Blackfish Getting Buzz

We here at Foobooz have been hearing a great deal of buzz regarding Blackfish in Conshohocken. In fact it has toppled Bar Ferdinand from the top spot of search phrase that brings people to Foobooz, a title Bar Ferdinand has held, since the NoLibs restaurant opened.

So here’s what we know, Blackfish takes over the Maya Bella space at 119 Fayette Street in Conshohocken. Chip Roman is behind Blackfish, he has an excellent pedigree, previously working at Vetri and Le Bec-Fin. Craig LaBan dropped some nice words for Blackfish at the bottom of his Alphabet Soup review, saying, “Ex-Vetri hand Chip Roman has brought a polished bistro menu, from puff pastry-crowned pot pies to salmon with lentils, to the clean white confines of the simple BYO that was Maya Bella. It’s still new, but full of promise.”

Sounds pretty good, check it out and let us know what you think.

Trends: Everybody’s an Author

Sign up with Philly's own Xlibris or Infinity, and you, too, can write a book! (Fifteen minutes of fame not included.)

Why is Ed Murray smiling? I don't get it. He just blew $1,500.

But that's my opinion. It's not his. “I don't want to help you write a negative article,” he says. “I'm not disappointed with Xlibris.”

At age 68, Murray is the proudly self-published author of two books, and the Philadelphia firm Xlibris is his … publisher? No. That's not right. If Murray is self-published, then he's the publisher. So Xlibris is the printer? That's not right, either, because Xlibris doesn't actually own any printing presses. So what is Xlibris, exactly? “A publishing services provider,” says its website,

In 2002, Murray enlisted Xlibris to help him publish his first book, The Second Coming of Ulysses. This spring, he used Xlibris again to self-publish his second, Kr, which is short for “Karamazov Revisited.” Do you detect a theme here? Each book is “a reinvention of a classic,” Murray says — Joyce's Ulysses and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. He began tinkering with Ulysses “as an intellectual exercise,” he says. “The most ardent of readers finds him difficult. My version is a hundred times more readable.” As for The Brothers Karamazov, Murray calls it “a powerful story poorly told. And I tell it better” — by “throwing away 19th-century wordiness,” adding visual imagery, clarifying historical allusions, and generally chopping the text in half without losing a single character or incident. “My books,” he says, “are more entertaining to a 21st-century reader.”

He's certainly entertaining himself. When he attended St. Joe's in the late 1950s, Murray “fell in love with the shape and sound of words.” But then he went to work as a labor analyst for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, and the world's greatest literary works took a backseat to his monthly economic newsletter on Philly's labor market.

Now, though, he's a published author, even if his books do raise a key question: Who would buy this stuff? Perhaps you're thinking: nobody. But Ed Murray is thinking, There's got to be lots of people out there! That's why he plunked down $1,499 for Xlibris's Spring Marketing Package. This was on top of the $900 he paid last fall for the Professional Service package, which got him a copyright for Kr, plus 20 softcover and one hardcover copies of the book. Part of the marketing package was an Opt-in E-mail Marketing Campaign that Murray describes as “an e-mail to, like, a million people.” Another part was an Online Listing Campaign that placed ads for his book on websites such as and

It's hard to imagine anyone going to those websites and shopping for books, or for that matter going there at all. And sure enough, six months later, Xlibris's $1,499 marketing campaign for Ed Murray has resulted in Kr sales of exactly zip. Nil. Zero.

When I meet Murray for a drink, though, he is blissfully unperturbed. He shows me a copy of Kr, with its glossy beige cover bearing only those two mysterious letters and, underneath, the name “Edward J. Murray.” He says, “You can't tell that's not done by Random House, can you?” He's thrilled with the finished products: “I think I created two nice works of art. There's a satisfaction in that.”

I ask him, flat-out, how much he loves his two books.

“How much?!” he exclaims, his hands moving instinctively from his martini to his copy of Kr.

“More than a Cadillac!”

ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE was only one way to get your heart broken in book publishing. You would send your beloved manuscript to a few dozen publishing houses in New York, and they would politely reject you. Then you would send your beloved manuscript to a few dozen agents in New York, hoping they'd plead your case, and they would brutally reject you. In time, some agents began charging you to read your beloved manuscript. They would cash your check — and then they would reject you.

Your only recourse was to pony up $10,000 or so and hand your manuscript to a so-called “vanity press” like New York's Vantage Press. Then you could become an obscure author who'd paid handsomely for the privilege of holding your book in your hands. Sure, you'd prefer to have a publisher pay you, but if you had to pay the publisher, well, “You're in elite company,” whispers the Vantage Press website. Tennyson, Whitman, Twain, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot — all of them “gained renown after publishing their work at their own expense.” And it wasn't cheap; Leo Tolstoy had to shell out 4,500 rubles to print War and Peace. That was a lot of rubles in those days. Books used to be precious, which is why the “ex libris” (“from the library of”) bookplate was so popular in Tolstoy's time. You put your name in your books because you wanted them back.

But in the 1990s, new technology revolutionized the 500-year-old book-publishing industry. The Xerox Corporation came out with the DocuTech, a copier that could take an electronic file and convert it directly to print, eliminating the costly setup time for traditional offset printing presses. “Print on demand” publishing — with the ability to produce books literally one at a time — was born. It is, in a sense, a return to the medieval method, in which monks in abbeys hand-lettered books individually. If you order a copy of Kr from, one copy of Ed Murray's book will be printed, bound, covered, and shipped to you in a couple of days. (And Ed Murray will be thrilled to death.)

Dozens of “print on demand” companies have emerged to take advantage of this revolution, including the top four: AuthorHouse of Bloomington, Indiana; iUniverse of Lincoln, Nebraska; Lulu of Morrisville, North Carolina — and Xlibris of Philadelphia. Xlibris was started by CEO John Feldcamp in a Trenton business incubator in 1997. He moved the company to Old City in 1999; the following year, he sold a big minority stake to Random House Ventures — a business unit of the venerable New York publishing house that invests in companies operating “at the intersection of publishing and technology.” Xlibris makes the most of the tie. On its website homepage, right under the name Xlibris, are the words, “a strategic partner of Random House Ventures.”

Feldcamp and his competitors are racing to accommodate a pent-up hunger. Overall, the number of new books published annually has nearly tripled in the past 20 years: 172,000 new titles and editions were issued in 2005, compared to fewer than 65,000 in 1986, according to Andrew Grabois, who keeps statistics for R.R. Bowker, the New Jersey company that issues ISBN numbers and publishes the bookstore bible Books In Print. The top four print-on-demand companies accounted for some 17,000 of those 172,000 new titles. That's nearly one-tenth of all new books in this country, put out one by one and written by people like Elmer Havens (Boondocks Venus: The Memoirs of Lori Ponsonby) and John Townsend (Seeing the World Thro' a Porthole: My Memoirs) and Joan T. Williams (Love Never Dies: Working Through Grief to Contact Your Mate Who Has Passed Over) — Xlibris authors all. “Just as Americans are listening less and talking more,” Grabois says, “they are reading less — but writing more.”

The self-publishing revolution is just one piece of a larger explosion of self-expression made possible by the digital revolution, according to David Borgenicht, the co-author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series who runs his own (non-self-) publishing company, Quirk Books, in Old City. “It's now that much easier to do everything yourself: make a CD, put up a website, write a blog, make your own movie,” he says. “So making your own books is part of that.” Maybe the largest part: A poll conducted a few years ago reported that 81 percent of Americans think they have a book inside them — and that they should let it out.

So what's stopping you? Buy the $399 (on sale) Basic Package from Xlibris, or pay the $499 basic setup fee at Infinity, Philly's other print-on-demand publisher, and you've got your very own trade paperback, an ISBN number, and availability on and other online bookstores. Screw the big boys in New York — you're in the game! Maybe your book will be the next Christmas Box or Chicken Soup for the Soul or The Joy of Cooking — best-sellers that were self-published before being snapped up by traditional publishing houses.

Meanwhile, the print-on-demand companies make their money on, well, everything — from editing and marketing services to markups on the printing bill and a share of royalties on any books sold.

Because print-on-demand companies reject no one, and do little to dampen the fantasy of fame, they've been criticized for preying on people's dreams. Is new Xlibris title The Daenzer Story — “a dramatic and enduring true story about life in the insurance industry” — really going to be the Next Big Thing? As Bowker's Grabois notes, “There's a difference between being published and being sold. Digital printing has democratized the creative and production process. That hasn't resulted in any of these books breaking into even moderate sales. They're not even on the shelf, much less being sold.”

They're not on the shelf because with rare exceptions, bookstores won't stock them. They tend to be overpriced — most Xlibris softcovers sell for $19.99 to $21.99 — and most print-on-demand companies won't accept returns. So yes, your print-on-demand book may be “available” in bookstores — but only if you walk up to the help desk and order it. And purchases in bookstores tend to be impulse buys. Furthermore, it's tough to get your book noticed, because most book reviewers won't touch print-on-demand books, according to Inquirer books editor Frank Wilson. It's a matter of survival. In a good week, Wilson gets editorial space to review eight to 10 new titles. But he receives up to 1,000 books a week. One thousand. Books. A week. All those books get dumped in a room next to his office; “I call it the Room of Lost Dreams,” Wilson says. Every couple of months the room gets cleaned out, the books are donated to charity, and the monument to disappointment begins anew.

Why won't reviewers review self-_published books? “The vast majority of unpublished material is terrible — it's unpublished because it's unpublishable,” says Martin Shepard, co-owner of The Permanent Press in Sag Harbor, New York, a boutique publisher that gets 6,000 submissions a year but puts out only 12 books. “But that doesn't mean there aren't good books that don't get published. The traditional publishers are looking for formulas. Their taste is up their ass. They're run by accountants and salesmen.”

Which is why the response of those heeding the print-on-demand siren song is: So what? This is America. Just give me a shot. The new cultural mantra is: Put Yourself Out There. See what happens. Isn't that what really matters? Look at that hot bitch from Laguna Beach, Kristin Cavallari, and that nice doofus with the tin ear from American Idol, William Hung. Fifteen years of reality TV have given us hordes of people who have no business being famous. But they are. So why not me?

In that sense, self-published authors are exactly like the long lines of people waiting to get into American Idol auditions. A few can really sing, and with some hurry-up voice coaching, they're ready for prime time. But most sing badly. And they don't know, or they don't care. Simon Cowell tells them they can't sing, they tell him to go screw himself. I'll be a star without you, they think. Yes, self-published authors are a lot like the audition line. Only older and grayer.

And in the end, poorer. “It's almost impossible for somebody to make money with those print-on-demand packages,” says Ron Pramschufer, a New York printing broker who caters to truly self-published authors, who bypass print-on-demand companies, order ISBN numbers from Bowker themselves, and go directly to printers for runs of 2,000 books that they sell on street corners or at speaking engagements. “If you were to sum up most self-published authors in one word, that word would be 'naïve.'”

So which is it? Does self-publishing democratize a business that has been in the thrall of snooty literary types and, more recently, the bean-counters who run the big trade houses in New York? Or does it seduce (mostly elderly) people with false promises of fortune and fame? Not even Xlibris's authors can make up their minds about that.

BACK IN THE SPRING OF 2002, Walter Bjorkman paid Xlibris $980 to print his autobiography, 75 Years an Average Guy. An Average Life. As with most self-published authors, Walt's subsequent sales were to family and friends. But last spring, four years after his book came out, Xlibris contacted Walt again, to invite him to participate in a marketing campaign. He paid his $1,499 — and like Ed Murray, he hasn't seen a single sale. “You would think there would be something from all that,” says Bjorkman, 81, on the phone from his home in Bath, Pennsylvania. “I'm not a happy camper.”

Tracey Rosengrave, senior marketing manager with Xlibris, counters that the success of the Xlibris E-mail Marketing Campaign should be gauged not by the number of books sold, but by the number of “click-throughs” — potential customers who click on the link in the e-mail to read more about the author's book at Xlibris's online bookstore. The goal, she says, is “to get your book and the name out in the online world as much as possible.” Rosengrave says authors should realize that those million e-mails “are just a hook. Our ability to sell your book for you has sort of stopped there.” Walter Bjorkman's Post Fulfillment Report in late May informed him that his million e-mails gleaned him 2,842 click-throughs. Which, as noted above, resulted in zero sales. A 2004 Wall Street Journal article gave the average per-publication sales of any given Xlibris title as 130; only 352 of the 10,269 titles the company put out from 1997 through 2004 sold more than 500 copies.

Rosengrave wouldn't talk sales numbers, but like everyone else in the print-on-demand business, she bemoans the widespread notion that a book can just magically take off. “At the end of the day,” she says, “if the author isn't actively involved in the process, I'm less confident in his success in selling the book.”

Successful self-published authors are pests: They badger independent bookstores and local libraries into allowing readings and book signings, and go at it like Amway salesmen, pitching to everyone they ever knew and selling books out of the trunks of their cars. That's how Karen Quinones Miller made it big. In 1999, the longtime Philadelphia resident self-published her first novel, Satin Doll, after 50 rejections from traditional publishers and agents. Self-publishing, she says, “is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I sold 24,000 books in eight months. I'm insane, but I did it.” Her hustle won her a $165,000 two-book deal from Simon & Schuster. (Her latest release, Satin Nights, just made the Essence best-seller list.) Because traditional publishers focus on past successes, Miller notes, new genres such as black erotica and urban fiction — the literary equivalent of gangsta rap — have emerged out of self-publishing. Their authors' motivation, she says, comes largely from “desperation to have their voices heard.”

THE XLIBRIS AUTHORS I TALKED to tended to choose the company because it's local. These days, it's about as local as Philadelphia brand cream cheese. In 2004, Publishers Weekly reported that John Feldcamp was moving Xlibris's customer-service jobs to the Philippines. “It's just too hard and too costly to staff a business like ours in downtown Philadelphia,” Feldcamp said. Subsequently he moved his U.S. office from Walnut Street to a space on the third floor of the old Scott Paper headquarters next to the airport. Today, that International Plaza office supports just 20 employees, while the Philippines operation, in Cebu City, employs some 300 people, according to Tracey Rosengrave — who is part of the Cebu City operation. Cebu City handles the lion's share of the work involved in producing Xlibris's approximately 400 titles per month. Even without the pricey promo packages, that's about $2 million in sales a year. (Xlibris grossed an estimated $9.9 million in 2006, according to OneSource Information Services.)

I spoke to Rosengrave because John Feldcamp didn't return my phone calls asking about the offshore move and the role of Random House Ventures in that decision. Random House Ventures, by the way, is one of more than 600 companies owned by Bertelsmann AG, a German global media giant.

Tom Gregory, by contrast, gave me a personal tour of Infinity Publishing, which sits on a hillside in West Conshohocken near I-76. Gregory is the sole owner of Infinity, having founded it with his son Mark in 1997, after 20 years in the printing business. When I ask him to compare his company to Xlibris, he says, “We're like night and day.”

Infinity only prints about 70 titles a month, attracting customers through ads in Writer's Digest and on the Internet. Gregory's staff of 14 does it all — editing, copy-editing, design, and printing on a Xerox DocuTech. Books with titles as diverse as The Pilates Encyclopedia, Environmental Due Diligence and A Private Diary: Our First Year in Swinging are stored at the offices, for sale on the company's Internet bookstore, The retail price of a typical 280-page paperback is $15.95, significantly less than at Xlibris. Infinity has other competitive edges: It has an audio books division, it accepts returns from bookstores, it holds an annual authors conference in Valley Forge, and it pays author royalties monthly (30 percent retail, 15 percent wholesale).

Infinity authors may not be selling more books than Xlibris's, but at least they're not getting nicked as badly. The company's optional Marketing Package, priced from $125 to $470, supplies you with postcards, business cards, bookmarks and posters, plus how-to info on pushing your book at readings, trade shows, conferences and speaking engagements. No mass e-mails or faxes? “Why? So somebody can move the trash can under the fax machine every night?” Gregory asks. “That stuff doesn't work.”

LIKE HE SAID, ED MURRAY isn't disappointed with Xlibris. If he writes a third book, “I would consider their basic price,” he says. “But I wouldn't buy the marketing program again.”

That's right: Murray's muse is still visiting him. “I have the first page written,” he says. It's an adaptation of Crime and Punishment. But this one's no mere rewrite. This time, Dostoevsky's classic tale of murder and a guilty conscience will be set in Fairmount.

This go-around, perhaps he should consider the services of an independent book publicist — someone like Mary Lengle, who's done PR for Quirk, Rodale, Warner Books and McGraw-Hill. Lengle doesn't go in for mass e-mails. What matters, she says, is placement: “There are maybe 25 core media outlets that drive book sales” — The View, the three national morning TV shows, of course Oprah, and even The Montel Williams Show. Lengle's strategy is to get her authors placed in one of those core outlets, “to get that one great hit.”

It was appearances on Montel and Oprah that shot Jude Stringfellow's With a Little Faith to the top of the Xlibris online bookstore's best-seller list. With a Little Faith isn't well-written, or slick, or literary. It is, however, the inspirational story of a two-legged mutt named Faith who learns to walk upright. You can't go wrong with a book about a cute dog; ask John Grogan.

There just aren't enough canines in Joyce or Dostoevsky. Maybe Ed should try reimagining Old Yeller instead.

Michael Nutter’s Dilemma

Is he too much of a reformer to be mayor? Or so hungry to be mayor that he can't be a real reformer?

Michael Nutter stands on a street corner in North Philly next to a SEPTA stop, and pops the trunk of his black Acura. Inside are four bags full of Nutter Butter peanut butter cookies and two straw baskets that say “America.” It's raining. It's cold. It's 7:09 in the morning. His blue baseball cap reads “Life is Good.”

Nutter rides the escalator down into the SEPTA concourse along with six of his staffers and volunteers, and me. He passes two Jehovah's Witnesses — “They've taken the prime spot,” laments a Nutter aide — and anchors himself in the stream of morning commuters. His people fan out, carrying cookies and literature. Today is November 8th. The midterm elections were last night. Nutter starts to pitch himself as the next mayor of Philadelphia:

“I know it's cold, but I'm here and it's a great day! Enjoy the Nutter Butter peanut butter cookie sandwich today! Mayor's race began at 8:01 last NIGHT! … Good mornin' at the Olney station! Welcome to the mayor's race! … Just! A little! WET out here! Get one of the Nutter Butters over there! Good for ya first thing in the morning! … It's a new day and it's time for a change!”

After a few minutes of this, a SEPTA employee walks over to check Nutter out. The SEPTA guy says, “What are you?” Not who, but what. He's not familiar with Nutter. This is understandable. Nutter was a City Councilman for 15 years until he quit last summer to run for mayor. For those 15 years, he represented a 10th of the city. Some large-ish chunk of the other 90 percent doesn't know him yet. So Nutter smiles at the SEPTA guy. He clasps the guy's hand and says, “I'm Mike Nutter. I'm running for mayor.” The SEPTA guy's mouth opens slightly. Nutter's smile takes on a new ironic quality. “Mike Nutter,” he repeats, “running for mayor.” The SEPTA guy nods and says, “Aw, okay, okay. You should be fine here.”

And he is fine. More than fine. The transit-stop meet-and-greet is a campaign standby, and Nutter is pretty good at it. I'm surprised to see that he's good at it. From reading the papers, I expected Nutter to be a cold and nerdy dude. He's our local good-government warrior. He's the guy, after all, who fought John Street and his own Council-mates to pass ethics reform, wage-tax cuts, same-sex partner benefits and the smoking ban, and he did all of this in a proudly un-Street style: Where Street is a pedantic preacher, Nutter is precise, thoughtful. He cants his torso forward slightly, the pose of a good listener. He steeples and unsteeples his fingers. He speaks in a wan, nasal voice that was once described by the Daily News as being like Kermit the Frog's but which is really more like Steve Urkel's if Urkel had chilled out and gone to the Wharton School. And all of these perceptions are kind of hard to reconcile with seeing Nutter here on the campaign trail, running on less than four hours' sleep, teasing students on their way to school at nearby Girls' High (“When I was a kid in West Philly, the Girls' High girls wouldn't talk to me — maybe it was just me”), clapping his hands every few seconds to project energy and vigor and bigness (he's five-10) and especially hope. Also, he's got these weird cookies. They only make sense as a dig at Street, who's a famous fitness nut. …

“He might find that he likes it,” Nutter says. “Great taste, less filling.” He pauses. “No, that's a different product.” Nutter spots a new stream of commuters, claps and turns:

“You're goin' to work early? I'm goin' to work early! We're not messin' around. You didn't think I could shake two hands at once, did you? I am GOOD at this! And you haven't even seen my patented spin move!”

The Nutter Butters dwindle as the candidate soul-shakes with some commuters, has his picture taken with others, and fields mild praise (“He's been good for the neighborhood”; “I just voted yesterday! You're next, huh? All right. We like you”) as well as at least one compliment on the smoking ban. His fiercest supporter is a white woman, short, 50ish, in a gray coat. As she approaches Nutter, she assumes the pose of a supplicant, hands together, looking up at him beatifically: “You are our only hope! God bless you! God bless you!”

This woman rushes through the turnstiles before I can get her name. But I've talked to others like her. She's hardly alone in her belief that Mike Nutter — a guy with a record as a good, smart, non-hackish, ambitious public servant who has some courageous qualities but who also uses skill and power to get what he wants and who plays the political game when he has to (which means, in Philadelphia, doing favors for powerful friends) — is really something bigger and purer than all that. And also that he's the only one around here who's so pure. The fact that Nutter, a guy who's been in politics for 23 years, knows how to work a transit stop isn't surprising. But this line of thinking is.

You are our only hope.

Nutter is a perfectly good in-the-fray legislator who's being sold as a uniquely outside-the-fray leader. The disconnect speaks both to our need and to Nutter's skill: to our need for a full-throated reformer, and to Nutter's skill at helping us believe he's it.

ACCORDING TO EARLY POLLS, Nutter is an underdog. U.S. Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady (also the local Democratic Party chairman) are the 800-pound gorillas; in early December, Brady forced out Jonathan Saidel, the former city controller. If the field holds, we'll probably see a five-way primary in May between Dwight Evans (state rep), Tom Knox (insurance CEO and ex-Rendell aide), Brady, Fattah and Nutter. The last five-way race was in 1999. John Street won, with 35 percent of the vote.

Nutter, who is 49, has never run for citywide office before, but he pitches this apparent weakness as a tactical strength. “No one knows what it's like to be in a race with me,” he says, which is true. Nutter has a close-to-the-vest quality, sustained by a set of wry facial expressions and an outward placidity that cracks and bleeds when it needs to let the nastier stuff through. No one who's seen him demolish a witness at Council, gutting testimony like a fish, would think Nutter a gentle soul. Last November he was already talking about how Fattah was going to have to “come down here with the mortals” and “talk about potholes.” What about Saidel, an oversight bulldog? Was Nutter worried that Saidel was talking up his own reform credentials? (He hadn't dropped out yet.) “Okay,” Nutter said, his voice growing quieter, turning to ice. “What was he doing when Ron White was looting the public treasury? What was he doing?”

Nutter's mysteriousness extends to his personal life. He talks some about his 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, a student at Masterman, but not much about his wife, Lisa, an expert in job-training programs for schoolkids, and even less about his parents. Nutter's mother worked for Bell Telephone and raised him in a two-story rowhome on Larchwood Avenue in West Philly. She and his father, Basil, are divorced. Nutter says he admired both of them. He also says his father, who is today sober, had a drinking problem: “Alcohol was not his friend.”

Nutter went to St. Joe's Prep on a partial financial-need scholarship. Today the Prep is six percent black, but then it was more like 15 percent black; Nutter joined the Black Culture Club and discussed Malcolm X with his history professor, Jerry Taylor. “He had a great sense of the need for social justice,” says Taylor. “You don't usually find that. You find do-gooders. They do all this and they do all that, [but] they don't really see the big picture. Michael not only saw the big picture, but how each piece fit in.”

Nutter didn't start to see where he fit into that picture until he graduated from the Prep and started working at the old Impulse Disco on Broad. Nutter cleaned toilets and spun records (“Mixmaster Mike,” he grins, “layin' the labels on the tables”) with his best friend from the Prep, Zanzibar Blue's Bobby Bynum. It was the '70s, and that meant more than just huge Afros, Nutter's Afro among them — it also meant the rise of a new political movement, the Reverend Bill Gray's Northwest Alliance. Gray was a U.S. Congressman who raised money nationally and funneled it back to local races with the intent of smashing the white Democratic party elites — guys like Buddy Cianfrani and Jimmy Tayoun, who sat in a smoky room and picked which hacks would represent black wards. “We said, hey, political office is not a reward for party loyalty,” says Gray. “You gotta be talented.” Gray recruited educated, middle-class pols — names like Evans, Fattah, now-Councilwoman Marian Tasco — and raised cash for them at the Impulse, where a 19-year-old kid like Nutter could take it all in.

Nutter stayed fascinated with the Alliance pols as he graduated from Penn's Wharton School, then worked for Xerox, then for an investment banking firm. By this time he was a worker bee on the Alliance's campaigns, especially the 1983 Council campaign of the dapper John Anderson, a liberal warrior and closeted gay man whom Nutter drove for 20 hours a day in a crappy Toyota. When Anderson died mid-campaign, Nutter was devastated. Anderson was “Michael's rabbi or Michael's saint,” says Jerry Taylor. “In a sense, it was like a surrogate father had died.”

After Anderson's death, Nutter's story starts to read like the bio of a young, hungry guy on the make. He went to work for an Anderson ally, Angel Ortiz, then ran for Council in 1987 with Bill Gray's backing. Nutter's opponent was an incumbent party loyalist and mother of four named Ann Land: an old white lady in a steadily blackening district. Nutter “courted the media as much as the ward leaders,” according to one 1987 newspaper clip. Nutter lost by just 1,882 votes, but the next time around, having snared a ward-leader post in the interim, Nutter sent Land into political retirement in 1991.

Nutter would never again face a strong primary challenge, thanks to his creativity and tenacity as a legislator and his early cultivation of political support, especially the support of a woman named Carol Ann Campbell. Campbell, a large, volatile woman who used to play classical piano and rides in a motorized wheelchair, is the head of the black ward leaders. Her political style owes more to Jabba the Hutt than to Bill Gray; even within a corrupt system, Campbell is a corrupt actor, having been indicted and sentenced to probation in 2001 for ducking campaign-finance laws. Still, it's standard operating procedure for Councilfolk to keep their ward leaders happy. On Nutter's first big-ticket bill in Council, creating a Police Advisory Commission, the board selection committee, which he chaired, suggested Campbell as a member. In return, Campbell helped to fend off challengers for his Council seat and freed him to tackle issues beyond his own district.

Nutter cultivated John Street, too. “They had a whole Batman-and-Robin thing going,” says Councilman Frank DiCicco. Nutter would later recall, to a Daily News reporter, that he used to attack D.A. Lynne Abraham — “I started fights with her, dirtied her up a little bit” — just to make Street look good. Says Sharif Street, the Mayor's son, “My father and Michael have more in common than either would like to admit.” People called Nutter a Street lapdog, which didn't sit well. Nutter would go to the Prep and sit in Jerry Taylor's office, a converted supply closet with a beach scene painting on the wall, and vent. “I think Michael then began to distance himself [from Street] very, very quickly,” says Taylor. “Because obviously [John] Anderson wouldn't be seen as a lapdog.”

Nutter had also been carrying a second chip of Andersonian guilt — one he'd earned in 1993, and one that, to hear Nutter tell it, contained the kernel of the guy he's become. In 1993, Jim Kenney and Angel Ortiz tried to pass a bill providing same-sex benefits for city workers. Nutter had told the gay community he'd support it. Having worked for Anderson, he could do no less. But at the same time, Nutter was trying to pass his police-advisory bill. Street supported the police bill but not the same-sex bill; Nutter worried that if he threw in with the wrong people, Street would crater his police bill. Nutter decided to be “quietly not supportive” of the same-sex bill (“He was trying to leverage it,” says Kenney), and the bill died. Nutter says, “That feeling of not having done the right thing never went away” — and Nutter knew the gay activists wouldn't go away, either. So in 1997 and 1998, over the “furious” objections of Street, Nutter wrote a new set of same-sex bills and helped push them through a process so contentious that at one point, the bills' allies sent an enfeebled Thacher Longstreth to the Spectrum for the entire day just to keep him away from Street. (Longstreth sat in the cheap seats, watching the Ringling Bros. circus.) The bills eventually passed after a marathon Council session that Nutter calls “one of the biggest public showdowns in recent history.”

Interestingly, whatever happened in 1993 doesn't make Nutter look as bad as he says it does. Here's a less melodramatic take: Nutter flip-flops on one bill in order to pass another bill he believes is more important, sticks his finger in the political wind, concludes he'd better pass the first bill anyway, and finds a clever way to get it done. This is a story about everyday legislative horse-trading framed as Mister Nutter Goes to Council. “A friend keeps advising me that I should start using the word 'moxie,'” says Nutter. “The moxie to stand up and say or do the right thing whenever it needs to be said or done.” More and more, Nutter's wonky exterior was masking a fierce moralist within.

Nutter began to introduce the bills he's best known for: sensible, well-crafted policies that changed the City Charter to create an ethics board, brought sunshine to no-bid contracting, and turned Philly smoke-free. These bills were not easy to pass. Nutter had to overcome institutional inertia and opposition. He lost battles before he won votes. Ethics reform took a solid year. The smoking ban took six years. It's true, of course, that along the way he pulled a few favors for Campbell. He pressured the sheriff's office in 2003 to help her get paid on a no-bid contract, the Daily News reported (Campbell never got paid, and Nutter says, “There was never a contract, never a payment. I simply made a call of inquiry”), and he also came to Campbell's defense over a SEPTA trolley in her neighborhood that she didn't want built. Still, says the Committee of Seventy's Zack Stalberg, Nutter was ahead of the curve. “In the Philadelphia political culture,” says Stalberg, “he's pretty darn clean.”

With Nutter stepping into his new role as a full-blooded Street foil, marching down Broad Street in 2002 to demand wage tax cuts, later hopping onto Judge Seamus McCaffrey's motorcycle for a photo op, the tone of his media coverage became downright reverent. “His down-to-earth openness makes him vulnerable, accessible, real,” reads a DN story from 2002. “His independence from political camps — he's neither a Street guy nor a Vince Fumo guy — makes him impossible to pigeonhole.” The day after the 2003 election, Nutter was a two-to-one shot in the Daily News to be the next mayor.

A BANQUET ROOM. ROUND tables, sucky light. Glass chandeliers knock around like wind chimes. Nutter sits on a dais at the room's front, alongside the other hopefuls — Knox, Saidel, Evans, Fattah — and tells the African-American Chamber that if he were mayor, he'd “end the culture of pay-to-play” and fight crime by creating jobs. Nutter's one applause line comes when he says that people with criminal records shouldn't be locked out of the job market. (To Nutter's great credit, he also talks about this idea in front of white, pro-business crowds, where reaction to it is frostier.) One in four city residents lives in poverty, he says. “There are almost two Philadelphias.”

Nutter can be inspiring. A few hours after the Chamber event, he gave me a little chill when I heard him tell a group of cardiologists munching on crabcake hors d'oeuvres at Brasserie Perrier, “There are countries that have created their constitutions based on what happened right here in this city. We have a real downtown. We have a Real City. This is not a manufactured place. This is an old, stable place where people have come for years and years.” But a lot of those doctors live in the suburbs, and I'm a white guy who lives in East Falls. The big-picture talk that makes white suburban businessmen woozy and wobble-kneed — “The CEOs I've put him in front of love the guy,” says Rob Powelson, president of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry — could represent Nutter's biggest obstacle to election: his lack of kitchen-table issues for wooing black people in the neighborhoods that gave John Street his two terms. “Michael Nutter?” says Mary Mason, the black talk-radio host. “He's nobody, because he crossed the party.” Mason asks me why I'm not writing about Fattah, then guesses: “Michael Nutter has got some little rich white guy sponsoring him, so he calls all his friends and gets his stories.” Can Nutter connect with black voters where they live? People's concerns can be very small and low to the ground, yet even when Nutter talks about tiny problems, he imagines big, technical fixes. For example: Nutter, walking in the rain, jumps a puddle at the base of a curb. “You know,” he says, “there's gotta be something to be done about that. Yeah. Little leak holes or something. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it's so unimportant. But on days like this … ”

On days like this, do black people dodging Tec-9s in Kensington care much about the Convention Center, which Nutter chairs? Do black people in Point Breeze get very excited about the $1 billion in tax cuts over the past 10 years that Nutter helped divert from being invested in neighborhoods like theirs?

Ultimately, though, the dichotomy that tells us the most about Nutter isn't black-vs.-white. It's old-vs.-new. The new Nutter, the one who's not just a good guy in the legislative foxhole but who floats above the battlefield with the wisdom that detachment provides, is convinced “there are more of Us — normal, regular people who just want the place to run right — than there are of Them,” which means, he says, that “it doesn't matter what the machine does” or “what the papers say” — as if the papers think him a hack instead of a hero and the machine wants him ground into dirt. Nutter talks like this partly because it's what he knows — in 1987, Nutter was saying, “My candidacy represents the future of the district; Ann Land's represents the past” — and also because he can be swaggeringly prideful about what he sees as his own independence, a legacy of the Bill Gray door-kickers. One evening, he told me he had watched Terminator 2 the night before. Will the Machines Grind Us Up and all that. He raised his arms: “I've been around for 15 years and I still haven't been ground up.”

Of course, Nutter has been a ward leader for years. Part of the machine. Successful Dems in Philadelphia don't run as anti-_machine outsiders, which is why, most of the time, Nutter tries to split the difference, showing us what an insider's outsiderish campaign might look like. Says David Crawford, a close adviser to Nutter and president of Econsult Corp., a West Philly firm whose economists crunch policy for city entities, among others, “His first question is always, What's the right way to do this? How do other people do this? How do other cities do this? What evidence do we have that something will work?”

This is a strikingly obvious set of questions, and the fact that Nutter can campaign on them says more about our expectations of government — and the deficiencies of the other candidates — than about Nutter's potential to be a good mayor. We're used to such a low standard that anyone who articulates a reasonable one is an instant hero. Nutter is like a concert pianist who plays “Chopsticks” and gets a standing O — and when you ask recital-goers how come they're cheering so loud, they can't say exactly why. Tom Nason, for instance. Nason is CEO of a 90-person construction company with offices in Delaware, Maryland and Philly. He heard Nutter speak last year at the Chesco Chamber. “It just comes screaming to me that this is a guy who's different,” says Nason, a two-time Dubya voter. “I don't know if it was anything he said. It was the way he said it. It wasn't about politics. It was about doing the right thing to make things right.” Then there's Hannah Miller, a blogger at and vice chair of Philly for Change, a Reform Democrat group. Miller — 30 years old, manic, a fresh face in local politics — met Nutter in 2005, and says, “He was able to give me and transfer to me a sense of hope about the city that I see so rarely. … He's one of the people who kind of took me under their wing. 'All right. You don't know anything. … '” She adds, “Michael is the person who will choose to do the right thing, no matter what the circumstances are.”

What Nason and Miller are articulating — Nutter does the Right Thing, not the Expedient Thing — is the moral narrative of his campaign. And the moral narrative has to carry a lot of weight. Nutter has never run a business. He's a legislator, and as John Street proves, a good legislator doesn't a good mayor make. The moral narrative fills the gap in Nutter's bio by suggesting a set of character traits and instincts that would serve him well as CEO of the city. Even the way he's running his campaign — declaring his candidacy four months before his nearest competitor, thereby subjecting himself to the city's new limits on fund-raising — boosts his executive cred. “There was never any mystery or cloud,” Nutter told a group of his donors at the Ritz-Carlton, contrasting himself with Fattah, Brady, Evans and Knox, who hadn't declared yet. “Is he going to run? Is he not going to run? It's called decision-making… all of you are business people. … That's what being a chief executive is all about.”

Quitting his job to run for mayor is the ballsiest thing Nutter's done. In the aftermath of quitting, however, he did two things that were kind of unNutterish. One: He went on the payroll of Econsult Corp., which does business with the city, and didn't initially tell reporters. While there was nothing improper about that, it looked like something Councilman Nutter would have criticized a mayoral candidate for. Two: He left his Council seat in the hands of Carol Campbell, the campaign-finance crook.

The moralist in Nutter wants to speak truth to power. The cautious pragmatist wants to attain power. When these impulses collide, Nutter twists himself into pretzels. He did try to stop Campbell, but lamely. The weekend before she was to be anointed in a special ward leaders' election — a consummate backroom affair — Nutter asked party officials to postpone the vote. By then, Campbell was a done deal. Campbell herself told the Inky, “He is the epitome of ingratitude. … Michael has benefited from the system, and now he has turned his back on it.” She didn't comment for this story.

Nutter says now that he was only trying to give his constituents a shot at influencing the closed-door process, and he frames it in moral terms: “If I was just a practical politician, I would never have done what I did. When the issue is what's right or wrong, I try to do the right thing.” But by waiting so long to jump in, he pissed off everyone and satisfied practically no one. Says Frank DiCicco, “Stay the hell out of it. You got bigger fish to fry. You're running for mayor. … She [Campbell] has a lot of influence up there. No question about it.”

During the day I spent with Nutter, as he drove around the city in his Acura, the ghost of Carol Campbell kept following him. Just after 9 a.m., he turned his radio to Mary Mason's show and there was Campbell, promising to work on housing issues and crack down on pranksters at St. Joe's University. I told Nutter that maybe he should incorporate an anti-St. Joe's plank into his mayoral platform. He bowed his head, smiled into his neck, and said, “You know, I'm not going to respond to that. I hear what you're saying.” After breakfast at Little Pete's — where a booth of white women told Nutter, “Now we just have to get rid of Carol … ” — Nutter walked to his campaign office. He sat in a cubbyhole and made fund-raising calls. One potential donor seemed to be asking about Campbell. Nutter was saying:

“She wasn't particularly pleased with my opinion on whether there should be a special [election] at this point. … I think it all shakes out in the primary next year. … Can you write a check for $500? Can you make a $500 contribution? Can you hear me now? Can you make a $500 contribution? I understand. … Everybody gives at a variety of different levels. … Thank you. … Thank you. … I'm going to keep it up.”

AT THE END OF MY DAY WITH Nutter, he went to see a movie. He'd seen it a couple times before: Tigre Hill's The Shame of a City, a nonfiction account of the 2003 mayor's race. Back then, Street and others argued that the FBI corruption probe of the current administration was just a dirty trick perpetrated by a racist GOP. Hill's movie demolishes this spin. It's angry, muckrakey. It makes a lot of local Democrats — but not Nutter — look more than scummy. “The things that were said weren't true,” says Nutter. “I knew that at the time.” One of the movie's final images shows a quote from this magazine in which Bob Brady admits that he never believed the party line about the FBI investigation being a GOP plot: “Nah, I was just spinning the shit. And it worked.”

Nutter stood at the back of the theater, laughing at all the right parts. He laughed when Sam Katz adviser Carl Singley says of a Street flack, “Get this asshole out of my face” (Nutter: “That's the best line”), and when Street gets booed at a Phillies game (“Oh, this is great”). After the movie, Nutter headed to a nearby bar with some other moviegoers. He ordered popcorn shrimp and ate it standing up. He was juiced, revved up. A mental wall had crumbled, unleashing Mixmaster Mike: loose, funny, profane, un-P.C., righteously indignant. Someone asked him if the party had leaned on him back in 2003 to spin the shit. Nutter said, “No one tried to lean on me because no one thought I would say something That. Fucking. Stupid. Remember, I'm the guy they had to drag to the 1999 endorsement of John Street after a 45-minute meeting with chairman Brady in which he offered to hold my hand.” (I swear he said “in which.”) He added, “No one tells me what to do. I'm my own man.” And walked away.

It's nice that Mike Nutter saw through those lies. But these statements are three years too late. If he felt so strongly, Nutter could have stood up in 2003 and tried to influence the future of the city — either by calling bullshit on Brady et al., or by endorsing Sam Katz instead of Street. Indeed, Katz had real hopes that Nutter might “find a way” to support him, especially since Katz had used his bully pulpit and his GOP connections earlier that year to vault Nutter into the chairman's seat at the Convention Center. (Katz says he helped Nutter “with no strings attached, with every expectation that he would see the partnership I was proposing.”) Robin Schatz was Katz's point person on Democratic outreach. She spoke to Nutter about an endorsement and got the feeling that Nutter said no because he was “looking ahead to running for mayor.” (Schatz makes it clear that, one, she likes Nutter, and two, she's not endorsing any current candidate.) She adds, “I think in his heart of hearts he probably thought Sam would be a better mayor, but … I think Michael's a very cautious person. I think Michael did what Michael needed to do.”

Two weeks after the showing of Hill's documentary, I asked Nutter why he hadn't stood up and challenged the Democratic spin in 2003. We were at his campaign office, where a digital countdown clock ticked off the days, minutes, hours and seconds until the mayoral election. I pretended I didn't know the answer, and Nutter pretended he didn't know I knew the answer. It couldn't have been a more artificial interaction. During the interview, he'd been absently wiping his fingers across the lacquered surface of a conference-room table, as if polishing it, or cleaning a dirty spot. Now he took off his glasses, squinted, stared intently at the lenses, and said, “Well, I mean, just because I thought it, doesn't mean that it is absolutely 100 percent the case. And I mean, I guess, that's a thought that developed over time as it kind of played out.”

Just one point about this — because while the temptation to take special delight in Nutter's inevitable moments of politics-as-usual is quite strong, it's often unfair to Nutter, who tries harder than most to be open and aboveboard and has written laws to force other pols to do the same. But to judge Nutter by his own high standard is fair, even though it means judging him more harshly, than, say, Bob Brady. Compare Nutter's approach to the 2003 election with Brady's. Mr. Ethics vs. Mr. Spinning the Shit. You've got two very different pols trapped in the same awkward situation — the standard-bearer of their party is under FBI investigation — and not only do they act differently at the time, they explain their acts differently after the fact. On the face of it, Brady comes off far worse. Brady's “spinning the shit” is a sin of commission; Nutter's silence is a sin of omission. But Brady's justification for his behavior is more honest than Nutter's justification. In fact, Sam Katz, looking back at the election, actually singles Brady out for his honesty. “At least the guy came out and said, Okay, you know, I did what I had to do, but it was garbage,” says Katz. “I wish he had said it sooner. But he's the chairman of the party.” Brady never claimed to have any motivation other than helping his friends. In other words, you might worry about Brady, but you don't wonder about him.

In early December, one of Nutter's committeemen in the 52nd Ward engineered a coup supplanting Nutter as ward leader. Payback for mucking with Campbell's election? Nutter insisted that his rival had broken the law, and that he, Nutter, was still the ward leader. “It's just, ah, you know,” he said, and sighed deeply. “It's the games that people play. But no. Nothing has changed.”

As of press time, Nutter was challenging the actions, but if he can't manage to keep his seat, he'll finally be meaningfully estranged from the party. His chances of being mayor will go down, but only in the world where Nutter really lives, not in the world of our most caffeinated hopes — as evoked by someone like Hannah Miller, who on a recent Saturday morning was drinking a latte at a new French café that just opened near her apartment in the Italian Market. “Michael Nutter is full of joy,” she said. “Smart. Good. Fearless. And he doesn't give a shit anymore. And he's just going to run. That's what he's going to do. And that is how people win. He's just going to run, and win, and that's it.” Miller took a sip of her latte. “And it's beautiful.” She took another sip. “It's just so fucking beautiful.”

Best Restaurant Dishes

Brian Freedman of highlight’s his favorite restaurant dishes from 2006.

Ansill – Bone Marrow Crostini
Snackbar – Pork Belly
Fork – Brussels Sprouts Salad
Le Bar Lyonnais – Beef Tartar
Gayle – Risotto Fritters
Alison at Blue Bell – Sea Scallops

Best Dishes of 2006 []

PhilaFoodie Gets The Scoop

PhilaFoodie gets a big scoop, getting an exclusive interview with Jonathon Newman, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Newman discusses the controversy over the creation of a PLCB CEO position, a recent trip to California wineries and direct shipment from out-of-state wineries to Pennsylvania consumers.

An Exclusive Interview with Jonathan Newman, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board [PhilaFoodie]


Elisa Ludwig gives the lowdown on stripmall eating in her blog Edible Complex. This time taking in Aman’s Indian cooking in East Norriton.

When the meal arrived, each dish was more delicious than the last. Jesse’s a sucker for saag and the lamb rendition here had all the hallmarks of a great one: feathery spinach and bite-sized chunks of meat cooked into soft, velvety submission with sweet perfumy bursts of cardamom. I could have licked the copper bowl for the last traces of the Goan chicken’s creamy coconut gravy.

The Rogan Josh Not Taken [Edible Complex]


The corner of Frankford and Girard Avenues appears to be the epicenter of entertainment this evening. The fine folk who frequent PhillyBlog are getting together at Johnny Brenda’s and then upstairs Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah are performing.

Special Ingredient, Special Price At Le Bar Lyonnais

For the first week of every new month Le Bar Lyonnais at Le Bec-Fin offers a very special $45 four-course dinner menu. This monthly menu features a seasonal ingredient carried throughout the entire dinner. Wine pairings by French Master Sommelier Christophe Tassan are available for an additional $25 per person.

Roberto Café

Drew Lazor checks out Roberto Café in G-Ho to find out what all the crowds are about. He’s left wondering.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what fills all these seats. The aesthetics are inviting; the staff is accommodating. But Roberto’s needs to get over the 12-month hump before the food matches the mood.

Café OK [City Paper]

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