Ray Bonner isn’t afraid to take risks. In fact, he seems to go looking for them. He was the first in his family to attend college. He made it through Stanford Law School and then joined the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War because, he says, “back then, I thought, ‘America right or wrong.’” His stint as a military lawyer was followed by jobs with Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen Litigation Group, Consumers Union, and the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.
Then he got bored and went to Bolivia to become a reporter.
Now, I’ve known Ray for more than 40 years, and boredom is one of his leitmotifs. I first heard this moan when he was covering the civil war in El Salvador for The New York Times beginning in 1980. Wasn’t it enough that right-wing gunmen had murdered the country’s archbishop and four American churchwomen, that Ray himself would soon be one of the two reporters to uncover Latin America’s worst massacre in decades, the El Mozote bloodbath carried out by U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers? Or that he was denounced as a pinko by the Reagan administration? And he was still bored?
My take on Ray is a bit different. When he says he’s bored, it really means he’s impatient for some danger. And danger can take many forms. During a long, on-and-off career at The New York Times, plus a stretch with The New Yorker under Robert Gottlieb, he has been on death lists in Central America, surrounded by genocide in Rwanda, chased the Shining Path rebels in Peru, tracked Islamic terrorists after 9/11, and explored death-penalty cases in the United States. Nothing very safe about any of that. Oh, yes, and he has published books, another dodgy proposition.
Then, in late 2018, with Ray in his mid-70s, a fresh danger was offered up, and he grabbed it: he bought a bookstore. Not, by the way, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he usually lives, but 10,000 miles away in Avalon, a small beach town about 25 miles north of Sydney, notorious—in the words of Richard Flanagan, a Booker Prize–winning author and Bonner pal—for its “moral torpor and intellectual vacuity.”
When he says he’s bored, it really means he’s impatient for some danger. And danger can take many forms.
Actually, the location was not entirely batty. Ray’s wife, Jane Perlez, most recently the New York Times’s Beijing bureau chief, is Australian, and since the 1980s they have spent many a year’s end in the nearby stylish resort of Palm Beach. Further, Ray already knew Bookoccino, as the business is called, and was alarmed when he heard it might close. But about running a bookstore, he knew precisely zero.
And yet, here we are, barely four years later and Bookoccino has not only survived Amazon and the coronavirus and is close to breaking even, but it has also become the unchallenged hub of social, literary, and intellectual life for a good stretch of Sydney’s northern beaches.
The first step was to move the store to larger quarters, literally across the road. Then Ray and Sally Tabner, Bookoccino’s experienced manager and part owner, went about turning it into a magnet for writers and readers alike. Not that they always agree, but they do complement each other: Sally knows books, Ray knows authors, and both are skilled at turning the many who go there for morning coffee into loyal book buyers.
He has been on death lists in Central America, chased the Shining Path rebels in Peru, and tracked Islamic terrorists after 9/11.
Indeed, on many a morning when the weather is mild (i.e., usually), Ray can be found at his table at the entrance to the store, ready to banter with the coffee crowd of young mothers and old geezers and talk up a new book—probably nonfiction—he has just devoured. And to judge by the hi’s and recognition he gets on Avalon’s streets, he’d be well placed if he were running for office.
Among Bookoccino’s biggest attractions are the writers from Australia and beyond who trek to Avalon to present their books, and who do so—as with Mr. Flanagan, Samantha Power, Lionel Shriver, Geraldine Brooks, Jill Abramson, and many others—because Ray knows them. “Ray Bonner is the ringmaster of fun and culture in Sydney’s northern beaches,” Richard Fidler, one of Australia’s best-known radio interviewers, tells me. “Ray is a natural convener.” As it happens, Mr. Fidler is no small convener himself: his three talks at Bookoccino have been sellouts.
The bookstore’s events program soon outgrew its premises, with two larger spaces hired for big-name presentations as well as debates on current affairs. For instance, Ms. Perlez has moderated three roundtables on Australia’s complex relations with China, while other topics polishing Bookoccino’s intellectual credentials have included Shakespeare, climate change, and women’s rights in Western society.
Then there is entertainment. On Friday evenings, live music sets the mood for selling wine and beer and maybe a book or two. (I enjoyed a bluegrass band there last month.) On Sunday mornings, there is more live music, while on Sunday afternoons “Bring your own chair” debates on political issues of the day are held in front of Bookoccino. With federal elections due on May 21, some 230 people just witnessed a face-off between competing local candidates organized by the bookstore, with no charge for attending.
Looking back, Ray admits he had no idea what he was doing when he bought the place, but he and Sally now have ample reason to feel pride in having created a genuine community center. “It provides a space for conversation, reflection, stimulation,” Sally said. “It’s not a stagnant literary atmosphere. It’s convivial and welcoming. They’re not just customers, and they’re not just books.”
So does success mean Ray is getting bored again? “Jeff Mayersohn of the Harvard Book Store told me, ‘You have either to sell or double down,’” Ray said. “So the question now is: Do I buy another bookstore or sell this one?” I have a stake in his answer. To buy a bookstore is always risky, but to sell Bookoccino may be even riskier, because I can already hear Ray asking me, “Now what the hell do I do?”
Alan Riding is a former correspondent for The New York Times. His most recent book is And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris