McDonalds books in S.F. dishes up nuggets of history

It's been said that Jews are the People of the Book. If so, Israeli-born Itzhak Volansky is a person of a million books — including magazines and periodicals.

Volansky is the owner of McDonald's Book Shop, which marks its 75th anniversary this month. Founded in 1926 by a Canadian Marxist named John Jock McDonald, it is on a hardscrabble block in San Francisco's Tenderloin at 48 Turk Street just off Market. McDonald used it as a soapbox for his political views.

The store still maintains vestiges of its unorthodox beginnings and plans to celebrate its diamond anniversary by hosting a music, comedy, poetry reading and open mike event at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 5.

Volansky's parents came from Lodz, Poland. They survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, although their first two children did not. After living in Italy, where Volansky's sister was born, and Israel, the family immigrated to San Francisco in 1960. Volansky's father, a cabinetmaker and carpenter, had a small bookshop in Israel and purchased McDonald's in 1967.

"The Holocaust was a taboo subject in our house," Volansky says. "My parents never spoke of it and the rest of the family kept quiet in deference to their wishes. It was only recently that an aunt told me about my two siblings who perished during the war. I was not a rebel and I never asked."

Though not a rebel, the 50-year-old Volansky describes himself as a would-be songwriter who was on his way to Hollywood when his father's 1979 death brought him into the book business. But he seems at home in the cluttered, approximately 2,000-square-foot store — double if you count the basement. There are 1 million or so items in inventory which he has somehow divided into 1,000 categories. Books and magazines are stacked wall to wall and row upon row from floor to ceiling, and literally seem to hold up the building and dwarf its owner.

"I call this a dirty, poorly lit place for books. And that's truth in advertising," he says with the impish grin of a stand-up comic. All the books and magazines are used, or as he prefers to say, "previously owned."

"It's a place where time stands still. No one else has this type of collection. It's the bookstore of last resort."

If you want a 1913 National Geographic, he's got it. Lost your high school yearbook or want the yearbook of a celebrity? How about a collection of Tikkun magazines for that unusual bar-bat mitzvah gift? McDonald's is the place.

Volansky has more than 600 books in his Judaica section and the store is a mecca for serious scholars and researchers. Besides his collection of Tikkuns, he has volumes on a variety of Jewish subjects, including books in Yiddish and Hebrew. One customer even found decades-old copies of minutes from meetings of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

His late uncle Stanley Volansky, also an Auschwitz survivor, was one of the founders of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education's Holocaust library. During the 12 years he ran the bookstore, Volansky's father donated several hundred historical books on the Holocaust to the library. "As soon as a book came in on the Holocaust," his son says, "he sent it directly to the library."

Volansky, who speaks Polish, along with some Yiddish and Hebrew, maintains a large foreign language collection. He advertises in Jewish publications and travel magazines and attracts customers from all over the world. He is now on e-Bay and Advanced Book Exchange.

His clientele range from the famous to the faceless. Author Larry McMurtry describes McDonald's as his favorite bookstore. Pop star Michael Jackson has dropped in to look for self-help and children's books. Recognized on his last visit, Jackson drew such a crowd that Volansky had to call the police. Musician Chris Isaak comes to buy old magazines for his art collages.

The store also is fertile territory for movie researchers sent in by the likes of George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. Costume designers flock to old Harper's Bazaar and Vogue magazines. Set designers pore over old Lifes and Popular Mechanics. Both David Letterman and the late Herb Caen have mentioned McDonald's.

But McDonald's also attracts its share of street people and new immigrants. Volansky describes the location as "San Francisco's Ellis Island." The building includes six stories of low-income housing.

Volansky probably is not the only "bookie" on the block. A recent visitor dressed in leather jacket and sporting three nose rings wanted to buy the book "Crimes of the Century."

Volansky's wife, Carol, who worked with him for 10 years, described herself as part bookseller and part bouncer. "Once in a while a homeless person comes in and asks for a book. We just let them help themselves," she says.

One day a customer wants a June 1951 Life magazine as a 50th birthday gift. Volansky crawls through the labyrinth that is the basement. After several dramatic twists and turns in what seems like an obstacle course, he finds the stack he wants. Voila! A copy of the June 4, 1951 Life. Original price: 20 cents.

Sometimes friends drop by to say hello and browse. A dapper elderly gentleman stops in to exchange a few pleasantries in Polish and to buy an old Sports Illustrated. A young friend sits quietly in a corner reading a novel.

Volansky remains cheerful and calm in this chaotic environment. When he's not with a customer he works on his songwriting. "I know I'll be an overnight sensation," he says. "I just don't know which night." In the meantime, it's clear that for now he's all booked up.