A Bookman’s Ghost Story

Strange Tale of the Incident That Took Place in Cliff Gildart’s Front Yard

by Paul Hunt

I admit it, I believe in ghosts, and all the strange things that go with it.  Baseball players and writers can be a superstitious bunch.  Usually, this kind of stuff is something that someone tells you about – you know, something that happened to an old aunt.  It never seems to be something in the now, something you saw for yourself.  This time it was plain as day, and I want to get it out before I forget about it, or get into a superstitious funk and lock it out of my memory.

IMG_0170The incident had its beginnings some time ago at the now defunct Cliff’s Bookshop on Colorado Boulevard in downtown Pasadena.  The big store, chock full of 150,000 books, was a long time resident on that eastern flatland of the City. Most folks who work in used book shops are, well, a little unusual.  I include myself in that observation.  They tend to be eccentric in often odd ways, rejecting the “normal” jobs that society has to offer.  One of the fellows who worked at Cliff’s for some time was Paul Johnson.  He was a regular employee, working the front counter, going out on book buys, pricing books, doing all the necessary jobs that needed to be done.

Cliff had a long term friend and employee named Mark Sailor.  He was Cliff’s right-hand man, taking care of not only store tasks, but also helping Cliff with personal matters.  When Mark died suddenly in 2011, Paul Johnson stepped up to take on the job.  That meant a change for Paul, who now not only worked at the store a couple nights a week, but also was tasked with getting books listed on the internet at Cliff’s secret “Annex”, which was a dilapidated building surrounded by metal shipping containers, all packed with thousands of unsorted books that poured in on a daily basis.  Add to this was helping old Cliff out in personal matters, which meant spending time up at Cliff’s cottage in North Pasadena.  The cottage, surrounded by trees, sits on a private lane that runs perpendicular to one of those charming streets that are famous for craftsman period homes. Cliff, during the last few years of the bookshop, had pretty much become a hermit, sleeping days and waking nights, like an old wizard deep in the forest.  Really, the only thing missing was a huge pot hanging over a pile of kindling, boiling all night in his front yard, with gremlins and goblins dancing around it, quoting passages from Hunter Thompson and Andy Warhol.

But that wasn’t all that Paul had to deal with.  If you think that the many booksellers you know are a little off center, how about the strange folk who don’t work at the book store, they just live there, burrowing into some upstairs crevice that has slowly, over a period of twenty years, become filled with oddball stuff retrieved from the trash cans of the finest Pasadena estates:  scorched pots and pans, expired can goods filling up a dented file cabinet with only one working drawer; a bare-wired hot plate with the dried crust of the drippings of a thousand delicious cans of soup adorning it’s side; piles of used clothing worn many times but never laundered;  half-working, flickering, fuzzy sounding television sets;  stacks of cd’s, a few of them unscratched, but most out of their plastic cases and heaped into silver towers; boxes of dishware, none of it matching; heaps of interesting looking electronic devices, for some reason all missing something like the plug, or the broken cover, or the rusty battery compartment.  And let’s not forget the five gallon containers full of perfectly good meat, kept fresh and wholesome by being soaked in a bath of water for a couple of years.  All this and more was the upstairs nightmare on Elm Street where Nicholas “Nick” Meier had claimed as his territory, with the same fervor that Columbus claimed the New World for the King of Spain.

Nick, the rumor went, had once literally saved Cliff’s life from some drug-crazed, knife-wielding maniac one late night at the shop.  Cliff was forever grateful for that, and allowed Nick to nestle into the upstairs lair.  Of course, first Nick had to build it.  He was handy with tools, very hard working to accomplish a task, but a bit short on engineering ability. He build an impressive looking mezzanine in the west storefront.  You can view this by going to the video that is the interview with Jerry Lang.  Nick, however, forgot the most important thing, to attach the posts securely to the floor. They were entirely loose.  An earthquake would have brought it down. He also built a mezzanine in the center storefront, one that was so bad that the City of Pasadena shut the entire store down for months until it was removed. Another story for another time.

Nick, a hulking man about 6 foot 6 inches, with a bright shock of white hair and a white beard, would sometimes suddenly appear downstairs in the shop, barefoot, wearing a tee shirt that was long past its prime, and maybe 3 weeks past its laundry appointment that somehow never occurred, and go on a loud rant, colorfully laced with words that were heard frequently at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.  It could be an awkward task to quiet the customers who would usually try to stampede to the door in terror. As far as Nick went, he was quite useful around the shop, vacuuming the carpets, building shelves, building all kinds of interesting things.  The problem was that there were no boundaries placed on him. Only Cliff could tell Nick what to do.  And Cliff never did.

After the 2008 financial meltdown, or maybe even a decade before it, harder than usual times hit the used book business.  Times were tough, and as Nixon’s old veep Spiro Agnew declared, “When the times get tough, the tough get going.”  This was a quote that someone living covertly upstairs at Cliff’s castle could sink his teeth into.  Nick was a master dumpster diver, and years of living on the fringe of society, including many years spent in upstate New York, gave him a head start over the rest of us. Nick got going, raiding market dumpsters all over Pasadena, hauling in trash bags full of yummy veggies and anything else he could find.  Cliff. pretty much a vegetarian, loved the stuff. The staff also delighted in the apples and fruit that Nick brought in. Paul Johnson, however, was not amused, especially since no one ever bothered to daily sort out the rotted stuff, and a strong smell always emanated from behind the Science Fiction section of the store, which was where Nick had cleverly cut out some pieces of wood to install a second refrigerator for Cliff, as the first one was small and so obnoxious that a gas mask was required to even be around it, much less open the door.

The hidden danger, one that would manifest itself soon enough, and lead to this ghost story, revolves around the second refrigerator.  Directly behind the Science Fiction section was a stairway that led up to the illegal loft- mezzanine installed by Nick.  The stairway itself had been moved from an original position, and gerry-rigged to work with the new loft. When Nick chopped out some boards to push in the refrigerator, he had removed the posts that were holding up that section of the stairway, which was now resting on the refrigerator itself, with the help of a few odd scraps of lumber.

Paul Johnson, 2013,

Paul Johnson, 2013,

After a year of smelling rotted veggies, Paul had also noticed that sales of science fiction books had plummeted, due quite logically to the fact that standing in that fantasy nook would overwhelm customers with the smell of stinking compost.  Even Arthur C. Clarke had not envisioned a Martian attack like this.  Paul had had enough.  In a rage one night, he ripped out the refrigerator and the surrounding mass of dead vegetation, and heaved the lot of it into the dumpster.  This caused some fracas, because Cliff didn’t have a dumpster, Paul had used the bin belonging to the next door neighbor, a Mexican Restaurant.  The refrigerator filled up the bin, and the neighbors had no room for their trash and bitterly complained to Cliff, who was already under the gun from these same amigos, who suspected that Cliff was stealing their water.  This was true, (although Cliff didn’t know about it,)  as the main water line to the bathroom had broken, so Nick had simply tapped into the Mexican’s water, but had cleverly concealed it, evading discovery for a couple of years. It became somewhat evident when Paul had to work on the toilet or the sink faucet, because we had to shut down the incoming water from the main which was running through the Mexican Restaurant.  Paul had to work fast before their ice machine ran dry from lack of water, which would burn it out. That, would be open war.

Paul replaced the hole where the refrigerator had been wedged with a sturdy shelf, thus holding up the back stairs, and at the same time giving more space for books, certainly more important than food, at least to a bookman.

Nick moving shelves

Nick moving shelves

When Cliff sold the contents of the store to internet dealers, he excluded from the sale all the books that were upstairs on the loft of the “rare” book room.  So after the internet group had removed all the 150,000 books sold to them, Paul had the job, with his friend Henry, and a couple of others to box up the 10,000 rare books and take them up to the secret Annex.  As Paul was working upstairs boxing up the books, Nick the gorilla was downstairs, knocking apart the hundreds of shelving units and stacking the lumber in piles.  When Nick came to the now abandoned and bare Science Fiction section, he removed the shelves that were holding up the back stairs.  He could see that the stairs were on the verge of collapse, and went looking for a 2 x 4 to shore them up, but had somehow been distracted and forgot to do it.

Meanwhile, Paul was starting to haul the boxes down the stairs from the loft, oblivious to the missing supports on the stairway.  Carrying a heavy 50 pound box of books, he stepped on to the stairs, and promptly crashed through, collapsing the stairway.  Paul Johnson narrowly escaped death, but was injured.  The video interview with Jerry shows Paul’s injuries, and he says he thought he chipped a bone in his leg.  I advised him to go get x-rays, but I doubt that he ever did.  Paul kept working that day, October 4, 2013, and continued through the month until the store was cleared.  I doubt that he ever forgave Nick for being so damned careless.

Fast forward to February, 2016. On Sunday night, the 14th, Johnson stopped over to Cliff’s cottage and had a couple glasses of wine with Cliff.  Paul died the next day, Monday the 15th. Cliff’s little cottage was in trouble (and still is).  A huge branch of a tree had split and crashed onto the roof of the cottage.  When rain comes, Cliff is going to have flood conditions on the inside of his house.  All the trees in Cliff’s forest were overgrown and in need of trimming.  Nick, who had lost his free loft more than two years before, had been basically homeless, living on the streets of Pasadena.  It’s a tough life, especially in a cold, wet winter.  Nick, now about 75 years old, was, and is, having a rough time of it.  He is still able to get food for himself and dumpster dive in the same successful manner, but there’s no place to stay except living rough in a sleeping bag, constantly being harassed by the cops, moving frequently from doorways to nooks in buildings.  Day times are often spent up at Cliff’s cottage.

Last year, he foraged around and found enough paint to completely paint the cottage.  He also cleaned up Cliff’s yard, removing a dead lawn and putting down large stones and gravel between the trees.  On February 17th, 2016, Nick was high up on a ladder, trimming dead branches with a chain saw.  A little gust of wind came up, wind that I believe somehow sounded like Paul Johnson’s laughing chortle.  Nick lost his balance.  A witness told me that Nick did a slow motion somersault, arms outstretched, and crashed onto the recently deposited stones he had so carefully spread across the soft sod in front of the cottage.  Luckily, the whirring chain saw bounced a few feet away, and the large tree limb, with a crook in the center, landed on either side of Nick, but did not touch him.  Nick did not entirely escape injury, he was taken to the hospital with a broken collar bone, and a whole lot of bruises.

I saw Nick two days later, up at Cliff’s cottage, his arm in a sling, and possibly troubled by a cracked rib.  As I talked to a witness to this mayhem, I thought that it was entirely possible that Paul’s spirit was still in the area.  He had died on the 15th.  Maybe he was around two days later, on the 17th, when Nick climbed up the ladder with the chain saw.   Paul was not the kind of person who would do anything to harm anyone.  But standing out there in Cliffs front yard, listening to the wind blowing softly through the trees, I swear I could hear a faint sound of Paul Johnson laughing.  I would know that laugh anywhere. I think Nick would know it too.


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