Woodside's Jamis MacNiven goes sky-high with latest book | January 11, 2017 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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Community - January 11, 2017

Woodside's Jamis MacNiven goes sky-high with latest book

by Kate Daly

After running Buck's restaurant for 25 years in Woodside, the future has come true for owner Jamis MacNiven. In 2004 he told the Almanac his next career would be writing books, and he has self-published a new one called "California from 500 Feet, a Story of the Coastline."

The 191-page hardback features 312 color photos and many tall tales about the state's lesser-known history, or is it more accurate to say HIS story?

Mr. MacNiven interweaves his own personal anecdotes throughout the book, starting with the story that got the book off the ground. Five years ago he spotted a Zeppelin dirigible floating in the sky and told himself, "I gotta have it."

He then set out to befriend the people who owned the airship, which, measuring just shy of 247 feet long, is named Eureka, runs on helium, and needs a 20-person crew.

Alexandra and Bryan Hall, who live near Los Gatos, took Mr. MacNiven and his family on multiple trips in their dirigible before selling it off to someone in Germany.

Mr. MacNiven compares Eureka to a "really comfortable RV" or sailboat except for the time they hit a serious updraft over Big Sur and even the three pilots onboard felt panicked when the alarms kept going off.

Otherwise, Mr. MacNiven enjoyed "looking at the world from 500 to 1,000 feet, where you can open the big windows and yell at people on the ground, and land in places that are totally inaccessible."

He cruised from the Mexican border to Oregon and loosely uses the voyages to delve into vignettes of what has happened — or may have happened —below.

A few stories overlap with his earlier book, "Breakfast at Buck's, Tales from the Pancake Guy," but the rest are new material based on his experiences or years spent reading Wikipedia entries and some firsthand accounts written by authors such as Bayard Taylor, a journalist who covered the Gold Rush.

"I can't think of anything that isn't fact-based, except for what are already tall tales," Mr. MacNiven says, pointing out that "history is the recitation of what someone says happened."

He gives the example of the claim that early in the Gold Rush, shirts were shipped from San Francisco to China to be laundered at a cost of $15 a dozen. Mr. MacNiven wonders, even after California state historian Kevin Starr confirmed this, how could it possibly be true that anyone would wait five months for a clean shirt?

Born in Japan in 1948, Mr. MacNiven moved to California at a young age. He begins a chapter on Venice, California, with: "Venice used to be great and it is pretty cool now but when Jim Morrison and I lived there it was a rodent flavored garbage dump featuring truck tires, headless plastic dolls and condoms floating in the canals with exhausted neighborhoods too played out to support drug dealers."

Mr. MacNiven says: "Flying over Malibu changed my life, seeing a 50,000 square-foot Federal period mansion next to an Iron Man-like house, next to a ring of grass huts on a $20-million lot ... there are more movie stars per capita there than anywhere."

He writes about Art Linkletter (a popular TV personality in the 1950s and 1960s) telling him: "A young cartoon animator came to see him one day and thought he could outdo that Knott's fellow so Walt Disney began planning Disneyland just down the street from Knott's. Walt had Art out to see the construction site and asked Art if he cared to invest. Art said he laughed all the way home. Later Art was able to regain control of his funny bone when he saw that Walt had a hit on his hands but then it was too late to invest."

In another chapter Mr. MacNiven writes: "One reason Silicon Valley exists is because the people of Sunnyvale sold the federal government several square miles of land where Moffett Field is today for $1 if they would locate the dirigible program there," which in turn attracted "fledging avionics firms such as Fairchild, Raytheon and Ampex."

Buck's restaurant has a reputation for being the place where many of the Silicon Valley's deals are made. Mr. MacNiven feels fortunate to meet "the most amazing people here."

Mr. MacNiven estimates he spent six hours a day writing for three years and was surprised how much fun it was. "I wrote this book for my own pleasure," he says. "I just want my friends to read it."

The book is only available at Buck's, retailing for $30 or $40 with tax and shipping (it weighs three pounds). Mr. MacNiven ordered a run of 1,000 copies and admits to giving away more than he's selling.

For his next writing project he is contemplating a novel about his great uncle Wilhelm Fricke's life as a carnie 100 years ago. Mr. MacNiven says: "I have the flea circus, posters, and tickets, I have it all in a suitcase."

Mr. MacNiven displays some of these artifacts at Buck's, but doesn't have a lot of facts to go on. Still he feels the ingredients are there for a good story because "the characters are magnificently odd, you have a lot of deformed people emotionally and physically."

Alongside writing, Mr. MacNiven's restaurant career continues to grow. He has expanded beyond running Buck's with his wife, Margaret, to serving as co-owner with their sons (Rowan, Dylan and Tyler) of two Woodhouse Fish Co. restaurants and a West of Pecos restaurant — all in San Francisco.

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