop of red hair spiraling every which way, my mom made me a simple sandwich for lunch. Not peanut butter and jelly or tuna fish salad, mind you; my mom was a professional chef, after all. Mom’s version of simple was her tomato sandwich: homemade white bread, homemade mayonnaise and a ripe sweet red tomato plucked fresh from her garden.

As Mom arranged tomato slices, still warm from the sun, atop a generous slathering of mayonnaise, she looked me in the eyes and said: “Whenever you eat or cook tomatoes, they need a sprinkle of salt. Salt brings out the sweetness and acidity.” I watched closely, tummy grumbling, as she liberally dusted the sliced tomato with kosher salt.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was a kid; I just wanted to eat my lunch. But looking back, I think my lifelong love affair with food may have begun in that precise moment. Little did I know how right my mom was, or how often I’d think of her sage advice while cooking or teaching. But I swear it comes up in almost every single class I teach, and I tell the tale and pass her wisdom along. (more…)

Back home for the holidays


He’d lived in the flat on California Street near Steiner for 37 years. Suddenly late one afternoon Jim Scott realized something was wrong.

He called 911 and tried to answer all the dispatcher’s questions. Finally he told her: “Look, I have to get out of here. My room is full of black smoke.”


Sparks from a welder working next door had started a fire. The squadrons of firefighters soon on the scene flooded the blaze before it reached Scott’s apartment — but only after they had bashed in his ceiling and windows, leaving his home a soggy and sooty mess.

In his new book, The Al Tarik, Scott, now 93, gently unfolds the story of the three years that followed and landed him in a residential hotel on Sutter Street he describes as “a century-old San Francisco pile” that is “a refuge for those like myself who in their last years have been roughed up and tossed on the rocks and shoals.”

At first his landlord assured Scott he would be back in his apartment within a few months. He moved in temporarily with a neighbor across the alley. But as the renovation of the building languished, he needed another place to stay, and found no good options. So he moved back into his charred apartment.


Searching for the city’s secrets

Mural at St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church at 1286 Fillmore Street.

Mural at St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church at 1286 Fillmore Street


For the last few years, Miles, my beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback, and I would walk through the neighborhood every morning. Down to Fillmore, up to Broadway, over to Lyon, back to Sacramento. I would point things out to him. I am a designer, by trade and by nature, and I am finely tuned to detail: the font in a logo, the frame on a window, the way a painting is lighted, the clasp on a woman’s handbag.

I would remark at the details as we walked along. Sometimes Miles would look disdainful, as though to say, “Why are you so fascinated by that?” And so we would go on. He held to his mysteries; I held to mine. Then one day he died. He was 14.

It was Miles who first got me thinking about the nature of interesting places in the city. Our journeys led me to start a blog about art, architecture and unusual places in the Bay Area, which led to my new book, 111 Places in San Francisco You Must Not Miss, one of a series of 111 Places books published by the German publisher Emons Verlag.


Fillmore jazz era project being updated



In 2006, internationally acclaimed photographer and professor Lewis Watts and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and writer Elizabeth Pepin Silva published Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era.

From cover to cover, Harlem of the West is filled with vintage photos documenting San Francisco’s historic jazz era during the 1940s and ’50s. The book also features anecdotes from those who lived and performed in the Fillmore during this period. Currently out of print, it continues to be in high demand.

Now the pair has teamed up again to create a unique, multi-platform history project that tells the story of San Francisco’s Fillmore District in its musical heyday. The goal of the Harlem of the West Project is to bring San Francisco’s Fillmore District history back to life in a book filled with rarely seen photographs and stories from those who lived through the period.

Read more: “Gone but not forgotten

Library a treasure in terra cotta

Photographs of the Golden Gate Valley Branch Library © Bruce Damonte

Photographs of the Golden Gate Valley Branch Library © Bruce Damonte


The terra cotta clad treasure that sits at the southwest corner of Green and Octavia Streets is often mistaken for a bank. This exquisitely designed building was built in 1918 as San Francisco’s fifth branch library funded through the Carnegie Corporation’s Library Program. Designed by architect Ernest Coxhead, known primarily for his ecclesiastical and residential works, this neighborhood library incorporates a rounded end resembling a church apse, a semicircular recess often containing the altar.


Focusing on ballerina moms



When I was 10, my parents divorced — and I watched with fear and admiration as my mother got her first job so she could support five children. That made me sensitive to the subject of working mothers. It wasn’t surprising that later, as a photographer with children, I would try and get at that subject. I asked friends who were working mothers to pose for me.

One was an executive who pumped milk in her car as she drove to work each morning. But I couldn’t get the dare in what she did in my pictures. You couldn’t see the baby crying at home, or her anxiety about expressing enough milk, or her cool in doing it right before a meeting with business executives.

I knew almost nothing about ballet or dancers but when I met Katita Waldo, a prima ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet, holding her 3-day-old son James at CalMart, I wanted to photograph her. Her work was visual and, when she brought her son to the studio or the stage, what I would capture would inherently show the two worlds.


The Bodhisattva barters time



In 1981, the poet Latif Harris was working at — and living above — Browser Books in its former location a block up from the current store on Fillmore Street. Harris was behind the front counter when, he says, “the most beautiful woman in the world” walked into the store.

They did what you do in a bookstore: talked about books, with Harris recommending something he was reading at the time. After she left, he hesitated briefly before chasing her down the street. He asked her to dinner and, to his surprise, she accepted. The most beautiful woman in the world is Alpha Gardner, and she and Harris have been together now for 34 years.