Counter Culture Season 5 Ep. 3
Join host Grover Silcox and guests Jeannine Cook, Harriett's Bookshop (Fishtown), Philadelphia; Dave Blazek, Award-Winning Syndicated Cartoonist; and Larry Ricci, Creative Woodworker.
- Welcome to Counter Culture,
a talk show normally in a diner.
Joining me on tonight's show,
the owner of Harriett's bookshop
- People had a million reasons why this was a really bad idea.
Sometimes you just can't listen to people.
- The creator of the syndicated cartoon strip
Loose Parts artist Dave Blazek.
- I like to make my cartoons not obvious.
Somebody wrote me, says, "I had to think about it for a while."
I like that. I like that you're more involved.
- And creative woodworker Larry Ricci.
- I love the beauty of wood, and if wood's imperfect,
and if it's got an inclusion and a hole, it's split,
this and that, it adds to the charm.
I can't fill that up with plastic.
- All right here, on Counter Culture.
Hi, folks, I'm your host, Grover Silcox, coming
to you from Lehigh Valley Public Media Studio B,
where we'll be until we get word we can go back
to our original location and Daddypops Diner
in little old Hatboro, PA.
Whenever I hear someone touting the merits of positive
thinking, I look to see whether they're all talk
or a good example.
Well, my first guest not only promotes positive thinking,
she created an organization called Positive Minds to help
the children and families in her neighborhood.
Then, inspired by one of her heroes, a 19th-century
women's rights and social justice
activist Harriet Tubman,
she opened an independent bookshop and named
it after her hero.
As if that wasn't challenging enough, her Harriett's Bookshop
in Philly's Fishtown section opened just as Covid-19
was making its debut.
But guess what? That has not stopped her.
Please welcome Jeannine Cook.
- Hi. Hi, Grover. - How are you?
- Thank you for having me here.
- Oh, it's a pleasure.
First of all, anyone who opens an independent bookshop
in these days, even before this horrendous
pandemic, is really a brave person.
- A lot of people told me I was like a little off, maybe
crazy, said I couldn't compete
with the big dogs in the book world.
And what was I thinking
having a book shop that was named after Harriet Tubman?
And what was I thinking with a mission
that celebrated women authors
and women artists and women activists?
And I mean, people had a million reasons why
this was a really bad idea.
And, you know, so sometimes
you just can't listen to people.
- Well, I think you've even said, over time, you know,
"I'm not supposed to be doing this."
A black woman and an independent bookshop
- Fishtown, where I come from, is also a place
where people were, like,
who would do anything in Fishtown
that has any association with blackness?
Because Fishtown is known for its racially tense history.
I said, "Well, I think that's probably the best place
"to do it, no?"
- Well, it's time to make some changes, and Fishtown
has been going through changes over the last 15 to 20 years,
has been evolving now and gentrified, am I right?
- Yeah. I mean, that's what many people say.
Some people have even told me that I am a part
of the gentrification, which I thought
was really interesting.
You went to the University of the Arts.
- Yeah. I still got there. Yeah.
- You faced challenges.
You had a child when you were still in college,
but fortunately, the college worked with you and you were
able to bring your son to class.
- I had several professors who took a great deal
of interest in me and making sure that I succeeded.
I actually dropped out for a semester
when I was a junior and I had a professor come
find me and bring me back to school
and help me to finish.
And so, yeah, it was a lot of love there.
- And in the meantime, because you didn't live
on campus, you lived off campus,
and in the neighborhood, you noticed a lot of the kids
didn't have some of the things,
you know, creatively.
You instructed and you guided and you served as a mentor
and provided them with equipment, did fundraisers
for the kids in your neighborhood and called
it Positive Minds, right?
- That's right. That's right. Yeah.
That one semester that I took off, I spent that entire
semester working on this curriculum that got
into my head.
And I had never... I'd never done any type
of curriculum work before.
Children in my neighborhood didn't necessarily feel safe.
They didn't necessarily feel connected
to the other neighbors.
And so we started something called Positive Minds.
We had a program, a neighborhood
where everyone knows your name.
And so, you know, these were
these were my earliest attempts,
so I was probably about 19, 20, at what I consider
to be social change.
- Yeah. Community activism.
And so when did you get the idea for the book shop?
Obviously, Harriet Tubman was a long time hero of yours.
My first book is called Conversations With Harriett,
and I believe her and I have been in conversation
for a long time. Maybe since I was about the second
or third grade,
I've been very attracted to the story
of this woman, right?
As a woman, as a black woman, who they say was about only
five foot tall, who did all of this miraculous stuff
and still was very much a human, right?
And navigated some of the worst atrocities known
to human kind and did so on the behalf of herself,
but also on the behalf of others.
So I've always felt very, very connected to Harriet.
And then most recently, I said, if I ever were to open a book
shop, I would name it for her and we would build
a monument for Harriet that I think
she very much deserves.
She owned the brick-making company and actually bought
slaves out of slavery and then helped train them
so that they could become independent.
But there's so much more to her story.
She lived in her early 90s doing entrepreneurial
work, doing social justice work,
working on the behalf of women,
working on the behalf of black folks.
And so that was something that has inspired me
when thinking about,
what does it mean to be an entrepreneur and then some?
- Now let's talk about the shop itself.
I understand that when you walk in,
that you're immediately you notice that there's
the scent of frankincense.
- Well, you know, as an educator, as a teacher,
you are, as I did, go on
to become an educator for a few years
and worked with young people who dropped out of high school
mostly, and I like young people who are who have strong spirit
and maybe just need a little direction.
I love working with them because they push
you very hard.
And one thing that they pushed me to understand
was that education is very much a holistic experience
and that when you're stimulating someone's senses,
in terms of education,
you can do that in a lot of ways, that you can do
that with sound, you can do that with smell,
you can do that with, you know, different sensory
mechanisms as well as, of course, books
and words and story. - Right.
- So that's...the book shop, I hope, does
something very similar.
- Do you have a certain genre of book or is it all kinds?
- It's really all kinds of books, like there are folks
who are like, you know, "Are there books in there
"that are written by men?" And I said, "Sure."
I never said that we were exclusionary.
Our mission celebrates women authors,
it celebrates women artists, it celebrates women activists,
because that was something I'd never seen
and that was something that I thought
was really necessary.
Every month we think of a theme.
We work with a different local artist, an up-and-coming
artist, and her and I envision what the bookshop will look
like and what it will feel like for that month.
So the bookshop is a new bookshop
almost every month, yeah.
- And so how have you dealt with this pandemic?
I know that you brought some of the furniture out
and so that there is an outdoor version
of Harriett's bookshop.
- Yeah. So for folks who don't know,
we opened on February 1st,
which was what is called Freedom Day, and it marks
the beginning of Black History Month.
And we were very excited.
We had many, many people show up to celebrate with us.
Six weeks later, we were told we needed to shut the doors.
And so we did, so as we were instructed. After that, one
of the things we took on was a project called
Essentials for Essentials that we created where
neighborhood folks were invited to purchase a book
for a doctor or nurse or a medical worker
or an essential worker.
And the essential workers received these books
and along with the prescription
from a neighbor, and the prescription said things
like, you know, "Read three hours a day and drink
"some, drink some hot cocoa," or just think
that the neighborhood was encouraging
our essential workers to do to stay healthy.
And then I got the wild, crazy idea, which I get a lot
of wild, crazy ideas,
to take all the furniture outside.
Something said, well,
what if people could just grab and go?
What if they could just grab the book and send the payment?
And of course, it takes a certain amount of trust
in the community to do something like that,
which we established.
And then folks did it.
It was an amazing summer.
We have had some obstacles.
There was a time where, you know, folks decided
they were going to march up and down Girard Avenue
with bats and profanity.
There was a time when we receive emails
with terroristic threats,
and through all of those things,
the neighbors, the community has wrapped
its arms around us and done whatever to ensure we felt
safe and wanted and supported.
You know, it's just a matter of being finally, you know,
going where you're celebrated and not where you're tolerated.
And the folks have definitely celebrated us as well.
- Well, I celebrate you.
I can't wait to see your shop in person after this whole
thing is over and you're like going gangbusters.
- We have an online store too.
- Online, too, OK.
- You can shop online, feel free.
- Harrietsbookshop.com, I'm assuming?
- Yep. - All right.
Well, there's a way we can plug into the shop
and get a little bit of the feel.
- What are you reading? What's on your to-be-read list?
- Well, I don't know.
I always read by my guests' books.
- Oh, that's good. That's very good.
- They're always on my list.
- That puts us ahead of the game.
- Yeah. Well, you take care. - OK.
- Stay safe. - Yep.
- And keep that business going, because when it's all over,
you guys are going to be going gangbusters
at Harriett's Bookshop.
- Thank you. I hope so. - Thank you, Jeannine.
- I hope so. And we appreciate you.
Thank you so much. - Same here.
Jeannine Cook, a positively positive spirit who proves
that the best teacher is a great example,
like her hero, Harriet Tubman.
Now, coming to the Counter is a fellow who uses words such
as weird, odd and impulsive to describe his hilarious
syndicated cartoon strip Loose Parts. A two-time winner
of the National Cartoonist Society Reuben Award, a.k.a.
the Oscar of cartooning for his script,
he's also published seven Loose Parts books.
Loose Parts appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer
and Washington Post, among many other publications.
It's a riot and, as my guest would say, cholesterol-free.
It's a pleasure to welcome Dave Blazek to the Counter.
There is the man whose signature I always see.
- How are you? It's so good... - Very good!
- I'm much less impressive in person.
- I don't know that, you do just about everything.
You play guitar, you play piano.
And of course, the creator of this ubiquitous comic strip,
Loose Parts, which is just delightful.
I've been looking through them, of course, preparing.
I've seen your script before and I love the quirky.
The word you used to describe your own work are pretty
apt, I think - weird...
- Odd, quirky, weird, oblique, slightly off-center.
Yeah, you know, it's funny.
It's just the way my brain works.
So I guess you're kind of describing my brain.
- You didn't really start out
as an artist or cartoonist, right?
I mean, you were a journalist.
- It's crazy. I only learned to draw in my 40s.
- How? - And I fell into it.
I really am the accidental cartoonist.
I actually had a syndication contract before I knew
how to draw, which is just a really bizarre thing.
I'll try to give you the condensed version.
I worked in Philadelphia newspapers,
in the advertising business.
I've written produced hundreds of radio and TV commercials.
I stuck my toe in the stand-up when everybody else
was sticking their toes in, in the '90s.
- And it all kind of came together when the editors
at the Inquirer said, "Hey, you're a funny guy.
"Take a look at the cartoon submissions we're getting.
"What do you think?"
And I kept saying they weren't funny.
They said, "Try it yourself, smart guy,"
and so... I didn't draw.
So I had a friend who was really adept, a cartoonist,
and he drew it up and we got signed to a syndication
contract and then he got sick the first year.
So rather than drop out totally and lose
all our slots,
I asked him if I could draw it as well as write it,
and they asked, because they're professionals...
- Right. - ..did I know how to draw?
And I said no, but I could learn.
And there was a huge pause on the other end of the line
and said, "OK, go ahead."
And I hung up the phone and I turned to
my wife and said, "My God, what did I just do?"
So, now 20 years and 7,000
in a row later, I guess I know how to draw.
- Wow. You know, if you had
planned any of that, Dave, forget it. Right?
None of it would have happened.
- It's really weird.
But in many ways, it's funny how when you're on
the creative side of a mountain, you are preparing.
You don't know that you're preparing.
- You know, advertising, newspaper work
taught me to work on a deadline,
stand-up taught me, you know, reactions and timing.
- You know, looking through a camera taught me how to block
out the single panel, because it is for people
who don't know, it's a single panel.
It's kind of like The Far Side.
I get angry Far Side fan letters still.
So you're sort of training without knowing
that you're training, and then all of a sudden,
it just all comes together.
- You're not an editorial cartoonist, you know,
commenting on the political scene, which can be dicey
these days. You're more...
- I mean, I pitched in, but not that much.
- Right. You're in the realm of like, you know,
the quirky, the kooky.
And I love any time you could take an animal,
and there are funny animals.
- You know, the thing about animals is you can get
away with stuff that you can't let people.
I remember one time I did a panel, there was a bunch
of doctors doing surgery.
You saw their backs,
you saw one with a big mallet.
And all he was saying was,
"That one didn't pop, hand me another weasel."
And me editor said, "You can't do that."
I said, then how about if I turn all the doctors
into bears doing surgery?
And then it was fine. Apparently,
as long as you have a bear
wielding the hammer, you can bash all the weasels you want.
Like I just did one with steers in a classroom.
Like there's was a whole classroom for the students.
There's just one steer,
you see him from the back,
and the teacher says...
But just your eye, starting with the professor
and then noticing that there's a steer tucked
in the crowd of students,
And I like to do that.
I like to make
my cartoons not obvious.
One of the biggest compliments
I can get is somebody wrote me and says, "I had to think
"about it for a while," I like that.
I like that you're more involved.
And in many ways, I learned this doing stand-up.
On the other hand, the big difference is and the thing
I like least about the cartooning
is the lack of instant feedback.
You know, you can tell when you're doing stand-up,
you get it right away.
Here, it's better now with social media and emails
and stuff, but I love feedback.
And sometimes, you know, I'm convinced that there
were a lot of cartoonists who didn't know
how they were doing because they had to wait
for the mail to come
through the syndicate to get to them.
It's much easier now.
And I kind of miss that from that stand-up time.
But that... So I just have...
I liken it to hurling, like, grenades over a fence.
I'm not certain what I'm hitting all the time.
- Do you spend a lot of time in your studio?
- Yeah. Which is, you know, funny.
The joke is now, with the pandemic,
everyone's living like a cartoonist -
godly dressed and in one room.
- Yeah, right. - Yeah.
So, yeah, this is my beautiful studio here,
next to Valley Forge National Park.
And I do spend a lot of time up here, but it's a very nice
way to spend the time.
- And how long does it take to create one of your cartoons?
How many do you make a day or a week?
- Well, I mean, I've got to make at least seven a week
because it runs every day, or there's going to be holes
in the paper.
- It's funny, I do them in batches.
I sit, I write a bunch of jokes, takes me
about an hour and a half, two hours to write
about a dozen jokes.
I draw then through the week and make sure I always
have at least seven drawings.
And then one week a month I assemble everything and put
it all in frames and add the word balloons
and all that, and ship them off to my lovely
editor, Amy Lago, who surprisingly used
to be Charles Schulz's editor.
What she's doing with me, I have no idea.
I guess I remind her of better days.
- Well, that's quite a compliment.
Let me tell you. - Yeah, it is.
I didn't know it when I first joined
the Washington Post syndicate, but when I found out,
I was very flattered.
And again, it really questions the judgment
of The Washington Post.
- So folks should just look for your Loose Parts
in the Philadelphia Inquirer. or Washington Post.
- You know, you can just google Loose Parts and cartoon,
you'll see a bunch.
Or go to loosepartscomic.com.
I've got a lot of stuff on there about, you know,
my studio and how I work.
I've got little videos. You can see like 30 minutes
of drawing condensed down to like one minute.
- And there's stuff to buy - books and frames
and you can still get them signed and send them to people
and stuff like that.
But yeah, that's where you can learn
all about this nutty job.
- Thanks so much.
- This has been great. Thank you so much.
- Same here.
Love your stuff.
Dave Blazek, an artist and thinker whose
Loose Parts have made him a household name
among all of us who love oddly intelligent
and impulsively funny cartoons.
My next guest is a man who can't seem to retire.
He taught high school social studies for 15 years, became
an assistant principal and principal for 20 years,
and an adjunct professor at La Salle University
after that, and just when he might have sat back
and kicked up his feet,
he became inspired by a neighbor's house filled
with creative, handmade wood furnishings.
So he picked up some tools and started
crafting his own creations in wood.
His works have won prizes and a list of fans and clients.
Please welcome Larry Ricci to the Counter.
Hi, Larry. How are you? - Hi, Grover.
I'm doing great. How are you today?
- Very good. So you were inspired by the furnishings
in your neighbor's house and an addition
on the house, right? This is up in Bucks County.
- Correct. - But they were all created
by the wood sculptor George Nakashima.
- Back in the '70s,
a woman I was dating actually moved into a carriage house
on a beautiful old farm owned by the Coiners.
And George Nagashima did
an addition to the farmhouse, he built all the furniture.
And the first time I saw that, I was just actually blown away.
I had no real belief or vision that furniture
could be sculpture and furniture could
truly be artwork.
- It is amazing.
- When I saw that, I just knew that it changed my vision
about which furniture could be,
something like furniture that always had a function
can have such form and beauty
and be truly works of art that you could
sit in or work on or write on.
- You learned to use tools as a kid in South Philadelphia
when your father handed them to you.
- My dad was truly artistic in so many things he did.
He was a South Philly grocer, was actually his parents'
grocery store before, a mom and pop place
that's still around.
My dad was very creative and as I, as I said, put tools
in my hand when I was a kid and just it was natural.
As an educator, you're always learning.
You're always learning new things,
hopefully to pass on to folks.
And woodworking became part of that for me.
It was something for me to learn and for me to pass on.
- And it's interesting because all those years
teaching and being an administrator, you know,
it's a very cerebral job.
And yet you would think woodworking,
well, that's using your hands.
But it's also cerebral, isn't it?
One of my favorite things is when I go out to acquire
some new wood, whether it's something I'm buying
or somebody has given to me or whatever, and I always look
for pieces that are truly unique and unusual
and cause you to really think about it.
And it often takes quite a while to
figure out what it's going to be.
So sometimes you have to live with the wood
for a while before you know which direction
you're going to go with it.
- Is there a particular type of wood or grain or whatever
that you look for that works best for your art?
- I work mostly in walnut and cherry and maple.
I do a lot of work with burls.
So a burl is basically a piece of wood
that's problematic, is diseased or whatever.
It's a growth. It's not supposed to be there.
But if you look inside, the figure is fascinating.
And, you know, again, a work of art.
- How much planning goes into each piece?
Do you draw it out?
How does it go? What's the process?
- Typically, that's the case.
If it's something that's truly a new direction
for me and something I haven't done,
often I'll build a model
or I'll actually make a copy of it
using plywoods and construction lumber,
kind of get a sense of how the angles should be and how
to approach, you know, the base of something.
And sometimes you even, even with the planning,
you make something,
and when you're finished with it, it doesn't
have the effect you want.
Sometimes you have to take it apart and start again.
I've made a couple of tables and wind up replacing a base
or replacing something else on it just because I wasn't
satisfied with the way it looked.
- And what are the types of things that you've made,
and what was your favorite?
If you have a couple of favorites.
- I made a small kitchen table out of an incredible big leaf
maple burl for a couple in New Town, Pennsylvania.
They wanted something unusual.
I do a lot of three-legged tables
just because I like that more than a traditional
four-legged or two-sided table.
One of my very favorite pieces was a couple that I made
two whole tables for.
One was a whole table, one was a sofa table,
and I got a call from the guy about a year later.
And there's all these strange noises in the background
and I'm wondering, you know,
"Did you call me with the television
blasting or whatever?""
It wound up, he was calling me from the hospital.
They were moving to Florida and they wanted a table.
And I had to make it within the next month or so.
And so he got out of the hospital.
He and his wife came here and we picked out lumber.
And a month later, I delivered them
one of my favorite dining room tables.
And so they took it to Florida.
I have pictures of that in Florida, and it looks
beautiful there, so there's typically a story
- Yeah, it's like he needed something.
It gave him hope.
It gave him something to look forward to.
- Well, I hope so. I haven't heard from him
in a little while. I hope he's still fine.
- I hope so too. I loved your chessboard.
Are they different pieces of wood, or is it the way
you lacquer or whatever?
- The darks are walnut, the lights are maple,
and there's some red hard and yellow hard trim
around that before I put the live edge around.
It's part of the composition, part of the design.
The design is as much fun as making it,
and hopefully you hit it right.
- Most challenging thing to make.
What's the most challenging?
- I think the joinery, because some
people are so strong at it.
You know, we talked about Nakashima and the beauty
of his work is how incredibly well the joints
all fit together.
So to make the joinery look like it's exactly
what it's supposed to be and then you get
the matches you want and one piece flows into another,
I think that's what's most challenging for me.
- What turns an ordinary piece of furniture
into a work of art?
- If you look at it and you can't take your eyes off of it.
And then when one of the things I love about doing
shows is that people come in and they look at it
and sometimes you get a "Wow" or like an "Oh, my God,"
or "Look at this," they drag somebody over to see it.
And then you have to touch it.
You know, people just want to put their hands on it.
And they're involving one more sense into absorbing
what you created, watching that happen,
you know, if, you know, especially if it's an outdoor
show or lots of people are passing by, you just see,
you know, you see people are just drawn
into your you know, into your little booth
and they don't want to leave.
And sometimes, you know, somebody wants to get
at a piece and they have to wait in line to see it.
That just fires you up. It just wants you to continue.
You know, it makes me want to do more and make me
want to be better at my craft.
I love the beauty of wood, and if wood's imperfect,
and if it's got an inclusion and a hole
and a split, a this and a that, it adds to the charm.
I can't fill that up with plastic.
- I picture your studio like Geppetto's workshop.
- Well, there's a lot going on.
You know, there's a ton of sawdust down there.
And, you know, typically I'm covered in dog
hair and sawdust. I collect way too much wood.
When I started, I had this nice, spacious shop
and now it's just way too cluttered and even,
you know, scraps of wood.
You know, a wood worker doesn't like to do anything
with the scraps but save them.
So, you know, I've got boxes of scraps that, you know,
someday I'll find other purpose for.
- Well, where most of us might see just a piece of wood,
you see the promise of a beautiful work of art.
And I love your stuff.
It's just beautiful. Keep up the good work.
And they always say, if you're doing something
you love, you'll never work a day in your life.
Evidently, that's worked for you.
- OK, Grover, thank you so very much.
My pleasure talking with you.
- Same here, Larry.
Larry Ricci, a craftsman who takes nature's handiwork
and raises it to an art.
Well, that's all for this episode of Counter Culture.
I want to thank my guests,
the owner of Harriett's Bookshop
in Philly, Jeannine Cook,
the creator of the syndicated cartoon strip Loose Parts
and the creative woodworker Larry Ricci.
And thank you for stopping by.
We'll be back next Tuesday with more amazing guests
and great conversation right here at the Counter.
See you then.