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A Story At Every Corner: The Crossroads Of 10th & H - Arcata, CA

Frost apparently lingered a while before choosing the less traveled way.

Johnson sold his soul there. The price was virtuosity.

Yogi Berra’s advice was this: “when you come to a fork in the road, take it."

As metaphors go, crossroads are right up there with rivers and doorways. They seem to conjure a symmetry or polarity we can wrap our heads around. Perhaps an intrigue in positioning ourselves at the intersection of convergence and divergence, or dilemma and opportunity. But intersections have always held fascination for me more for what happens around them. I don’t deliberate my direction so much as wonder what are the stories here?

If there is an intersection in Arcata, California that holds sway for me it is the intersection of Tenth & H. Just one block north of the town plaza. Why? The obvious answer is that here I can find funky books, independent films, a burrito with authentic mole sauce, and a character who runs a cluttered shop with a clear sense of humor. That’s the veneer of the TinCan Mailman Used Bookstore, The Minor Theater, La Chiquita Taco Truck, and The Koop. But veneer is what I wanted to scrape away when I went looking for stories at this crossroads.


The TinCan Mailman Bookstore

“…to give our souls a chance to luxuriate”

“I read a lot less now that I own the bookstore than before I had the bookstore,” says Wadeth Bory, who bought the TinCan Mailman on September 1st, 1999 and recalls the day clearly:

“I was so excited. I was like a kid in the candy store. I went upstairs and looked at all the books and thought: ‘these are all mine!’ I felt so wealthy. Wealthy with information and knowledge. And then little did I realize what a huge task I was taking on and how little time I would actually have to read.”

Having already worked at the bookstore for six years before she bought it means Wadeth has been part of this used and vintage bookstore for over half of its 40-year history.  

  “When I started in 1993 it was a totally different bookstore. The clientele was different. The community was different. We sold things like Westerns, old romances, and biographies of movie stars. And we sold a lot of World War One and Two books because we still had that generation. Nowadays it’s not like that at all. Now it’s farm-to-table and back-to-the-earth with a hipster style.”

If the town has changed, the bookstore industry has clearly changed more. Not only has the number of independent bookstores been cut in half over the past 20 years, but they account for less than 10-percent of all book sales in this country. It’s easy to blame the internet. But Wadeth rightly points out that bookstores and the internet have had a much more nuanced - even paradoxical - relationship than that.

“My contribution to the store was to bring our sales to the internet,” she recalls. “The year 2000 the internet was just beginning to become a legitimate marketplace. Those were our golden days. We did terrific from 2000 to 2006. In 2007 it changed. That was the advent of e-books and the Kindle, and sales just took a dive. I started to get really worried but eventually it tapered off and [now] it’s not so bad.”

E-books are now about a third of all book sales in the US. A Rasmussen phone survey last year found that 3 out of 4 Americans prefer print over electronic reading. Yet about half of us now own an e-reader or tablet. It seems many readers are going back and forth between print and electronic reading. For many of us it comes down to aesthetics: the very essence of reading … and of bookstores. What Henry Miller might have been referring to when he said ‘We read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate’.

“You don’t have serendipity much anymore,” says Doc Stull, who has been a TinCan customer since 1979. “It’s just a point-and-click, text-and-twitter world. And at TinCan you can just putter, walk around the stacks, and you find these little magnets - little gems - you wouldn’t think of; because when you’re online you’re going after something specific. But the actual physicality of walking around the musty stacks is a retreat into the past. Almost like a meditation.”

The TinCan Mailman got its name from its original owner, Will Mauck, who had done some Peace Corps time in the south Pacific down by Tonga. He became enamored with the story of an atoll that had no good anchorages and could only get mail if passing ships tossed sealed tin cans overboard filled with letters. A swimmer would go a mile out to retrieve the can. It became known as Tin Can Island. Eventually it got an airport and the delivery system became obsolete.

But will old used bookstores like TinCan Mailman become obsolete?

Wadeth doesn’t think so. She feels Arcata not only has a strong reading community, but also a strong commitment for supporting local businesses.

“One of the things I love about being here so long is I’ve seen kids when they first come in and they’ll read Goosebumps; then they become teenagers and are into D&D; then they go off to college and get into that existential mode of Sartres and Camus. It’s really cool to watch the evolution of a person through books! You’re tapping into the psyche of the town.”


The Minor Theater

“Houdini, Groucho, Gable, and Simplex the Cat”

It’s a crisp, clear December night in Arcata and locals are lined up to commemorate the centennial of the nation’s oldest surviving theater built for feature films: The Minor.

“My mother’s, mother’s sisters were at the opening in 1914,” says local Jeff Ziegler. “So, as part of the family, I came to fill one of the seats 100 years later.”

Opening night in 1914 featured a silent film rendering of Dickens’ The Chimes. Later that week drama students from Humboldt State Normal School staged a comedy. Both nights were sell outs and money was raised for German-occupied Belgium.

Tonight the house is only about a third full. The proceeds are going to help abused women. And the word ‘normal’ apparently no longer describes HSU. Earlier in the day, co-owner David Philips is showing me around below the stage.

“This hole was cut into the ceiling as a trap door for Harry Houdini,” says Phillips, as we negotiate the musty basement. “When we were renovating a man came by who was hired as a kid by Houdini at that time to pull the rope at just the right time so Houdini would reappear.”

For much of its history The Minor served double-duty showing films and hosting live stage shows. Since those early years The Minor has only been closed twice. First, during World War II, and again, for most of the sixties before Phillips and five other HSU students leased it in 1971 and saved it from becoming a parking lot.

“This is one of the original projectors,” says Phillips as we go offstage. “When we re-opened on January 1, 1972 we showed San Francisco. The lead character Clark Gable played was called ‘Blacky’. The second feature starred Groucho Marx in A Night at the Opera. So we named one of the projectors ‘Groucho’ and the other one ‘Blacky’.”

And there were other stars featured at The Minor - like Simplex the Cat - who throughout the seventies had a knack for showing up at showtimes and walking across the laps of moviegoers.

“The most notorious time was when she strutted across the stage when Some Like it Hot was playing,” remembers Phillips, who was working the projector that night. “Her tail was up in the air and she just walked across. And that was her debut moment at The Minor. Her exit was that she eventually passed away in the theater. We dug a little grave under the stage, buried her, and that is where she is right now.”

And dead and buried is exactly what many people think is the fate of independent cinemas like The Minor. On demand and subscription movie service are having banner years. The internet is constantly competing for our attention, and money. Movie attendance in 2014 was the lowest the US industry has seen in twenty years. Contrary to many, Phillips thinks there is reason for optimism.

“Independent theaters are stronger now than they have been in years and they’re growing. The number of films being made now is extraordinary and there are more risks being taken.”

Indeed, in 2014 alone over 3-billion dollars was spent making over 4-thousand feature films. But the reality remains that many independent theaters are closing. Either they can’t afford converting to expensive digital equipment or they can’t compete with nearby multiplex theaters.

“There’s a huge difference between mainstream theater owners and independent theater owners,” says Phillips. “There’s an enthusiasm, energy, and love of film that goes with independent owners that is not replicated in mainstream owners. But they have the money and studio support and generally outperform independent theaters.”

In 2006 Phillips and his partner Michael Thomas leased The Minor to Ashland-based Coming Attractions Theaters who have maintained a blend of mainstream and independent films. Gone are the midnight shows and surfing matinees. But Phillips says what remains is something magical that hasn’t changed much over the past 100 years.

“If you watch Netflix on your cell phone, or even your 40-inch TV, that’s one thing. But if you come to a theater like The Minor and share in a communal experience, it becomes an entirely different creature. You feed off the responses of people that are adjacent to you in the theater. It becomes this symbiotic kind of experience that you can only get in a movie theater.”

And Phillips thinks that experience may be what keeps The Minor open for another 100 years.


La Chiquita Taco Truck

“Men are what their mothers make them” Ralph Waldo Emerson

They have names like Curry Up, Burger She Wrote, and Dogzilla.

They serve wild boar, plantains, and sea-salted this and caramelized that.

They’re in converted Airstreams, school buses, even ambulances with some being solar-powered and others fueled by vegetable oil.

They are food trucks. And they’re now estimated to be a one-billion dollar industry in this country. But for Esteban Gonzalez it started with about 66 dollars.

Could I launch myself over to Mexico or China or who knows where and learn the language, cook food the locals would eat, and run three businesses and buy a house?

“When I decided to do something for my family I just had a thousand pesos,” recalls Gonzalez. “The bus charged me from Mexico City to Tijuana about 700 pesos. And all I got is 300 pesos. So what I do is just buy three pounds of tomatoes and a little package of salt, and from Mexico City to Tijuana I just eat tomatoes.”

Esteban had just turned 20. His dad had died when he was 7. He had never been to school and could not write his own name.

“I worked in Tijuana for a month and lived in the streets. When I got almost $500 dollars I hired someone. A coyote you know? To help me cross the border.”

Esteban made his way to Humboldt County where he had relatives. His goal was to become financially independent, get citizenship, and bring his wife and children over from Mexico.

“One day I decided to buy a house. So I got 3 jobs. I worked in the sawmill, milking cows, and as a dishwasher at Eel River Brewing. So 3 jobs in one day.”

He got the house but his back didn’t hold out. And this led Esteban to that West Coast icon: long before the hipster food truck there was … The Taco Truck. He put $1,500 down on a $50,000 used truck. At first he made $10 dollars a day, then $80, then enough to add a second truck, and now he has a tiny brick-and-mortar restaurant that serves as the central kitchen. His wife and children help at all three locations.

“I start at 5:30 in the morning to cook everything for the three businesses. Then I open from 11 to 8 every day. Then I have to get ready for the next day so I have to clean for 2 hours. So I’m working 5:30 to 10 every day.”

Edith Gonzalez is 26-years-old. She is the second of Esteban’s four children. She started working in the taco truck when she was 13-years-old. She says she made some bad choices as a teenager but rebounded with the help of her mom. Her dad was always working. Getting back on her feet and working full-time again has reset her priorities.

“I want to keep my relationship with my dad and my mom. Help to keep their businesses still. Probably someday I will take care of them when they get old.”

Esteban’s taco trucks are now 15 years old, the restaurant 3 years old, and it’s been 26 years since he crossed the border. He and his family are now part of a food truck industry that has grown over 200-percent in the past four years. Currently, 1 out of 4 vendors specialize in Latino cuisine.

Esteban and I sit in his tiny restaurant at one of the four tables. As we look over his menu he admits he can barely read. But his English is not bad. Actually quite good if you consider how he learned it.

“My customers teach me. Because every time they come in and ask me: ‘I want a super veggie without dairy.’ So I ask them: ‘What is dairy? What does that mean dairy? Yo no se. I’m sorry.’ But they tell me that dairy is ‘no queso and no crema … Oh! Ok! No dairy.’ So little by little ….”

As for cooking - which he really had no idea about - he started by asking friends who worked at other restaurants. Then it dawned on him. He had a trump card.

“I just call my mother. She is in Mexico. I say: ‘Hey mom, how do you cook those beans? Make that mole? Cook this meat?’ She tells me ‘put this, and do this, and do that.’”

I can’t help but ask myself: could I launch myself over to Mexico or China or who knows where and learn the language, cook food the locals would eat, and run three businesses and buy a house? I doubt it. But Esteban did. And every time he got a loan he used his thumbprint and brought along a co-signer because he couldn’t write his full name.

“I try to keep going and keep going. And like my mother told me: don’t ever look behind your back. Never give up right? Always look in front no matter what.”

Esteban became a citizen in 1993.The longest vacation he ever had was back in 2000. It lasted five days.


The Koop

“One man’s trash is …”

Charles McDaniels likes to laugh. But if you saw where he works your immediate reaction might be to cry. You see, he runs a warehouse filled with tons of discarded computers, monitors, printers, phones - just about anything with an on-off switch. Then it hits you: if it wasn’t here, where would it be? According to the E.P.A., only about one-in-four household electronics gets recycled. And that’s where Charles comes in as a state certified electronics waste (or e-waste) collector.

“Most people just buy it and don’t worry about where it goes after they get rid of it,” says Charles. “They get rid of stuff because they want to move on and buy more stuff.”

Stuff. Or hoarding. Or collectibles, or even junk - that is what I thought the story would be coming out of Charles’ little shop across from The Minor Theater. It’s called The Koop. It’s like the mutant offspring of a salvage yard and your grandmother’s attic. But you’ll rarely find Charles there anymore. Just his cellphone number taped to the window. That’s because for the past 15 years his business has morphed into US Recycling at The Koop: a massive warehouse on the edge of town that is now a cog in the equally massive e-scrap, or e-waste, industry. Recycling electronics is estimated to add over 20-billion dollars into the US economy.

“Take that laptop right there,” says Charles, pointing to a heap of dozens of laptops. “That is out-of-date already. So the best thing we can do is take it apart and get it ready for market. You got the battery, this board here which is aluminum, silver in the hard drive, and gold in the circuit board.”

Americans own about 24 electronic products per household. So it’s not surprising we generate about 15 pounds of electronic waste, per person, per year. E-waste is now the fastest growing sector in the waste stream. It is regulated almost exclusively at the state level.

John Lingelbach is Executive Director of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, or SERI, a nonprofit that, amongst other things, helped develop an R2 (or, ‘Responsible Recycling’) certification.

“There is no federal mandate at this point. Or anything like a comprehensive approach to electronics recycling … and that is unfortunate.”

SERI believes stringent certification gives consumers peace of mind that their dead electronics are being properly recycled. Searching their website (sustainableelectronics.org) you find nearly 30 certified recyclers in Northern California, 4 in Portland, and 3 near Seattle. Of the 25 states with mandated e-recycling Oregon, Washington, and California are consistently in the top ten for best collection rates of e-waste. California is the only state which taxes the consumer when they buy electronics, rather than the manufacturers or retailers. This Electronics Waste Recycling Fee helps fund and regulate collectors like Charles.

Charles is now in his seventies. He’s endured a kidney transplant, triple bypass, even radiation. I hesitate to ask him if he ever feels recycled himself. Instead, I just ask when he thinks he’ll retire.

“When I get rid of this stuff! I need to retire and buy a Porsche.”

He says he doesn’t care if it is new or used.

“I’ll take it any way it comes.”

So, beneath the veneer we find these stories at an intersection that has seen its fair share of change and struggle over the decades. Next time you find yourself at an intriguing intersection in life, look around, ask questions, you can’t imagine what you might discover.

Michael Joyce is a backpack journalist who produces film, radio, print, and photography from a 15-pound backpack. He is based in Humboldt County and is a frequent contributor to JPR News.