Eileen Callahan was born in Ohio and raised in Stamford, Connecticut, the middle child in a family of four girls and two boys. Her father worked in public relations in New York City and her mother was a nurse. Eileen was a voracious reader who knew about San Francisco’s City Lights Book Store and its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, long before she came to San Francisco. That love of reading and writing and encouraging both activities by becoming a publisher here caused her to live most of her life quite happily in the Bay Area.
Telling her mother on Saturday mornings that she was going to the Stamford Library, Eileen instead hopped on a train to the near-by metropolis. What did she do there? Oh, she says casually, go to Greenwich Village and look around at the shops.
With a family of six children, her parents knew they couldn’t afford to send them all to college, so the boys were given priority. Eileen, obviously very intelligent, then searched for a nearby college she could manage financially. In 1965, Northeastern University in Boston was supposedly set up to help students integrate real-life with experience.
It was not a good experience. “I can’t say enough bad things about Northeastern,” Eileen observes now. So, she returned to Stamford and her waitress job. Fortuitously, there she met her future husband, Robert Callahan, who became a regular customer because of her. Just a few years older than Eileen, he worked in the liquor store his family-owned.
The late sixties were a turning point in her life. “The Vietnam War woke us all up,” she says in reference to her generation. “My classmates were going,” adding that she knew some who died there. Eileen feels strongly that “Vietnam changed this country.” When asked in what ways, she replied “when the war started in the afterglow of World War II, it was the good guys versus the bad guys. We trusted our government.” In her opinion, the war “was so shockingly wrong that it divided us and generated hate.”
The young couple supported the anti-war movement attending various demonstrations culminating in going to Washington D.C. for a huge gathering of thousands of others. Standing in the crowd chanting “Give peace a chance!” she looked over and saw some people dancing. “That’s the delegation from California,” a fellow demonstrator told her. Eileen says she knew right then that she had to go to California! Recently married, it took some persuading and a clear statement that she was going no matter what, for Robert to agree.
“We were two wide-eyed kids driving a VW bug across the country to find a tribe” of people in the arts, particularly writing. When asked why they came to San Francisco, besides City Lights and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “it was, she replied,“ because everything was happening around San Francisco.”
When asked why the couple decided to take up book publishing, Eileen does not hesitate. “It was the most natural thing in the world. We both loved to read and write. We both loved books. How young we were. We thought whatever you could imagine, you could do.”
In the meantime, they lived on what they called ‘funky, funky Bush Street” and they both had to work. Among Robert’s jobs, when he was not writing, was as a clerk at the city’s well-known Stacey’s Books. One of Eileen’s favorite jobs was as a staff assistant in the San Francisco office of the popular state senator, George Moscone. Already following state politics including then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s interest in selling the University of California’s world-famous Bancroft Library of California history, Eileen impressed the interviewers including Senator Moscone by mentioning it. None, including the Senator, had heard about that and quizzed her closely about how she knew. She was able to convince them that her information was reliable. As a result, public reaction and the legislature quickly put a stop to that idea. That and asking about the marijuana bill the senator had placed before the Senate convinced him to hire her as a staff assistant. She worked in Moscone’s office for two years only leaving because she and Robert were starting their publishing business. A few years later her former boss was killed by a member of the Board of Supervisors. Asked how she felt when she heard the news, she replied “Oh, my God! I was devastated! I knew what a good guy he was.”
After living in San Francisco for a number of years, Robert and Eileen decided to establish their own publishing firm, Turtle Island Foundation. The name was given to the section of California they lived in by early native Americans because it was their world. In the 1960s and 70s, bookstores flourished in the state as did many small publishers who provided a hungry reading public with all sorts of fiction and non-fiction books that the major publishing houses on the east coast ignored. “We wanted to publish a certain kind of book that those mainstream publishing houses wouldn’t take,” she says.
Looking for advice and help on starting a publishing business, the young couple discovered Book People, a company focused on supporting small publishers with distribution and reviews of their books. There was also the National Endowment for the Arts which in those days actively gave grants to publish all kinds of books. Both were helpful to the Callahans.
But the best ‘find’ was a young man who had inherited a large fortune. “He very much wanted to be involved in something that mattered,” Eileen says. Publishing certain kinds of books that would not otherwise be available to readers appealed to him as a positive use of his money in times when bookstores flourished as did many small publishers who provided a hungry reading public with all kinds of books that the major publishing houses back east ignored.
Another smart move was organizing their business as a non-profit so it could receive tax-free donations from the public and grants from organizations. With the support of their benefactor and Book People, they successfully published a number of new books of prose and poetry. “We were lucky,” Eileen admits. “Some books just took off!”
Turtle Island also published books written some years before that had not been recognized by the general book publishing community before the 1970s but are now. An important book published by their company was written by an African-American author, Zora Neale Hurston. Published years before, her work was ignored until long after her death when her gifts as an excellent writer of the reality of black lives in America were finally recognized and celebrated. Her books inspired Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Hurston’s name now often appears in many articles and books about outstanding American authors of the 20th century. Turtle Island’s publication of her book sold upwards of 10,000 copies. The non-profit operated for about ten years always publishing “those certain kind of books mainstream publishers wouldn’t take,” Eileen recalls.
One of Eileen’s great skills is to go out and find people who knew things she needed to know, such as how to become a printer in her own right. She fought discrimination. “Lots of men thought because I was a woman I should go into the kitchen and cook,” she recalls. But she and other women met a “wonderful printer” named Clifford Burke, who owned Cranium Press, a small shop that printed all sorts of things for its customers from Monday through Friday.
“On Saturday,” however, “he would open the door and teach you how to print.” She learned how to handset type, placing one metal alphabet letter at a time next to another. The result allowed the text to be printed. She learned how to use the letter press technique whereby you printed your work one page at a time on paper which you then inserted in the press for reproduction. Nowadays, most, if not all newspapers, and most books and any other printed communication use offset printing which is a story for another time. Interesting, however, is Eileen’s observation that letter press is the technique Gutenberg used to print the first Bible nearly 600 years ago.
She and four other women were so inspired that they rented a place and bought a press. One of them even started a printing program at Mills College which continues to this day.
Asked to explain ‘typefaces,’ the rendition of alphabet letters in a style or theme for printing, Eileen uses her own experience as a printer of books. The typefaces preferred by many publishers for most written material are Baskerville, Centaur, Benbo, and Palatino, she says. Although she likes Benbo and Centaur, her favorite is Palatino because “It’s a workhorse. You can use it for a poem or a science book.” She describes it “as graceful and not too fancy. It always looks good and works well.” Asked what is important about a typeface, Eileen responds quickly: “It has great decorum. It does not interrupt reading. It brings the text forward (to the reader) in a subliminal way.”
In the late sixties, Eileen enrolled in San Francisco State University to complete the B.A. degree she had started during her unhappy year at Northeastern University. This time she completed the degree but not without one frightening experience. Some will remember the demonstrations at SF State in the late 1960s when S.I. Hiyakawa was president. Students, including Eileen, were marching over their demands for an Ethnic Studies program. She recalls being part of a demonstration one day when suddenly “the mounted police were coming on campus chasing demonstrators with me hiding in a bush. I can still remember vividly the feeling of fear hiding in a bush as mounted police rode by.”
Years after she earned her B. A., Eileen decided to take advantage of a UC Program for older students to work for a Master’s degree in English. The program was so inspiring that she enrolled in a Ph.D. program but after two years, she decided to withdraw and move on.
Eileen taught for a while at New College in San Francisco, which was organized to “change how people learned things,” a movement that was being adopted in public schools at the time as well. Later, one of her most satisfying jobs was working at the UC physical plant where all the mechanics of heating, lighting and plumbing the campus buildings was centered. She worked in the employee benefits office. Her favorite duty was as a benefits counselor helping employees get the most out of what was available to them. “I loved it,” she says with a smile. “Let me help you!”
Looking back, Eileen says she is proudest of having been part of the movement that brought forward new ways of writing and thinking and as well as focusing attention on great writers who had been long neglected or overlooked for years. She refers to Book People as always making sure that reviews of writers’ books after they were resurrected years later were made widely available, as well as the comments and articles about them. Pieces written by well-known and well-respected writers such as Alice Walker’s work about Zora Neal Hurston, continues to give a new life and a new audience to the unfairly forgotten. Eileen is proud to have helped to make that happen.
Written by Harriett Burt, Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill-Martinez Resident