Steve Wasserman will take over as publisher of Heyday in July. Photo: Yale University Prss
Steve Wasserman will take over as publisher of Heyday in July. Photo: Yale University Press

Heyday has selected Yale University Press editor and Berkeley High graduate Steve Wasserman to be the company’s new publisher and executive director.

The selection of Wasserman, who is well respected in the book world, represents a monumental shift for the 41-year old company, which was founded by Malcolm Margolin in 1971. Margolin, a brilliant and idiosyncratic man whose book, The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, was named as one of the 100 most important books of the twentieth century by a western writer by the San Francisco Chronicle, shaped the press through his humor and interest in nature, native culture, and California history. Margolin was famous for “adopting” people, inviting those he found interesting into the family of Heyday. He would mine everyone for their thoughts on what was important in the world and the state and he often converted those thoughts into books.

Wasserman also has deep roots in the West, although he has spent the last decade on the East Coast. He was editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and was a chief architect of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, considered one of the most prestigious book festivals in the country. Wasserman is happy to be returning with his family to California, according to a release put out by Heyday.

“I have admired Malcolm as long as I have known him, which is 20 years,” said Wasserman. “I have admired his genius and his nimble and eclectic enthusiasm and curiosity and the marvelous way he held the place together with scotch tape and managed to turn (Heyday) into one of the most distinguished publishers in California.”

Malcolm Margolin. Photo: Pete Rosos
Malcolm Margolin. Photo: Pete Rosos

Margolin retired in December after almost a year of non-stop celebration for his achievements.

Heyday published a book about his tenure, The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin: The Damn Good Times of a Fiercely Independent Publisher, by Kim Bancroft. The company hosted a gala at the old Berkeley Art Museum to celebrate its 40th birthday. Numerous organizations honored Margolin for his contributions to California culture.

Margolin said he is delighted that Wasserman will take over as publisher.

“I can’t imagine anyone with better professional skills, more depth and variety of experience, and a more impressive record of accomplishment and public service,” said Margolin in a release. “He knows California and its many cultures with intimacy, associates easily with the best writers and deepest thinkers everywhere, and his ample playfulness and wit have always been at the service of a humane social vision. More than that, he’s great fun to be around.”

Wasserman, 63, moved with his family to Berkeley in 1963 and became active in the Free Speech and anti-war movements at UC Berkeley shortly thereafter, when he was just 13, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. There is a famous photo of him taken in 1969 when he was student body president of Berkeley High School. He is standing with a cigar in his mouth that has a “Nixon is the 1,” pin on the end while he holds up Mao’s “Little Red Book.”

“I was a mischievous Yippee,” he said.

One of Wasserman’s greatest influences was Moe Moskowitz, the founder of Moe’s Books, he said. Wasserman started going to the Telegraph Avenue bookstore in 1965 and would watch Moe interact with Cal professors who brought their books to sell. He said his 18,000-volume library, which he plans to move from New York into Heyday’s offices, might one day end up at Moe’s.

After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in criminology, Wasserman moved to Los Angeles to be the assistant to Robert Scheer, then a Los Angeles Times reporter. Wasserman became the deputy assistant editor of the LA Times Sunday opinion pages for five years, then moved to New York to take over as editor in chief of New Republic Books. He also served as editorial director of Times Books and publisher of Hill & Wang, an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.He returned to the LA Times in 1996 to become editor of the book review, a position he held until 2005. It was a stand-alone section from 1975 until recently, when, like most book review sections, it was folded into the larger newspaper.

Wasserman then moved to New York to become a partner of the Kneerim & Williams Literary Agency, where he represented numerous authors, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Linda Ronstadt, Benjamin Barber, Robert Scheer, and Placido Domingo. In 2012, Wasserman took a job in 2012 as an editor at large at Yale University Press.

But he has been wanting to return to the West Coast for some time.

“The call of Berkeley was very strong,” he said. “I am something of a native son. I have missed California like the amputee is said to miss the phantom limb.”

Wasserman is tired of the winters, and plus, Danny Meyer recently shuttered his Union Square Cafe in New York, leaving Wasserman without a regular place to eat lunch. (It was Table #21).Wasserman hopes he can get a regular table at Chez Panisse instead, he said.

Wasserman will assume his new position as publisher and executive director of Heyday July 1. One area he will examine is Heyday’s current distribution model. While the press publishes numerous important and beautiful books about California every year, the books are only sold in California bookstores, although they are also available online. Heyday does not have a national distributor and Wasserman does not know yet if that is because people outside the state are not interested. California as a topic is often denigrated by the East Coast, he said. Wasserman hopes to enhance Heyday’s reputation and showcase its role in interpreting California.

“It has long been the case that California has been regarded by people who don’t live there, particularly the dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanites, who are the most provincial people in the country, as a strange backwater. Very often things California are dismissed as regional, not of national interest. Of course, all of that is rubbish. I would like to publish books that while interesting Californians, have broader resonance.”

Heyday is an independent, non-profit publisher with headquarters on University Avenue in Berkeley.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...