ROCHESTER – The logs in the child-sized fireplace may be plastic, but everything else – from the crayon thank-you notes addressed simply to “the book lady” to the thousands of colorful titles crammed into the shelves in University alum Cammie Mammino’s children’s book store – can only be described as genuine.
Eighteen years after opening its doors, Mammino’s shop, Halfway Down the Stairs, named after an A.A. Milne poem, remains a staple of downtown Rochester.
But it is her continued activism in local and national censorship and other civil liberties issues that sets her apart.
Mammino is now in her eighth and final year serving on the executive board of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, where she consults on censorship controversies across the country.
Mammino’s first experiences with book banning began during her first teaching job, where she encountered parents enraged over her class’s discussion of issues like abortion and the Vietnam War.
“In the end, it boiled down (to the fact) that people weren’t comfortable with the free exchange of ideas,” she said.
Years later, when concerned customers began approaching her for help defending controversial books, Mammino took an active role in the association, speaking as a panelist at a national censorship convention and eventually joining the board.
Although Mammino says she has always been aware of civil liberties issues, she credits her years at the University with cultivating her interest. She graduated from the University in 1968 with an undergraduate degree in English, and later completed a master’s degree and teaching certificate.
Politically active classmates and a campus teach-in protesting the Vietnam War exposed Mammino to new ways of thinking.
“That was a big awakening for me in my freshman year,” she said. “(Michigan) broadened my world and made me a much more complex person.”
It was at the University that Mammino got what would be the first of many jobs working in a book co-op in the basement of the Michigan Union. There, she says, she was further exposed to a wide variety of people.
“I remember ringing up books one day for a transvestite guy who had a huge red beard and wore a girl scout uniform,” she said. “We had a great conversation.”
Although Mammino says she’s never been a “joiner,” visits to a living room on Hill Street that would later become The Ark, and to an Ann Arbor high school gym to watch a young Bob Dylan perform for 75 cents, kept Mammino abreast of shifting opinions. Still, she said it wasn’t until she returned for graduate school at the height of antiwar protests that she became intimately involved with demonstrations and marches.
“When I came back to Michigan, things were really tumultuous . because of the war,” Mammino said. “I became very politically active.”
After graduation, she bounced around from job to job as a high school English teacher, a counselor, a social worker – even to a brief stint as a sheep shearer in New Zealand. Mammino is the first to admit she never expected to hold a day job for more than a few years, let alone return to her conservative hometown after her years in Ann Arbor.
She considers herself a necessary oddity in Rochester.
“I’m sort of the piece of grit in the oyster shell,” she explained.
Throughout Mammino’s life, she said it has been the demand for an advocate and the need for free expression that has motivated her to act.
“If you want a diversity of ideas, you need a diversity of outlets,” she said.
Mammino explained her philosophy of variety with an analogy.
“I once had a picture in my mind of how interesting it would be if every Coke bottle was different,” she said.
Even compared to her experiences in the 1970s, Mammino says she is shocked by the current political climate and provisions in the Patriot Act that allow the government to review library records.
“To me, civil liberties issues at the moment are more serious and more dangerous than at any time during my 58 years on this planet,” she said.
After her term with the association ends, Mammino expects to remain active with censorship issues as the need presents itself, but hopes to refocus on the nation’s income gap between the rich and poor and its growing poverty, particularly in Detroit.
Mammino continues to play many roles, but to the snow-boot clad six-year-old bouncing down the creaking pine steps into her shop for the first time, she is simply “the book lady.”