Why I’m Buying Books

California Design book coverI’ve been on a strange book-buying binge over the past few weeks. The paper kind. Almost 100 books and counting. And I’ve finally figured out why. Books are a great way to learn about new things.

I initially thought the spree was for these reasons: 1) a mental break from work; 2) nostalgia for the physical artifacts; 3) excuse to explore Bay Area bookstores; 4) always wanted to build a large book collection; 5) lured by an unknown force (like Close Encounters).

All the above are true. But by my 25th hour or so at a bookstore, buying three or four books an hour, I realized… the fun part is what’s actually in the books. As in reading them.

Books are amazing, if you find really good ones. The whole sum of people’s lives and souls and sweat and talent is poured into them, they have amazing visuals, they tell stories in an engrossing way you can consume however you want (my dad always starts from the back). There’s millions of them – genetic diversity that captures the world’s knowledge completely (actually 129 million, according to Google).

Shore coverYou can get lost in a book. Sit on the floor and read it for hours, that one book. By contrast, the Internet – which also has all the world’s knowledge – is hard to focus on. Someone said a few years ago that “books are where words go to die.” I believed this for a while, now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been buying books on art, photography, design, architecture and history – about half via Amazon and half in bookstores. I’m getting all my ideas in bookstores… buying some on the spot, tapping the Amazon app for others. I’m 50/50 split between new books – with their high quality printing and affordable reproduction of pricey rare titles – and used books, which often have higher production values, more unique topics, are just way cooler, if in good condition.

The best area bookstores I’ve found so far are 871 Fine Arts, Alley Cat Books, Adobe (now on 24th Street), Press Works (also 24th), Green Apple, Moe’s (esp the top floor), Builder’s Bookstore, William Stout Architectural Books, The Argonaut, and of course the best one of all (I’d tell you but I’ve have to kill you). OK – Reader’s Books in Fort Mason, operated by the SF Public Library.

Some recent finds

Cut-Outs coverHenri Matisse, The Cut-Outs

This is the book from the MOMA exhibit in NYC which just ended. These collages are beautiful… raw, interesting color and shapes. I’d seen some when I was little, but not the broad selection shown here (in Matisse’s last years he worked in the South of France cutting paper that his assistants would paint in goache). This is the perfect book to cut up yourself, and pin on the wall – that’s what Matisse himself did when he was making these collages.

Penn coverIrving Penn, A Career in Photography
Although relatively recently published (1997), this turns out to be a rare, hard-to-find Penn book. I got lucky at a bookstore and got a mint copy much cheaper than you can online. It’s from a retrospective the Art Institute of Chicago did and includes material from his archives which he donated there. The photos span his whole career and all his subjects, from fashion photography to travel to portraits of famous people and blue-collar workers to still lifes of food, flowers, and even garbage.

Proud cover

In this Proud Land: America 1935-1943 As Seen in the FSA Photographs
The actual edition I bought has a different cover. This is an incredible collection of 300 of the most representative photos (out of thousands taken) of ordinary Americans by photographers sent across the U.S. by the Farm Service Administration during the Depression. Stunning images showing people deprived of all but the basics but also having fun, living life, doing their thing…. by now-famous photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. A lot of people with character in this book… every page is a gem.

53 stages coverThe Fifty-three Stages of the Tokaido
I knew nothing about Japanese color woodblock prints but picked this book up and immediately realized it was awesome. Printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige, who lived in the early 1800s, is known as the master of this genre. And this is his masterpiece… 53 prints showing the 53 stops on the old road from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto. Turns out he faked most of them and they have no basis in reality… but because they’re so beautiful, and capture the (imagined) charm of life in Japan during that era, it became a classic.

Port-City-cover-smallerPort City: The History and Transformation of the Port of San Francisco
Wonky, I know… but I go by these piers and wonder about them all the time. Now I know that S.F. was one of the biggest ports in the world and why it collapsed, who built the seawall, what got shipped in and out, how the trains and trucks and real estate all fit together, who designed the buildings, where the big labor battles were fought. Lots of great photos, a pier-by-pier rundown, detail on the military in SF during WWII, its all there. An expensive book, but you can’t find it online, so buy it if you see it.

rex_collage_bookRex Ray The Paper Collages
I pulled this book off a shelf at Adobe and was blown away by the art – it reminded me of a game I had as a little kid in the early 70’s. Turns out Rex Ray was a local S.F. artist, and this was a 2006 limited signed edition of 1,000 copies (his stuff is more accessible in another book he published the following year). This book has almost no words, just page after page of collages. The really weird thing is I’d never heard of this guy, but googled him and Wikipedia said he was in his 50’s, living in S.F., so I thought maybe I’d get to meet him some day. But he died a couple days after I bought the book – I heard it on the radio. Strange.


Wow, what a photo book. Transport yourself back in time to 1970s Finland – we’ve all been there (not). But you’ll feel like you have after flipping through these stunning photos of forests, cities, glaciers, old people and young hipsters (who are now old people). There’s a moment-in-time-and-place feel to this book which is breathtaking. I had no interest in Finland – and still don’t really – but its a very cool book.

ack2coverHand in Hand: Ceramics, Mosaics, Tapestries, and Wood Carvings by the California Mid-Century Designers Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman
A great book about a couple that met in their 20s after WWII in Detroit, moved to California and became central to the mid-century art scene in multiple media. They also pioneered small-scale mass merchandising of their work through retailers in different color combinations, not satisfied just to sell one copy of each. Great images, very California!


Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes
This store, which started in Harvard Square in the 1950’s, was the genesis of modern lifestyle retailing in the U.S., the first of many to take on big department stores with hipper, hand-curated selections, and the precursor of brands like Crate and Barrel, Conrans, and Design Within Reach. Founder Ben Thompson brought European designs like Marimekko to the U.S., and evangelized living more colorfully. There’s a little bit of cult/commune in this story… just look at the employee pictures.

cp-postersPosters of the Canadian Pacific
They say the railroads died because they didn’t figure out they were in the transportation business. These guys should have gone into the poster business. Wow. Breathtaking designs that span a hundred years, by great artists… some corporate archivist deserves an award for having kept one copy of each in mint condition. Especially interesting are the many posters trying to lure immigrants to Canada… from England, Europe, China, touting the wide open spaces, fresh air, chance to start over. For a minute, I considered homesteading myself.


Posters for the People: Art of the WPA
The original WPA poster book was published in the 1980’s, when only a few hundred were known to exist, mostly in the Library of Congress’s collection.  This author, inspired by the earlier book, created a web project to catalogue as many WPA posters as possible. Now thousands have come out of the woodwork, and this book highlights the most notable. The posters are a mix of Deco and Bauhaus, some beautifully designed and some mediocre. What comes across strongly is the sense of “we’re all in this together” that people had in the 1930s. A great collection.

demuthChimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth’s Late Paintings of Lancaster
Charles Demuth ran with the fast NYC art crowd of photographer and gallerist Alfred Steiglitz and his wife painter Georgia O’Keeffe. But it seems like Demuth couldn’t quite keep up. Known as one of the ‘precisionists,’ he did a lot of industrial stuff, including these paintings of watertowers and smokestacks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania later in life while he was fighting diabetes.

johns-coverJasper Johns: Seeing With The Mind’s Eye
I saw this exhibit at SFMoma before they closed for their 30-year-long renovation (okay, three). I’ve never liked pop art much, but Johns’ stuff is simple (like his colored number series) and powerful, not all over the map or going for shock value. Johns lived with Robert Rauschenberg, also a little more intellectual and less pop-y than most of the genre. I don’t get the whole NY modern art scene at all, but am starting to get more interested in it.

street-art-sf-coverStreet Art San Francisco
The cover isn’t the best, but this book is pretty compelling inside. Its thirty years of photos of San Francisco street murals – mostly now gone, mostly in the Mission. There’s a forward by Carlos Santana, who got started playing music as a teenager in the Mission, often performing with his band at the unveiling of murals. Some of these murals are just noise, but a lot are really masterful. And they’re all temporary… which means this book is the only way to look at them, unless they were done in the past few years and have survived.


Art Deco Mailboxes: An Illustrated Design History
I did a double-take when I saw this. This was a book I wanted to do myself, and they did it really well… now I don’t have to. If you’ve ever lingered in front of one of these brass boxes in an old building, you will be overwhelmed by this smorgasbord of eye candy. Don’t read it all at once, you’ll get one of those ice-cream headaches. The interesting part is that one company – Cutler – had a virtual monopoly on these mail slot systems, so could have just made nondescript boxes. Instead they partnered with the architects so that many of the boxes were unique, designed to reflect the look and themes of the building.


The Quilts of Gees Bend
This was an exhibit on the East Coast that I never got to, so buying the book was a no-brainer. Especially because I found a mint copy in a bookstore for $29 when the prices online start at $70. Its a large book with high quality printing and incredible colors. I do remember reading that there was some controversy over who owned the copyright to these images, and that the multiple generations of women who made them got some recognition but no money when the quilts briefly became a sensation. The quilts themselves will be what endures.


The Hand of Man on America
I found this at a bookstore, brought it home, realized I now have eight David Plowden books, which means I’m officially collecting David Plowden photography books, even though I’m supposedly not collecting books in general. Plowden has spent his 60-year career documenting America the way it was, which is clearly the way he thinks it should stay. This 1973 book is a warning about how progress is messing things up.


Georgia O’Keefe: A Studio Book
An oversized book with beautiful reproductions of some of O’Keefe’s most recognizable and compelling work. In good condition this book is expensive, but I picked this one up cheap ($20) with some external damage only. How to display books like this is something I’m pondering. Sitting on a shelf nobody ever sees the awesome images inside. I need a reading room with lots of display space, or maybe a whole library…

california-calls-coverCalifornia Calls You: The Art of Promoting the Golden State 1870-1940
I found this book at the recent Oakland book fair, which was a somewhat snobby and serious event (dealers selling rare first editions at high prices) with a smattering of the really interesting, hip, groovy and bizarre. This book exudes a “California-land-of-milk-honey-and-surfing” vibe from back to front, featuring posters and brochures material that lured generations here for work, play, and the good life.


End of An Era
Another Plowden photo book, this one on the very specific topic of endangered steamboats on the Great Lakes. This technology apparently ruled the (lake) waves for almost 100 years, and Plowden caught the twilight of it, riding with the crews and getting action shots of the last working steam (vs diesel) powered craft. Plowden gets into the tech details (e.g. triple-reciprocating-engines), shoots the guys shoveling coal in the hold, and gets the breathtaking panoramas and sunset shots. What’s great about Plowden is he can do broad topics (main street, bridges, barns) as well as narrow, and strike the same chord of beauty meets history.

machine-age-coverThe Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age
This 1968 book has a metal cover… published for an exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art in New York that year. I’d never seen a book with a metal cover, and apparently neither had a lot of people before the Internet came along and collectors discovered how many of these were made (the street price has dropped from $150 to $40 in a decade, according to the guy I bought it from). Inside is a lot of stuff about how machines are taking over the world… which they have been ever since!


Rescued buildings: The art of living in former schoolhouses, skating rinks, fire stations, churches, barns, summer camps, and cabooses
This is one of three books I’ve bought recently on restoring old buildings that weren’t meant to be living spaces. This book is the hippier, more scavenger-ish version from the 70s, featuring folks who took on these projects with almost no money and bartered with friends and neighbors to scrape everything together. I actually liked some of the higher-end restorations in the other books better, like an old public library and a restored barn and power station. I could definitely use a caboose as an office, though (a nice one with the cupola on top).

wildflower-coverSan Francisco’s Wildflower: The Palace of Fine Arts
Another stunningly laid out photo book on a subject I have almost no interest in (but it was awesome, so I bought it).The cover of this book is just so-so… the genius is the beautiful inside greyscale photo layouts with minimal copy – often poetry – set in beautiful type. It goes into detail about Bernard Maybeck, who designed the Palace of Fine Arts as well as several famous buildings in Berkeley. Oddly, Reagan’s henchman Caspar Weinberger is mentioned at the end – he was the State Assemblyman who pushed through the funds to rebuild the Palace in the 1950s. Who knew?

Tear Down that Paywall: Why the Best Learning Tools for the Next Generation Should Be Free

In the 1860s, Joseph Dixon invented a cost-effective way to mass produce graphite pencils, which previously had been costly and scarce. Over the next 150 years, pencils became a ubiquitous tool for students and teachers, without which lots of learning wouldn’t have happened.

What is today’s more powerful equivalent of Dixon’s pencil? It’s software. Simple, effective Internet tools and apps that empower students and teachers and support their creativity and quest for knowledge.

I don’t mean online courses or digital textbooks or videos, although those are potentially useful. I’m talking about basic utilities – verb conjugators, math-equation solvers, self-testing tools, worksheet creators, digital flashcards, sentence-writing tools, language audio tools, and other tools that haven’t been thought of yet – the list goes on and on.

We need to dramatically accelerate the development and distribution of these tools, because very few of them (Google docs being an exception) are currently in wide use.

And here’s the key – these educational software tools should be FREE. Here’s why:

1) High-quality software tools are a prerequisite to empowering the next generation of great teachers and motivated students. People are the future of education, not technology. But they need access to high-quality tools so they can teach and learn to their full potential.

2) ‘Free’ is the only price many students (and teachers) can afford. Twenty percent of children in the U.S. live below the poverty line (Census Bureau 2012).  And even above the line, many more people are feeling squeezed – they’re not going to spend extra out-of-pocket money on anything they don’t absolutely have to.

3) The future is about making sure all students have access to great educational tools and opportunities, not just some students. The cure for cancer or the next climate-change breakthrough could just as likely to come from a student from a low-income family or community as from an affluent one. For this to happen, every single one of the 70 million students (and four million teachers) in the U.S. needs access to the best learning (and teaching) tools available.

4) ‘Free’ breaks down barriers to distribution and lets individuals choose what works best for them. Fee-based educational software often has to be selected and paid for by a procurement system, involving school districts, purchasing agents and policy decisions. This process is in place for many good reasons. But no kid (or teacher) ever needed to get approval to use a piece of paper, or a #2 pencil, or to do a Google search. Why should they have to wait for approval for basic digital study tools? If more educational software was free, it would be much easier for students and teachers to compare alternatives and decide what’s most effective.

5) ‘Free’ is how the Internet works, and it’s what people expect. It’s no coincidence that the most broadly used Internet applications and services are free to consumers (e.g. Gmail, Google Maps, Yelp, Twitter, Wikipedia, and many others). The oversimplified reason is economics: digital services tend to have very low (or no) variable costs. So once an app is built, serving millions of additional users doesn’t cost much more. If one competitor doesn’t make their service free, another one will.


So what’s wrong with the world of educational software? Why are free high-quality tools not becoming as widespread as pencils and paper? Why do most companies have to charge hefty fees for their software tools – $14.95 a month,  $49 a student, $1,500 per year per classroom?

At Quizlet, we know there’s another way, because we’ve been providing free study tools on the Internet for seven years, and more than a million students and teachers currently use our website and apps every day. We make simple and powerful tools that help students with things like language learning, vocabulary, and the memorization and recall of key concepts – tools that enhance what’s possible with pencil and paper, just as Google maps improved upon the paper map.

Most companies can’t or won’t do this, for two main reasons:

1) They have to cover high distribution costs. Many educational software companies have dozens of salespeople on their payroll to sell to school district decision-makers, so they need a lot of revenue to pay those salaries. Software salespeople can make more than $100,000 a year, and they have lots of expenses on top of that for sales calls, travel, etc.

2) They have to satisfy demanding institutional investors. Many software companies raise tens of millions of dollars from institutional investors (venture capitalists or private equity firms), who expect a high return on that investment.  Typically these investors are looking to build ‘billion dollar companies.’ That’s hard to do – if not impossible – when you’re giving away your product to most users for free.

At Quizlet, we have neither salespeople nor institutional investors, but we still have significant costs to develop high-quality software. So, are we crazy to offer access to great study tools for free when we could easily put a pay wall in front of them? Are we sacrificing long-term business strength or opportunity to do so? Not at all. In fact, we believe we will have a stronger business because of it.


There are two revenue models for consumer services on the Internet these days – ads and subscriptions. The ad model is declining for three reasons: 1) the smaller screen sizes of smartphones and tablets, where ads take precious space from the user experience; 2) increasing consumer concern about privacy, especially for kids; and 3) prices are dropping because advertisers can reach whoever they want through networks like Google’s for rock-bottom rates.

In response, many consumer Internet companies have successfully adopted something called the “freemium” model, where much of the functionality is given away and only a small percent of users are charged for “premium” features. Companies using this model include LinkedIn, Spotify, Evernote, Dropbox, and others.

The question is, can this freemium model apply to education technology and enable all students and teachers to benefit from free, high-quality learning tools?

We believe it can. Fewer than one percent of our users subscribe to our paid services ($15 or $25/year for a few extra capabilities, like image uploading and voice recording). But more than 100 million people visited our website and apps in the past year. If only one or two percent of those users pay to subscribe, that means we can be strong enough to finance tremendous innovation and still offer free learning tools to a virtually unlimited number of students globally. 

Furthermore, we believe these free learning tools can be of very high quality, and continually improve over time.  On the Internet, quality wins – whether they’re paying or not, users flock to the best product. And a large, loyal user base is what ultimately makes a strong brand and business possible. With a long-term view, we think it is possible to have both a mission orientation (help every kid learn) and be financially successful. We funded our business initially out of our own pockets and later from cash flow, rather than raising venture capital money, for precisely this reason.

Finally, we believe free study and learning tools can be held accountable for providing educational value and effectiveness.  The real cost of any software is the time investment required to use it. We’re particularly proud that hundreds of thousands of teachers have decided to use Quizlet’s study tools in their classrooms. They spend serious hours on Quizlet preparing their materials – we hear from them all the time how worthwhile it is. And more important, they tell us what isn’t working for them and what we should fix or improve (and we do).


We think more businesses can and should be making free, high quality online study and learning tools widely accessible to all students and teachers, regardless of their ability to pay. Enabling students and teachers is the key to improving education in the U.S. and around the world.

Quizlet founder Andrew Sutherland and I both benefited from a high quality public school education, great teachers, and parents who were supportive of learning and our quest for knowledge and self-improvement. That’s one big reason why our mission, along with building a strong business, is to help as many kids benefit from the foundation of a strong education as we can.

Dave Margulius is CEO of Quizlet, and lives in San Francisco, CA. You can follow him on Twitter, or reach him via LinkedIn or as dmargulius on that Google mail service.

free public library image

Pete Seeger and the Power of Staying Power


[the following is an email I sent out to my team a few days after Pete Seeger’s death on January 27, 2014]

“Congratulations Pete, you outlived the bastards.”

Bruce Springsteen said that to Pete Seeger at a tribute on his 90th birthday, one year after they played “We Shall Overcome” together at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

Seeger died last week at age 94. He was born in 1920, and spent his whole life singing songs and inspiring generations of people to fight the good fight, for the little guy, for workers, for people on the outs, for peace, and for the planet.

He was Woody Guthrie’s protege, hitchhiking, riding freight trains, and singing in saloons with him in the 1940s, learning and spreading American folk and protest music (“This Land is Your Land”).

He was blackballed by Joe McCarthy and the anti-communist movement in the 50s, but came back even stronger as a force to inspire the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 60s.

He fought GE in the 70s and 80s and forced them to clean up all the PCB’s they’d dumped in the Hudson river.

And up until last week, he lived a simple creative life in the log cabin he shared with his family, chopping wood every morning and holding protest signs (anti-Bush and war) by the side of the road in the freezing cold well into his 80s. He shunned recent efforts to make him into a sainted celebrity – it was never about him, he saw himself as part of a continuing wave of ordinary people pushing for good.

If you want a quick dose of what he was all about, watch this awesome documentary, The Power of Song, available to stream online on PBS, (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/pete-seeger/full-film-pete-seeger-the-power-of-song/2864/), or buy on iTunes. You’ll be glad you did.

So what does this have to do with us?

For one, excellence: Seeger was the best at what he did – an awesome musician, singer, songwriter, and promoter of his own and other artists’ work.

For another: inspiring kids. When Seeger was forced off the airwaves and blacklisted so he couldn’t get jobs, the only gigs he could get were as a music teacher at schools and summer camps, and playing the college circuit. So he spent the late 50s and early 60s cultivating a whole generation of kids with songs about the past and the future, about hope and fighting for good against the larger forces of greed, corporations, discrimination and abuse of power.

When I was four in 1968, my parents had Pete Seeger albums playing nonstop in our house (thanks for that!), and that music inspired something in me like it did many other people.

Finally, Seeger had staying power, and he just kept getting better. Through decades of ups and downs he kept singing songs, loving it, jamming with other great artists (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Springsteen), and believing in people and that good would triumph. At least for him, living a long (and good) life turned out to be not about money and fame but about just enjoying what he was doing and sticking with what he believed. And along the way, he wasn’t afraid to be different, to forcefully and with conviction swim against the tide (‘the bastards’).

I won’t editorialize any further other than to say that I hope we as a company and as individuals can aim to do all of the things Seeger did: Be excellent, inspire LOTs of kids, have staying power and have fun while we’re at it!


For more info on Pete Seeger:
– http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/arts/music/pete-seeger-songwriter-and-champion-of-folk-music-dies-at-94.html
– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pete_Seeger
– http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/pete-seeger/full-film-pete-seeger-the-power-of-song/2864/
– check out his music on Spotify or YouTube

The Boston Globe and the Asteroid That Smashed the Newspaper Industry

I woke up this weekend to the news The Times had finally sold off The Boston Globe to a local investor for a paltry $70M. And the buyer didn’t take The Globe’s hefty pension obligations. So the NYT essentially gave it away, just to be rid of it. I was there when they bought it for over a billion dollars 20 years ago. But now the business is a shadow of its former self, with circulation and revenue slashed in half, and bleeding cash. Ouch.

The news sparked memories of my three years at The Globe in the mid-’90s, in the last days of its glory as a mighty Boston institution. Even then, it was clear that an asteroid was coming.

In 1995, one of the less progressive-minded Globe executives told me they’d put the Boston.com logo on the truck fleet “when hell freezes over.” This finally happened around 2002.

I joined The Boston Globe in September 1993, fresh out of business school, as their guy in charge of getting the newspaper online – making the case for an aggressive digital investment and getting it done. I was the only one in the building with “online experience” (I’d helped Knight Ridder’s San Jose Mercury News do their first deal with AOL).  I stayed up nights researching and writing the business plan, coming to the conclusion that online media posed a serious threat to the newspaper business.

Continue reading The Boston Globe and the Asteroid That Smashed the Newspaper Industry

CEO Weekend Project: How to Hang Swings in Your Office


Let’s face it – you need a break from the firehose of decisions, meetings and stress that comes with being an Internet company CEO. My suggestion: attempt a fun, ambitious, slightly harebrained construction project!

Last weekend I tackled just such a project: hanging old-school tree swings in our office. It was both physically and mentally refreshing – and as a bonus, I got some cool points from my team, which should last about a week. Here’s how I made it happen, and how you can too.

Continue reading CEO Weekend Project: How to Hang Swings in Your Office

Will Electric Cars Swamp the California Grid?

Tuesday night I attended an energy geek fest, and was shocked. The email had made the event sound like a snoozer: PG&E representatives discuss their views on electric cars.

But sparks started flying right away, as two Tesla engineers tore into the utility folks for being slow to provision new charging stations, but mostly just cause they seemed to want to tear into them.

The big aha for me was realizing the PG&E folks truly believe that plug-in cars could be the biggest wave to hit the grid since air conditioners and refrigerators. And that the energy grid today might be like the phone system circa 1993 at the dawn of the Internet: it doesn’t know whats about to hit it.

Continue reading Will Electric Cars Swamp the California Grid?