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March 31, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Cover story: All about Jamis Cover story: All about Jamis (March 31, 2004)

Outrageous anecdotes, childhood memories and laugh-out-loud tales fill new book by Buck's restaurant owner

By Andrea Gemmet
Almanac Staff Writer

"I'm not really in the restaurant business," declares Jamis MacNiven. "I'm in the irony business. I generate irony."

Although the cluttered walls may lead you to believe otherwise, he says what he really collects isn't the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture but "life's ironic magic."

Folded into a chair in his tiny office at Buck's restaurant in Woodside, Mr. MacNiven says he wants his next career to be writing books and that his dearest ambition is to become the official court biographer for the Sultan of Brunei, to whom he dedicates his new book, "Breakfast at Buck's: Tales from the Pancake Guy," which goes on sale April 20.

While his office lacks the mind-boggling array of stuff that covers the walls, ceiling and much of the floor and counter space in the restaurant, it contains a representative sample -- a Dr. Evil figurine, a neon sign, a copy of Playboy magazine in Braille, and something that looks disturbingly like an obstetrical implement for an elephant.

While he has an impish glint in his eyes when he talks about the sultan, he's earnestly anxious about how his book will be received. It's this combination of the ridiculous and the seemingly sincere that makes Mr. MacNiven something of an attractive nuisance for journalists. Part P.T. Barnum, part thoughtful observer, he's always ready with colorful quotes, sublimely silly anecdotes and gossipy gems about the endless parade of movers and shakers that cross his door. Right behind them is an endless parade of TV news crews, photographers and print journalists, come to worship at the oracle of the MacNiven sound bite. Nothing spices up a story about the fabulous rise and spectacular fall of the new economy than a tidbit from Buck's.

This month's Fast Company magazine has a short article on Buck's, and there's a write up on "Breakfast at Buck's," headed "A new one from the Must Read Dept." in Andy Serwer's column on Fortune.com. You'll find Mr. MacNiven quoted in Business Week and USA Today. Forbes named Buck's one of the best business restaurants in 2002. From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to the Taipei Times to the Christian Science Monitor, reporters have tapped Mr. MacNiven for cheeky quotes and used Buck's distinctive accumulation of kitschy memorabilia as an evocative backdrop for stories and photos. Serious reports cite his opinions on the Silicon Valley economy alongside those of Alan Greenspan and Warren Buffett.

"I'm not expert on anything, and I'm being quizzed all the time about the economy. I think it's pretty funny to see myself seriously quoted," he says. "Alan Greenspan and I have shown up together in a number of articles as prognosticators. I guess that means that he doesn't know what he's doing, either."

Besides the gregarious owner, two things have made Buck's part of the cultural zeitgeist -- the now-defunct fundraising soapbox derby called the Sand Hill Challenge, and the restaurant's reputation as the place where Silicon Valley's venture capitalists hang out and make funding deals over a stack of pumpkin pancakes.

Mr. MacNiven has a fat scrapbook, but says he's lost interest in keeping up with all the press clippings. He flips through the book, showing articles in Hindustani, Japanese, Dutch and German.

He's no stranger to the printed word, as anyone who has perused a Buck's menu can tell you, and he writes a regular column for AlwaysOn-Network.com. But he's clearly unnerved by the prospect of putting his musings in book form.

"I'm not worried about criticism -- I'm not telling tales out of school," says Mr. MacNiven, noting he kept his book free of mean-spirited "dirt."

"I'm worried people will go, 'That wasn't a very good book.'"

Even those familiar with the Jamis MacNiven experience may find their jaws dropping at some of the stories he recounts in the book, which include trying to sell M-16s to the Black Panthers, taking part in a naked orgy scene for an "art film," and accidentally blowing up half a city block in the Bronx circa 1970 while part of a demolition crew. Shortly afterward, he says, he changed his last name to MacNiven, a story that's so plausible that several of his friends say they doubt that it is true.

Sifting out the fact from the fiction can be a challenge -- often, the more ridiculous the tale, the more likely it is to be real. Did zebras eat his garden, did he escort Joan Baez to a wedding in a gold lame suit, did he convince Zsa Zsa Gabor to have lunch with him? The answers are yes, apparently, and who knows? I've met Doug Winslow, his neighbor with the zebras, who confessed that members of his menagerie often stray over to the MacNivens' and graze on the landscaping. As for squiring the first lady of folk while dressed like Liberace, good friend Carla Rayacich of Stanford Mortgage says it's true. And as for Zsa Zsa, well, the photo looks fake, but the tale is so funny that you want to believe it.

"He'd be the first to admit that no good story goes unembellished," says his friend Kelly Luttrell, a Woodside resident and singer-songwriter. "He's made up some doozies, but everyone expects that. Some of the most bizarre ones are probably the ones that have most truth."

Mr. MacNiven says the long-lived story about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman moving to Woodside snowballed out of a joking aside to a Buck's staffer, and progressed without any help from him.

On the other hand, he's planted fake stories intentionally. My editor and I ran into him on the afternoon of the August 2002 wildfire that was blazing in central Woodside when we were trying to see how close we could get to the action. Mr. MacNiven excused himself to give a live phone interview to a Channel 3 reporter. He said he was standing in the parking lot outside Buck's (he wasn't), where charred fragments of $20 bills were drifting by (they weren't), and that the fire was probably started by a big pile of money stashed in the house of a skittish investor. (The truth, as it turned out: A eucalyptus branch fell on a power line.)

"I can't believe she took me seriously," he said at the time.

Since no one was seriously hurt in the fire and the damage was far less than it could've been, chalk it up as a tasteless but amusing prank. Who knows what that reporter thought?

He says he gets along well with the press, since he loves to talk about himself and reporters love to listen. "The tiger wants to eat, and the lamb wants to be eaten," as he puts it, and it's anybody's guess as to who's the tiger and who's the lamb in that scenario.

"I'm only the second-biggest press-whore in America," Mr. MacNiven says, ceding first place to Donald Trump.

While the former hippie/milking machine salesman/contractor could have easily gone on holding court at his restaurant forever, the death of a close friend and a visit to Jack London's grave gave Mr. MacNiven the kick start he needed to start work on his book. His goal is to write 500 words a day, half the verbiage quota that Jack London set for himself, he says.

He says he chose to self-publish his book rather than give up the ability to pepper it with 208 color photos that serve as corroborating evidence as much as they do art. He says he spent two years writing it, a year figuring out how to publish it, and is busy promoting it with little more than his flair for generating publicity. He's scheduled for a book signing at Kepler's in Menlo Park on April 20, and he's already working on his next book, a work of outright fiction called "13 Girlfriends."

Mr. MacNiven says he's anxious to find out whether anyone will want to read about his life, or whether he will end up the owner of a 3,000-volume library, with nearly every book in it written by him.

He's also a little worried that too many people might like it.

"Breakfast at Buck's" encompasses more than just the flip, fantastical and downright dubious. While keeping the tone light, Mr. MacNiven gives readers glimpses of a rocky childhood and a family that imploded when his mother pushed the TV set off a cliff, thus forcing everyone to actually spend time with each other.

His family moved so often, he says, he'd attended 23 schools by the time he started high school, missing every graduation ceremony except for sixth-grade. It's telling that the family members who get the fondest treatment are his grandparents, a carnival con man and a former strip-tease artist.

"All of it's not funny. Some of it is kind of sad," says friend Kelly Luttrell. "You think, 'Did this really happen to this kid, is that why he is the way he is?' I know he had a tough upbringing, his family moved a lot, and maybe that makes you become resilient."

There's a sincere, thoughtful side to Mr. MacNiven, she says, that most people are too distracted by the loud shirts and funny banter to notice.

When he volunteered to help her take down her Christmas tree, not only did he haul it out of the house, but he found her vacuum cleaner and started vacuuming up the needles.

"It does strike me as a totally Jamis thing to do," Ms. Luttrell says. "I'm not sure even my sisters would do that."

Carla Rayacich says it's not the funny banter but deep philosophical conversations that she associates with Mr. MacNiven.

"He's clearly a doting father, a successful self-made businessman, and he certainly has a joie de vivre ," says Dale Djerassi.

Mr. MacNiven's version of the how-Koko-the-gorilla-came-to-Woodside story is featured in "Breakfast at Buck's," and while Mr. Djerassi recounts a slightly different version of the tale, he says that yet another take on the story is included in his father Carl Djerassi's autobiography.

Dale says he hasn't read Mr. MacNiven's book yet, but he did read on Buck's menus his two-part story about a trip to New York that featured Dale, his father and his son.

"I'd say Jamis has taken some license in his accounting of events, but whatever license he's taken is obvious enough that there's no guile," Mr. Djerassi says.

So maybe everything Mr. MacNiven says can't be taken to the bank, but maybe that's not the point. Maybe telling an entertaining version of events reveals a different kind of truth. And as the man who says he once had a lucrative career building Savings & Loan branches points out in his book, appearances can be deceiving. As fleeced S & L investors found out, just because it looks like a bank, doesn't mean it is one.

Information

Jamis MacNiven will read from his new book, "Breakfast at Buck's: Tales from the Pancake Guy," and sign copies at Kepler's at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 20. Kepler's is located at 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. The book costs $18 and is also available at Buck's restaurant, 3062 Woodside Road, Woodside.


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