Remembering William McClung, editor, independent bookseller, conservationist, community activist

A former editor for UC Press and the founder of University Press Books and Musical Offering Cafe, McClung was an influential force in the Bay Area’s university and literary communities.

Berkeley has lost an important citizen. William J. McClung, known as “Bill,” was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1938. His parents, Frances and Robert McClung, impressed on him the value of hard work, and as a young boy, he rose every morning before dawn, even in the cold winter, for his paper route. Following his father, and preceding his daughter Nicola, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa; after graduating in 1960, he moved to New York City and got his early start in publishing at Macmillan, working day and night jobs to pay his rent. He was married to Karen McClung (nee Harvey) in 1970.

Bill was best known as the principal founding partner of University Press Books (UPB), on Bancroft Way in Berkeley, and the associated business, the Musical Offering Classical CD Store and Cafe. Bill founded the bookstore in 1974 in response to what was widely perceived as a need shared by all of the world’s university presses—improved distribution of their scholarly books. He conceived a unique consignment plan, promising to keep highly specialized books in stock until they went out of print. Better for the books to be on a store shelf, available for perusal and the possibility of purchase, than locked up in warehouses: that was Bill’s persuasive argument, offered to the world’s universities.

The Berkeley store, if successful, would serve as a model for other such stores. In subsequent years UPB was in fact replicated in New York City and London. But over time the new consignment plan was not universally supported; gradually, the store began acquiring scholarly books on standard sales terms and from sources in addition to university presses, thus adapting to conditions as they had become. Unfortunately, the London and New York stores retired from the field. The Berkeley bookstore became well known for sections, such as critical theory, postcolonial studies, political philosophy, and disability studies.

Meanwhile, he, along with Leonard Michaels and Christine Taylor, launched a publication called University Publishing, a beautifully-designed newsletter that included articles about scholarly publishing, book reviews, and lists of new books published by the university presses.

Bill also had a long career as an editor and editorial manager at the University of California Press, where he worked from 1969 until his retirement in 1992, by which time he was editorial director of the press. He came to Berkeley in 1969 as sponsoring editor in the humanities from Princeton University Press, where he had been social science editor; which, early in that position, included meeting with authors, publishers, and booksellers throughout East Asia and the Middle East. Never passive about any of his enterprises, Bill became known for an active and energetic style—continually recruiting new authors, proposing and commissioning new books and series. One of the first was a series of six works, funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, on the history, economy, and sociology of southern Africa. This was during apartheid and South Africa was in turmoil. Bill saw that the world’s scholars, teachers, journalists and political actors would soon need reliable works on which to base their understanding of events. He and Karen traveled to the region in 1971.

Another was a thick book that contained a score of essays titled,  The State of the Language, edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks. Still, another was a sumptuous book, well illustrated, that took a long look at the California wine industry: The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wines. He was especially proud of a series of small books, which he named “Quantum Books,” in collaboration with Hugh Kenner.  These included Mabel McKay, Weaving the Dream, about a world-renowned Native American basket weaver and healer. He later served as a thought partner for Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order.

However, Bill’s crowning achievement as editor was managing the publication of a monumental, three-volume, large-format work, The Plan of St. Gall. The book was inspired by the discovery of the original, Carolingian-era parchment on which is sketched in some detail the plan for a paradigmatic monastery, to be built in Switzerland. Although the structures were never built, the plan offered rich detail on the practical, as well as aesthetic, aspects of a cloistered medieval community. Editing and production were exceptionally complex. The authors, Ernst Born and Walter Horn, were determined that the book be produced, not merely as a conventional history, but as a magisterial work of art, and they had obtained generous funding for the purpose. The paper, made by Curtis Paper Company and printed by Southeastern Printing, won numerous academic and design awards.

Bill’s engagements expanded beyond books following the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, which destroyed more than 2,500 dwellings, including his family home. He undertook several community projects that were thoughtful, yet highly practical, action-based reactions to the calamity. He became one of the founding members of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy and served on its board until 2009. He also served for two years on the Berkeley Fire Commission, and together with neighbors established the Vicente Canyon Hillside Foundation as a means to preserve a two-and-one-half-acre fragment of open space in the south Berkeley Hills. He was also associated with a small firm known as Shelterbelt Builders; together with Noah Booker and Mark Heath, he repurposed the organization for brush reduction and native plant restoration and spent many hours on steep slopes, doing much of the work himself.

Early in the period following the fire, which had profound social and psychological effects on those who were its victims, Bill published his and others’ thoughts about the event in the form of an occasional newsletter. Upbeat and forward-looking as he always was, he elected to call it News from the Buffer Zone: An Occasional Publication Dedicated to Creating a Beautiful, Biologically Rich, and Wildfire-safe East Bay Hills.


Three of Bill’s many qualities as a small-business owner, community activist, and book editor are especially appealing. First was his capacity for idealistic, unrelenting, persistent efforts in the face of opposition. No one among his colleagues or friends was initially persuaded by his ideas for a new bookstore. To build the space, to stock it, to design its systems and work schedules and financial underpinnings, he inspired and persuaded about a dozen friends, colleagues, and relatives (including his wife) to variously donate their time, sign their names, and commit their funds. Then, he kept it and the Musical Offering alive for nearly a half-century, with family savings and his own retirement funds when the sales in both businesses began to seriously decline after books became increasingly available on the internet.

Second, and not unrelated, was Bill’s never-failing optimism in the face of difficulty. “Just do it!” was one of his maxims. His face would come alive with humor and determination as he delivered the line. He never lost the conviction that all people were capable of more effort and more scope than they themselves realized.

Third was Bill’s generosity. Perhaps the best examples of his generosity were the careers of dozens of young people to whom he gave their first jobs. He was a patient and effective mentor, never too busy to help, always responsive to individual needs. Other examples were to be found on fields of play. Early in his time in Berkeley, he served as president of the San Pablo Park Tennis Club. Later, he was known to his family as “King of the Claremont,” winning both singles and doubles championships at the tennis club. Yet on the court, he always called marginal balls, those on or near a line, “in”  for his opponent, “out” for himself. Now, that is generosity!

Bill spent his last decades as an activist for the urban-wildland interface, passionately seeking to preserve both nature (such as butterflies and native grasses) and culture. By 2004, annual sales at UPB had reached nearly $1 million, yielding profits that were generously distributed to his partners and used to support new projects, later including Café Ohlone, dedicated to bringing native food and culture back to the Bay Area.  But with the advent of Amazon and digital books, sales at UPB began to plummet, and, yet, Bill was unyielding in his fight to sustain the importance of printed books and bookstores. To support this effort, in 2010 he created the nonprofit 2430 Arts Alliance to encourage and promote scholarly and literary publications, recorded classical music and live musical performances, and other arts in Berkeley; and through which he hosted discussions, book groups, and Slow Reading Dinners, and offered fiscal sponsorship and think-tank capacity for related literary and arts non-profits.

Bill died on July 27 at age 81 of cancer, having endured a stroke that occurred in April. He is survived by Karen McClung, his wife of nearly fifty years;  and by Nicola and John McClung, his daughter and son. He is also survived by his granddaughters, Oona Kategaya and Majke McClung.

After his passing, UPB bookstore employee, Alan Townsend, aptly captured Bill in this statement: “What a remarkable character he has been! If he hadn’t invented himself, it would’ve taken a Melville, a Cervantes, a Shakespeare to have dreamt him up.”  And, with that, we remember Bill’s parting words: “Do a lot of things, have some fun, and be proud of what you do.”

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to University Press Books and/or the Musical Offering to support Bill’s vision of ensuring that books and recorded classical music continue to enrich the life of the mind and spirit in our community.

You can also read about Bill’s land conservation and restoration work, his support of Café Ohlone, and the closing of the University Press Books store during Covid-19.

Grant Barnes is director emeritus of Stanford University Press.