Ready and Rarin' To Go
Interview by Leslie Madsen
In which our hero speaks frankly about his passions, aspirations, and his twelve-year tenure at a newspaper named after a smelt.
When asked what his motto is, Pete Brooks borrows from the movie Galaxy Quest, "Never give up, damn the resistance, full speed ahead!"
It's an apt mantra for Brooks, who has always confronted life head-on, armed with patience, intellect, and a considerable wit. In conversation, it's hard to keep up with Brooks, whose rapid-fire associations and allusions will, in one breath, take him from Star Trek's Vulcan mating ritual to the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt -- one of his passions.
In early August 2001, I sat down with Brooks to discuss where he's been, what he's up to now, and where he plans to go from here.
LM: Tell me about your childhood.
PB: I was born in Chicago, Illinois, mumble-mumblesome years ago. After spending twelve years in that fine city, my parents moved the family to Tucson, Arizona, which was a strange place to be in the 1970s. When I wasn't in school, I spent most of my time tooling around the desert with my friends -- a bunch of carefree, shiftless hippie children more or less like myself.
But one can only remain shiftless for so long, and at age 19 or 20, after an unhappy semester at university, I moved to Southern California, bringing with me only my dog and a suitcase full of really tacky clothes.
LM: And why did you only attend one semester of college?
PB: You always ask me that! [laughs] While I was in high school, I realized I didn't exactly flourish in the academic environment. It was too theoretical for me to get a grip on. I've always done better in work environments, where the motivations are clearer and the goals more specifically defined. I like a lot of structure in my chaos!
So I went to the University of Arizona and made a real half-hearted attempt at it, the Pell people yanked their grant, and suddenly I was back in the working world again. I tell you, I was pretty naïve as a kid.
Anyway, once I decided what I actually wanted to do with my life, I started taking some photography, journalism, and advertising art classes and did real well at those. Again, it was about work, so it made sense to me.
LM: How did you get into graphic design?
PB: Natural inclination. I started out drawing as a kid all the time, I was known for it. Soon as I could, I got on the school newspaper, and by then was working in food service and knew that that wasn't what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. . . I talked my way into a paste-up position with a textbook compositor in South-Central Los Angeles in the early '80s. And after I had been there for a couple of months, I got promoted to workflow coordinator. I kind of skyrocketed to the middle. [laughs]
Unfortunately, before I'd been there very long, the company's "rolling layoffs" caught up with me, and I went back to delivering pizzas while I looked for another job.
Then, a friend I had made at the textbook compositor called and said they were doing some hiring at an offset printing company in Lakewood. I did a good interview and got hired, and after I had been there for a couple years, I was promoted to art director when my former supervisor retired.
LM: That's a pretty swift promotion.
PB: I guess so. At the risk of not sounding humble, I've kind of bobbed to the surface of every department in which I've worked.
LM: And how long were you at the printing company?
PB: I stayed at that position until the company 86-ed the art department -- this was back in the late 80s, the last time the economy was going into the toilet. One of the printing company's customers, the director of a union, liked my work and didn't want to lose me, so he offered me free office space in his union building and a bunch of money to buy equipment, and I set up my own little business.
[Brooks pauses ominously.] Then I made a critical error. I brought my typesetter girlfriend in as business partner. As a result of the failure of our personal relationship, the business went belly-up a year and a half later, and I found myself looking for work yet again. I hate looking for work! I applied for a job at one of the newspapers that had been a customer at my old printing company.
On a real good recommendation from the owner of the printing company, I was hired by Gazette Newspapers in Long Beach in (gasp!) 1989.
LM: Did you know much about newspapers from your time at the printing company?
PB: Yes and no. I knew all about newspapers since grade school. The problem was, this newspaper was produced in a Mac environment; everything was done on computer, and in 1989, I'd never used a computer before. I had never so much as picked up a mouse in my life -- didn't know what a cursor was. So I made them an offer they couldn't refuse. I said if they would hire me, I would come in and train for a week at my own expense.
Well, they went for it, and by the sweat of my brow and the skin of my teeth, within two weeks I was up to speed and running the production department on a Macintosh. And I've been there ever since.
LM: What are your responsibilities there?
PB: I'm in charge of everything that has to do with the way the paper looks and prints -- every technical aspect of it. I have complete oversight of the physical output of the paper, including designing the pages, relaunching new designs of the publications, and anything having to do with the physical look of the publication. That includes laying out the ads and the editorial, creating templates, stylesheets, everything.
I oversee a staff of graphic artists who are responsible for building ads and creating the maps, graphs, and other images required to supplement the editorial content.
LM: You've been there how long?
PB: More than twelve years.
LM: That's a long time.
PB: Well, I kept waiting for the ax to fall and it just never did! In a good economy, employers tend to hang on to me, I guess. Plus, I loved the gig. At this job, I was always fully engaged because there was always something new to learn, new hardware, new software, etc.
Most importantly, the newspaper itself kept growing, and the size and scope of my responsibilities kept pace with the growth of the company. For instance, when I started there, we were running maybe 20-24 pages a week, black plus one color. And as we speak, we run an average of 68-80 pages a week in four-color. And that's only the Grunion Gazette. That doesn't include the Downtown Gazette, which has gone from 8 pages to 32 pages a week. And for a few years, we had a real estate magazine called On the Move, and I was in charge of production on that as well, in addition to being principal ad creator.
LM: What were some of the highlights of your tenure at the Grunion?
PB: Learning the new tools of the trade, definitely. Twelve years ago, I was a caveman scratching glyphs on rock walls... today, I'm a bit of a computer geek! [laughs]
Besides that, though, what comes most to my mind are the relationships -- the people I've met. The fact that I got to meet everybody in the community, from the guys who steamclean the sidewalks to the mayor and the big business people. And I always found I had more in common with any of them than I had differences.
Plus, on the staff, I met people who've since become some of my best friends. Through the years, I've ended up supporting these people, and relying on them for support -- at weddings, funerals, concerts, births -- and have fully integrated them into my social experience.
I even met my fiancée (the nice lady running this admittedly softball interview) there, when she was working for a while in the editorial department.
LM: Tell me about your favorite coworker.
PB: I guess that would be Kevin, formerly a graphic artist at the paper, now my successor there. He's been a virtually flawless employee. He's hard-working, he's conscientious, he's easygoing and well-liked... In the course of the time we've worked together, we've become friends outside the office as well, without compromising the professional relationship at the office. It's been my experience that it's easy for me to be a manager and a boss at work, without imprinting a hierarchical structure on the relationship outside the office. I've never found it productive or advisable to bully or belittle subordinates.
LM: Why would you leave such a great job and great community as the one you have at the Grunion?
PB: After twelve years, a couple things kind of came together at the same time. About the time I was finally starting to get a little restless, my fiancée got accepted into a Ph.D. program at UC Davis, and circumstances conspired to move me to Northern California. I was looking for somewhere to go, and something good came along to take me to what I hope will be an even better place.
LM: What kind of work do you hope to do in the Sacramento area?
PB: I don't have my heart set on any particular field or activity. What I'd like to do is take everything I've learned in the last 20 years and maybe find some new ways to apply it outside of advertising, which, when you come right down to it, is what I've been doing at the Grunion. Or maybe just find something more intriguing to advertise. The fact is, I could even see myself in a managerial capacity at a nonprofit or a publishing company. I'd love to be able to afford to go non-profit!
I'll always do graphics -- that's my bedrock skill from childhood to today -- but the other skills I've picked up along the way keep pushing me in the direction of management. For the last 20 years, I've helped sell an awful lot of sofas, ice cream cones, and cups of coffee, you know? Maybe there's something else I could do with what I've learned.
LM: What do you see yourself doing in five years? In ten?
PB: I've never had a five-year plan. I like to find a situation and see what I can bring to it and learn from it, and take it as far as I can -- explore its possibilities. Leslie's in charge of the five-year plan. Maybe next time, I'll interview her.
LM: What do you like to do in your spare time?
PB: This isn't going to sound very exciting, but I spend most of my free time at home, in front of my computer, making websites, CD artwork, audio CDs, doing jobs for freelance clients. I'm one of those lucky guys in that the stuff that I like to do is the stuff I get paid to do, so I can work all day at the office, come home, sit down in front of the computer and work all night, and still enjoy what I'm doing. I don't know if that should be a point of pride, or shame!
LM: How would you describe yourself?
PB: Geez, it's corny, but I guess I'd say I feel like I'm a really lucky guy. Really lucky. For the first time in my life, I've got it all -- a career AND a life! I feel totally prepared to handle whatever comes next.
How would I describe myself? Ready and rarin' to go!