Those are the prevailing traits among the 190 people and 20 organizations profiled in Legendary Locals of Mill Valley, local author Joyce Kleiner’s tome for Arcadia Publishing, the firm best known for publishing local history books like Claudine Chalmers’ Images of America: Early Mill Valley and Suki Hill’s Then and Now: Mill Valley.
Across its 127 pages, Legendary Locals covers a remarkable amount of ground, with Kleiner, best known locally as a former member of the Mill Valley Parks & Recreation Commission and as the longtime “Civics Lessons” columnist for the Mill Valley Herald. She does so by grouping the book into seven chapters, including “Visionaries and Quiet Champions,” “”Bohemia in the Redwoods” and “Foundations and Footraces.”
Kleiner is holding her official book release party on Thursday, May 29 at the Depot Bookstore & Café at 7:30 p.m., followed by a book signing. She has a host of other events in June, including presentation for the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley Rotary Club.
Here’s our Q&A with Kleiner:
Enjoy Mill Valley: Where are you from originally, and what brought you to Mill Valley?
Joyce Kleiner: I’m originally from Burlingame, which is south of here, on the Peninsula; I grew up in the house my grandfather built. By the way, that grandfather ran in the first Dipsea Race in 1905. I’ve been married to the same man, Robert, for nearly 25 years. We have one son, Jake, who recently graduated from college and is working in San Francisco as a biochemistry research associate.
We moved to Mill Valley from Potrero Hill in San Francisco when Jake was four (1995). We wanted to live in a greener, more open environment, with a yard and more access to nature. We settled on Mill Valley pretty quickly. Robert and I already knew it very well.
EMV: How about your professional background?
JK: My professional background is a real mixture: I traveled through Spain with a theater company of Hair, I worked as a Pan Am flight attendant for eight years, and I did wine marketing and sales in San Francisco until my son came along. After that I pretty much became a full-time parent volunteer: Co-op preschool, PTA, school site council and so on. Around 2004, I began to give more time to civic causes and committees, including a term on the Mill Valley Parks & Recreation Commission. The City Council appointed me to a second term, but I had to retire early because I went to graduate school for an MFA in creative writing in 2007, as the class schedule conflicted with the commission’s meeting schedule. In 2007, I began writing a column for the Mill Valley Herald called “Civics Lessons.” I stopped writing the column in 2013, not long before I began working on the book. I’ve also contributed articles to the Mill Valley Historical Society magazine Review for the past two years.
EMV: What do you love most about Mill Valley?
JK: There are so many things I love about it. Obviously, the access to nature and the spectacular green belt that surrounds the town are wonderful. I love that Mill Valley backs up to a national park, meaning we’ll always have a lot of open space just outside our front door.
But what I have come to really appreciate in researching this book is the strong sense of community and roots that Mill Valley has. There are so many multi-generational families living here, and they keep the “narrative” and the traditions of the town alive.
EMV: Mill Valley has changed, for both good and bad, over the years. What do you miss, and what don’t you miss, about the way things used to be here?
JK: Change is inevitable, and even though I’ve done a great deal of writing about Mill Valley’s past, I’m not really one for nostalgia. I think that there are many people committed to protecting what makes Mill Valley unique, and I trust them to ensure that the things that are most valuable about Mill Valley endure.
When we moved here, Mill Valley was already an expensive place to buy a home, but there was still some economic diversity. I haven’t lived here long enough to experience the biggest changes, but I am very sad to see our affordable housing options shrink. So I guess you could say I miss that. It’s harder and harder for Mill Valley’s artists and musicians to remain here, and that’s a real loss.
I wasn’t living here before 1982, but if I had been, I wouldn’t miss the big Greyhound parking lot that used to take up the entire area that is now our Depot Plaza.
EMV: What is the origin of this book? How did you conceive of it? How long ago did you begin thinking about it?
JK: I was very, very lucky. Arcadia Publishing approached me to write this book; they sought me out because of my column. So I didn’t really think about it in advance at all. I had been carrying around lots of thoughts about Mill Valley’s story since I had begun writing the column, though, and ironically I had been wondering if I could write a book about the town.
Legendary Locals of Mill Valley is a sort of “sampler” of the people who have made Mill Valley what it is. The stories go all the way back to the beginning, and come up to the present day.
EMV: How long did it take to complete the book? What was that process like in terms of how you went about researching interviewing subjects?
JK: From the day I turned in the signed contract to the deadline for turning in the completed manuscript was exactly 8 months. Also, on the day I signed the contract I broke my foot, so I did the first two months of interviews with a cast on my foot and leg. There are a lot of people that live up steep hills or at the bottom of long stairways in Mill Valley!
Arcadia had a very specific number of pages they allotted for the book, with a minimum and maximum number of subjects I could include. So I had parameters that I had to keep in mind all the time. That may have been a blessing in disguise, because I ran across so many fascinating stories that I would never have finished the book if I tried to include them all.
There were certain people I knew, right from the start, that I would include: Some of the town founders and earliest residents, of course, and from more recent times I wanted to include Rita Abrams, Charlie Deal, John Goddard, the Canepa family, and others who we’ve all heard of. I set up interviews with those people, or people who knew them, right away. I also spent a lot of time in all of Marin’s history rooms, tracking down older information.
Then I went about interviewing people who knew Mill Valley’s story, or an important part of Mill Valley’s story, to get an idea of who else should be included. I spent a lot of time in people’s homes, interviewing them and going through photo albums. I think I figured out that I interviewed at least 100 people. This book also has a photo for every subject, so I had to find, or take, a picture for every person I wrote about.
EMV: What were the criteria for choosing your subjects?
JK: The publisher wanted this book to focus on individual people who had an interesting or touching story, and so I looked for those kind of unique tales. But I also wanted the book to show Mill Valley over the generations, and to try to tell a longer, fuller narrative. So I also looked for people who represented what I considered important moments or elements from Mill Valley’s chronicle. There is one story, for example, about a couple that most people probably have never heard of, Frank and Fran Dittle. They were married before World War II, and lived all their lives in the same house, which Frank had help build when he was a boy. Their story represents a noteworthy change that happened in Mill Valley after World War II.
I also was looking for people who had made a considerable impact either on Mill Valley (people like Dick Jessup and Lucy Mercer) or on the greater world from their Mill Valley base (like Phyllis Faber and Peter Behr).
I wasn’t as interested in including all the famous people who live here, just because they are famous. There had to be more to it. That’s why I included Sammy Hagar and Peter Coyote, for example. They have had a significant influence on Mill Valley, and have both given back a lot to the town.
EMV: In looking at the final group of subjects, what do they – the fact that these people in particular have had such an impact on this town – collectively say about Mill Valley as a place?
JK: After about two months into the interview process I began to see a recurring theme: The people who I wrote about considered Mill Valley exceptional and beautiful and inspiring; some would say spiritually inspiring. There is a kind of old-fashioned “New England-like” community identity here, too. And yet, individually, I kept seeing an independent streak. There is a theme of non-conformity to Mill Valley’s story; even going back as far as Laura White and the Outdoor Art Club. She really was before her time in many ways.
And every neighborhood has its own specific personality. Longtime Mill Valleyans feel a real connection with their neighborhoods and their neighbors. I was very surprised to find out just how much of Mill Valley I had never seen before. There are so many absolutely wonderful little cul-de-sacs of 100-year-old cottages up in the hills that feel like summer camps, and little pocket parks all over the place that add so much to the charm of the town. This is “Greater Mill Valley” I’m talking about, the whole 94941 area code.
I would say I learned that Mill Valley, as a place, inspires with its beauty, and encourages both community and non-conformity, in equal measures.
The 411: For more info and to buy Joyce Kleiner’s Legendary Locals of Mill Valley, visit the book’s website or Facebook page. Click here to see the list of events to promote the book, and go here to see those events in the Enjoy Mill Valley calendar.
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