the Optimistsjohn Evans and Alison Reid, Malibu Diesel 

Wednesday, May 16 2007

Every 10 days, John Evans and life partner Alison Reid travel back and forth between Oakland and Malibu and the two Diesel bookstores they own. It’s unusual, the two cities, two work and living spaces, joined like long-distance Siamese twins, all the more so because Evans and Reid aren’t some big corporation. They’re just two people running an independent business. “I like to think about the Malibu store as the yin and the Oakland store as the yang,” Evans says.

Separated by some 400 miles, Diesel’s clienteles inevitably differentiate along certain cultural lines: NorCal prefers literature and fiction; SoCal (at least in Malibu) prefers New Age spirituality and Buddhism, cookbooks and books on travel.

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“Do people in Malibu even read?” a customer at Diesel Oakland asked Evans one day. “You know,” Evans said with a chuckle, “that’s funny, because they ask the same thing about you guys. Only they’re more polite about it.”

Oakland Diesel is 18 this June, 15 years older than Malibu Diesel, with its brushed concrete floors and Noguchi lamps and white swaths of Japanese rice paper swaying in the ocean breeze. For years, Evans and Reid would drive down to Malibu to surf and camp and hike, where “the desert meets the sea.” From the beginning, people in the neighborhood begged them to open a bookstore in the area. Eventually, they saw the wisdom of it, and when Malibu Diesel opened three years ago, little yellow Post-its saying “Thank you!” appeared on the windows, along with baskets of fresh-baked lemon bars and brownies.

For their travels back and forth, Evans and Reid mostly drive, hauling books and sundries up the 101. They keep an apartment in Oakland; down here, they snuggle up tight in a trailer park. Reid is the organized one — she does the accounting, makes sure everything stays on track. Evans, asked to describe himself, twirls his finger around his temple — the universal signifier of either (a) a dreamer or (b) a lunatic. His skin is a glowy, newborn pinkish tan from surfing, made even more pink by his salmon-colored shirt. He has just flown back from accepting an award from the California Assembly, recognizing businesses that contribute to the community in an exemplary way.

Evans is a socialist of sorts, a staunch believer in workers’ rights, in fair labor practices, who says that giving employees an environment in which they can flourish is a requirement and that the seven deadly sins that dominate our cultural landscape are “kinda creepy.” Asked how business is, he teases, “We’re doing okay, keeping our heads just below water, breathing through a straw.”

“So why do you do this?” I wonder. “It seems like so much effort.”

He sighs with relief. “I was hoping you would ask that. I do this because I like keeping ideas in play. I like experiences that are transformative. People die miserably every day, was essentially what William Carlos Williams said. People need something to help them go on. Like the person with stage-five cancer, she’s not looking for something to change her life necessarily, she’s just looking for something sweet and light. If I can get her that book, and it gives her a little more strength to go on?” he says, cupping his hands around something invisible, fragile and alive — but just barely. “It makes your heart go boog,” he said, the sound of a single, deep beat.?

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