- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - It’s a coming-of-age story at the other end of life.

Howard Junker retired from the West Coast literary journal he founded 25 years ago. But he wasn’t ready to put down his pen _ or be put out to pasture. Having discovered many great writers at the impossibly named “ZYZZYVA,” the 71-year-old Junker was determined to keep reinventing himself with the new media tools some writers lament are putting books out of business.

“I started blogging just to be hip. But I found I liked the daily yoga of it,” he says. The writings on that blog are now compiled in a thin paperback Junker takes out on the streets of San Francisco each day, ambushing people with impromptu readings at iconic landmarks: City Lights Books, Danielle Steele’s mansion in Pacific Heights, the Presidio’s military cemetery or the Museum of Modern Art.

He read at this month’s hipster Litquake crawl, proving the old guard can join the new.


“An Old Junker” is a compilation of 1,300 daily blog blogs he posted over five years, from 2006-2010, while still running the magazine. It’s peppered with grainy black-and-white iPhone photos he has taken around the city.

The stream-of-consciousness style includes rants and anecdotes, parodies and reviews.

“I’m extremely shy, so it’s like I’m an actor out here, performing a role,” Junker says, partly in jest, as he’s clearly a showboat who loves to engage. “If I wasn’t out here, I’d be sitting in my basement trying not to play on-line chess.”

On a recent sunny day, Junker starts out at the Museum of Modern Art, wearing a baseball cap and sneakers, carrying his backpack with copies of his book and a sandwich-board that reads, yes, An Old Junker.

He walks up to a startled tourist having coffee. After a few minutes, they’re laughing and she warms to his reading about her hometown Vienna. “I wish you luck,” Ingrid Tomasits calls out to him as he heads inside the museum. He next corners a German woman in front of a Chuck Close portrait of “Agnes” to read from his attack on the museum’s Fisher Collection, the massive contemporary art collection of Doris and the late Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing store chain.

“1,100 pieces, worth a billion, to be housed in a structure that will cost half a billion, and not a single must-see, defining-moment work,” Junker wrote of the collection that otherwise got good reviews from art critics.

The German woman listens intently, and then concedes her English isn’t quite good enough to follow. Others look on, hoping he’ll talk to them; still others back away, not wanting to take part in the performance.

Junker then gathers his backpack and sign and walks a few blocks to the Sentinel, a classic street-side deli. He abhors the foodie culture and calls Michael Pollan, author of the bestseller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” his nemesis, whose followers would rather spend more on grass-fed beef than a hardback novel.

“How many novels have been shunned in order to gobble up a rack of organic lamb?” he reads to the hungry hopefuls standing in line for a pastrami-on-rye. “How many litmag subscriptions have been abjured in favor of another sip of modest pinot?”

Junker, an East Coast transplant who first came to West as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, has written for dozens of magazines, including Architectural Digest, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Playboy and Newsweek.

He founded “ZYZZYVA” _ a tongue twister named for what was often the last word in the dictionary _ in 1985 and retired last year. He discovered authors who would go on to become contemporary giants, such as Haruki Murakami, Po Bronson, Chitra Divakaruni, 2010 U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, as well as 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award winner Sherman Alexie.

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