At different times, the bookstore's owner, Itzhak Volansky, calls his shop the largest in San Francisco, the largest in the Bay Area, and the largest in Northern California. Of course, he's never actually conducted a comparative study. But he could be right. The store is certainly huge.
On the first floor, three rows of shelves run down the middle of the room all the way to the back, climbing nearly as high as the ceiling of the two-story shop. Two equally gargantuan shelves cover the east and west walls and reach within feet of the ceiling as well. Hardware store ladders are provided for high-altitude browsing.
A passageway at the back and on the right leads off into another room full of shelves. The place is plugged in every conceivable nook and cranny with books and magazines in no particular order whatsoever. There are sections, and they have names, but the names mean little. Nothing is in alphabetical order or, for that matter, placed in any coherent sequence.
At the end of the center aisle, stairs lead up to the second story, a partial floor that offers more aisles to comb. Underneath the first floor is a basement equal in size to the first floor. Down there in the sepulcher, conditions tend toward the biblical: Rats sometimes run (chewed pages bear witness); floods have occurred when the occupants of the Dalt Hotel, the residential hotel in which McDonald's Books is housed, left water running and nodded off, passed out, or otherwise took leave of their senses.
It's in this basement that Volansky keeps a backlog of books, magazines, and records. For some reason this is where he keeps 10 copies of a 1972, adult-oriented Richard Nixon coloring book produced by the Grassroots Publishing Co. of San Francisco.
The state of affairs down here is even slightly more anarchic than the upstairs. (Excepting, mind you, the complete collection of LIFE and incomplete but still impressive array of Playboys, which are laid out in perfect order for easy reference. McDonald's markets itself as the place to get the issue of LIFE that matches one's birthday.)
Outside the store, Volansky has placed a sandwich board bearing a self-conscious and droll message: A Dirty Poorly Lit Place for Books. Over the door hangs the store's sign, made of yellow and white plastic. The plastic is shattered and the sign hangs slightly askew. A bullet hole, more than a year old, graces the front window.
Many customers of McDonald's Books have specific, exceptional needs; that these needs often are met is a powerful part of McDonald's appeal.
Michael Jackson visited twice in the 1980s, looking for photography, self-help, and children's books. (How these interests intertwined is open to speculation.) His second visit caused a near-riot, and he needed a police escort to safely depart. Steven Spielberg researched clothing styles of the World War II era for a movie that was never made. And McDonald's employees say network news reporters have called to check out reports that Theodore Kaczynski, the alleged Unabomber, bought Scientific American magazines from the store's all but inexhaustible supply. (He may or may not have; store employees told the reporters that strange as his appearance may have been, Kaczynski would not necessarily have stood out from the Tenderloin denizens who often wander McDonald's aisles.)
But the customers who know what makes this bookstore in the depths of the Tenderloin a truly singular civic asset walk in the door as empty vessels. They arrive in search of the joy that comes from finding a cultural artifact of rare (or divine) shape (or character) -- and finding it absolutely unintentionally.
The rapture begins slowly at first, as you leave behind the porn and the paperbacks at the front of the store and enter the aisles. Slowly, the enormity of the store makes the clatter of the street -- and eventually, the clatter of daily cares -- subside.
You pass the '60s history section, pull up a blue milk crate as a chair, and begin to read The Truth About Kent State: A Challenge to the American Conscience by Peter Davies and the Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. Flipping through the extensive collection of moment-to-moment photographs, Kent State grows fuller, and ceases to be an icon encrusted in the wall of history.
A bit farther back, you stop at the store's 13-shelf section on Catholicism. Lives of Saints, a new arrival, seems interesting, so you crack the hard, nut-brown, gold-trimmed cover, and read about St. Perpetua, a Carthaginian noblewoman who gladly confessed and died for her faith. You read about her trial and gruesome death in her own words; she kept a prison diary.
(Sanctimonious to the last, Perpetua spent her last night praying for as much suffering as possible, to better please her God. She dreamt of a gold ladder to heaven. Upon ascending the last rung, God, who was milking a goat, handed her a sweet curd. Upon awaking, she wrote, her mouth still tasted sweet.)
Upstairs, you spy the 10 or more stacks of New Yorkers and remember how you promised yourself you'd look for some John McPhee stories.
You pull out as many issues from between 1970 and 1985 as possible; you have no luck finding McPhee pieces but, suddenly, there is a short piece by John Cheever called "The Night Momma Picked Up the Wrong Fur Coat." One page long, the narrative is simple. On this bare rack, though, Cheever hangs a wardrobe of mannerisms that tell you all you need to know about aging New York society.
Still no McPhee, but you pass a humor piece by Woody Allen, titled "Fabrizio's: Criticism and Response," a satire of an overly intellectualized restaurant review by one Fabian Plotnick.