Justin Carder at Wolfman Books

Living & Working

Justin Carder at Wolfman Books

By Justin Carder February 6, 2019

How does one survive and thrive as an artist in the San Francisco Bay Area? Living & Working is a multi-platform column focusing on the experiences and strategies from those who continue to live and work in the Bay Area.


Justin Carder is the owner of E.M. Wolfman Books in Downtown Oakland. Wolfman Books is a bookstore, small press, artist residency program, and community arts hub in downtown Oakland. Since we opened in 2014, we've hosted hundreds of literary arts and community events, published dozens of artist editions, a half-dozen books, and launched a quarterly magazine New Life Quarterly. Carder designs and publishes book through Wolfman Books, which is also a small press dedicated to hybrid and experimental non-fiction, poetry, and artist books, largely but not exclusively focused on Bay Area writers and artists. 

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The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

I brought you here to show you this space which I started in April 2014. We’re almost five years old. The space is a book store, event space, and we’re a publisher. We do tons of readings, music, art events, and film screenings. It's a place to gather. 

I grew up in San Rafael, just over the Richmond Bridge, and I've tried to move a lot of times. I used to play music, and I would tour with my band. Every time I’d go somewhere I’d be like, “Little Rock, Arkansas. What if I lived here?” or “New York City, what if I lived here?” But, I always come back; something always pulled me back to the Bay.

I always felt really isolated and really alone, because I had been all over the place. I started looking around for a way to do something that would gather community together, a place to gather people.

I started looking around, thinking about that idea, and then I was in a bookshop. I’m unemployed at this point; I’m in a bookshop—no, I’m in a thrift store. I’m buying stacks of books. I’ve always been book-obsessed. I’ve always haunted bookstores. I’m buying a stack of books, but I don’t have a lot of money. I know they are good books, but I don’t really plan on reading them. God, if there was only some way—I don’t want to spend the money on these—if there was only some way I could resell these somewhere. And I was in a bookstore. I could start a bookstore! I have thousands of books in my house. It could be the store, it could be a gallery, and the doors would open and anyone could walk in. I tossed the stack of books and was like, yes.

There was a place down the street that was available, and the guy on the phone was super mean. He was like, “I don’t want to come if you’re not going to rent it.” So we walk over here, and we open this door. I immediately come in and it's got drop ceilings, carpet on the floor, there’s like weird pipes everywhere, and like I’m like, “this is it.” It’s right across from the Tribune, it’s right near downtown, it’s right off of BART—all these things. Anyone could walk by. Just looking out and seeing the people who were around this feels like Oakland to me. 

This feels like this place where I‘d been, but I hadn’t been seeing it. So I was was just like, “yes—I want this”. I put in an application, but he denied me because I don't have any credit. I had never run a business before. I hadn’t done anything like that. So I called him—no—I came to the office, and I barged into the door, and I was like, “you have to let me rent this place; you have to let me do it!” And he said “sure, whatever. I don’t care.” So I wrote a check that day, and came here and started pulling up the carpet. 

I was here six days a week for the first two years. I was here every day for events, for every reading, everything, which was a necessity, but, at the same, it was really awesome, because I got to know all these different communities and groups and people from each reading, each event, and each screening. I had initially imagined a more traditional gallery. I’d have paintings on the walls and I had all these artists I wanted to show. But having this “aha” moment of deciding on a book space...like you don’t have to know what you are looking for, or why you're coming here, it feels like many many many people can just walk in.

Even if you're just trying to waste some time before an appointment or whatever, you have this opportunity for these really open-ended connections, you didn’t need to know anyone to come here. You didn’t need to have an “in” or have an invitation. You can walk through the door, and that creates this sort of open barrier. We just get business people and people from downtown. There are all sorts of people who come through.

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Living & Working is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.

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