Attack on author Salman Rushdie brings back memories of Berkeley bookstore bombing

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Salman Rushdie, the author who was stabbed multiple times on Friday as he prepared to deliver a lecture in New York, once sparked political hell in Berkeley – when his critics allegedly bombed two bookstores, testing the city’s faith in the freedom of expression.

The events of February 1989 still strongly threaten Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ had been released a few months earlier in the UK, winning plaudits from the literary world but angering people with its references to the Quran, which many considered blasphemous.

“We knew it was a little dangerous,” Ross told The Chronicle on Saturday, recalling the protests that erupted around the world, eventually hitting his store after the book was shipped.

Undeterred, Ross opted to keep “The Satanic Verses” in storage, hoping to avoid controversy if he left it out of the display case. Then one evening he received a call from the police, saying that someone had thrown a firebomb in the store. While no one left a threat or came forward later, Ross and investigators saw the bombings as retaliation for his decision to sell the book.

No one was injured, although the bomb charred a shelf and responding firefighters left extensive damage, Ross said. When he and his team arrived to clean up the next day, they found an unexploded pipe bomb in the poetry section and had to call in a bomb squad to detonate it.

“They said it would have killed everyone in the store,” Ross recalled, his voice shaking. “And that’s the part where I get really smothered. We all went to the store afterwards, and I said to my staff, ‘I don’t know what you want to do.’ This book is dangerous. So we voted. And we voted unanimously to continue carrying the book.

He stopped for a moment.

“And that was one of the highlights of my career.”

Still, Ross acknowledged he might remember the vote as reckless, rather than principled and heroic, if people had died in a subsequent bombing. Tension was mounting around Rushdie’s novel, even in progressive, First Amendment-loving Berkeley. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran after its 1979 revolution, issued a fatwa in February 1989 ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie.

The death sentence came just as “The Satanic Verses” hit Berkeley bookstores, apparently sparking outrage.

The night Cody’s was attacked, someone also threw a brick and a Molotov cocktail at a nearby Waldenbooks store. In the weeks that followed, people began to point fingers at the Muslim community, stoking hostility even though the perpetrators of the attacks were never identified, their motives were never confirmed and such violence would be l work of branched extremists.

For Robert Gammon, the former Waldenbooks branch manager, the impetus for the bombings was “pretty clear”. Nevertheless, he refused to stop selling Rushdie’s novel.

“It was about freedom of speech,” Gammon, now state senator Nancy Skinner’s communications director, said Saturday. “We’re a bookstore – we’re not going to cower in fear or hide the book in the back, or anything like that. Even after being burned down, we had more copies in stock. And they sold pretty well.

At one point, members of Islamic student associations at UC Berkeley came to Cody’s and offered their condolences, making it clear they did not support the violence, Ross said.

Years later, Rushdie makes a surprise appearance at Cody’s. He was still hidden, so employees weren’t notified until 15 minutes before he entered, Ross said. They showed him around and showed him a crack in the drywall above the information desk, left over from the 1989 bombings. Someone had scribbled “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole” near the indentation.

Ross remembers the author‘s funny reaction. “Well,” the author says, “some people get statuses, and some get a hole.”

Cody’s closed its flagship store on Telegraph Avenue in 2006, then closed branches in North Berkeley and San Francisco. Ross now works as a literary agent.

Police arrested Hadi Matar, 24, of New Jersey on Friday after Rushdie was stabbed 10 times as he prepared to give a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. During a court appearance on Saturday, Matar pleaded not guilty to what prosecutors said was a premeditated attack.

Rushdie, 75, suffered liver damage and severed nerves in an arm and eye, media reported. He was taken off a ventilator and able to speak on Saturday, but remained hospitalized with serious injuries and could lose his eye, according to reports.

Chronicle News Services contributed to this report.

Rachel Swan is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @rachelswan

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