Oliver Holmes Gilliland, September 29, 1948 Topeka, KS - March 1, 2003 Oakland, CA
»SF Chronicle Obituary

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Last updated October 25, 2004 7:30 PM

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Oliver requested donations in his name be made to:


A Friend Among Book Lovers
Heidi Benson

Sunday, March 9, 2003
© 2003 San Francisco Chronicle

How to characterize the Bay Area book community?

" We're kind of a wild, dysfunctional family," said literary agent Victoria Shoemaker. "You don't go into book publishing to become rich. So when people connect, they connect on a deep level."

Rich in friends -- that best describes book rep Oliver Gilliland, 54. He was diagnosed with liver cancer two months ago and died March 1 at home in Oakland. He is survived by his mother, Katherine Holmes Pyle, of Topeka, Kan.

" A special network of care was created for him during the last two months," said friend Elizabeth Whipple. "It was a remarkable exchange among people who had only Oliver and books in common."

As national sales manager for W.W. Norton, Gilliland was a liaison between the publishing house and booksellers. He is in the running for Publishers Weekly Sales Rep of the Year award, to be announced this month.

" Oliver exemplified the ideal book rep," said Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Books, a friend for more than 20 years. "He understood and cared deeply about his (book) list -- as well as about stores, buyers and their staffs."

Hut Landon of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association said, "Oliver was one of the most trusted and most beloved, because of his judgment. When he says, 'This is a book that will sell in your store,' it was because he knew the store, he knew the book, he knew it was a good fit. It's a real loss for the book community not just because he was a great book rep, but because he was good people, and good people are to be treasured."

Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage in Corte Madera said, "In a world where publishing has become so corporate, Oliver was the perfect person to represent Norton, a company owned by its employees. If I looked at my calendar and saw Oliver was going to come in, I knew it was going to be a wonderful day."


The Desert Party
David Porterfield
Topeka, KS

On one of my regular jaunts to see Oliver, he decided that I should know some of his friends. Although I knew quite a few, there were some folks that I hadn't met that he wanted me to know. He decided to throw a party but keep it simple and not do dinner, just champagne and desserts. He ordered a broad array of wonderful hand-made sweets that I am sure any of the rest of us could have hocked to pay the mortgage, top-or-the-line champagne and engraved invitations. It was to be a simple, but superb, affair.

When the invitations were sent, a friend called to ask, "Just what exactly is a desert party??". With Oliver being in the book game and my being an English major, he was loathe to admit his spelling error.

He immediately phoned and told me that we were going to make lemonade by the barrelful and have a "Desert Party" and I had to figure out how to decorate it. So the first day of my visit entailed traipsing all over the Bay Area gathering elements to transform his dining room into a Bedouin tent. We went to a fabric store and got bolds of unbleached cheesecloth, sand and palm trees. We spent the next day draping the whole room from the apex of the chandelier to the corners of the room. We hung all his Persian rugs on the walls, taking down much of his beloved Asian artwork. Then we lined the room with palm trees and covered the floor with palm fronds. With a little sand on the table (perfectly protected, I might add) and romantic flickering torchlight, we were ready to serve desserts from the desert.








1986 W.W.Norton

Pat Holt -
Holt Uncensored #361 Friday, March 6, 2003

One of the events I always looked forward to as a book review editor was the seasonal visit of local publishers' sales representatives, who came to "sell" us their list of titles each season as if we were buyers in a bookstore.

These most enlightening visits occurred some years ago (1982-1998), but with the sudden diagnosis of cancer and the abrupt death last week of W.W. Norton's beloved sales rep, Oliver Gilliland, I remember the meetings as vividly and as emotionally as if they had occurred yesterday.

Soft-spoken and impeccably dressed, Oliver matched his salt-and-pepper hair and mustache with gorgeous oversized grey suits and silk ties. He was witty, friendly and a bit dashing - our own Boston Blackie, I often thought - arriving with already-marked catalogs and heavy sample bags carried with ease and aplomb.

And for a man who dressed with such flair, Oliver surprised us at every visit with a sweetness and near devotion to Norton books that made the chaotic book business seem orderly and right-thinking. Oliver was also the most formal of the sales reps when it came to presenting his publisher's list. Many of the titles were crossover scholarly books, often too academic even for the Chronicle's voracious readers, and Oliver was careful to watch our reactions and know when to move on.

Sometimes a few hours would pass as he took us through Norton's lengthy and complicated list with his usual polite authority, pulling galleys out of his bags in a dignified way until finally, near the end of his presentation, we realized that The Moment had come. And this is what I will always remember about Oliver: After speaking about each title with formality and restraint, he would suddenly grab a set of galleys and clutch them to his heart, nearly swooning off his chair. Now all the boundaries disappeared.

" Oh, please, please, PLEASE review this book," he would say, looking at the ceiling as if this were God's decision. "I love this book and you will too! PLEASE don't miss it. Take it home tonight! You'll see! It's so IMPORTANT. You *have* to review it...."

We couldn't help laughing whenever Oliver fell into one of these trances because the change in his manner was so astounding and frankly hilarious. Often we had to lean over to where he was sitting and wrench the galley from his clutches, he loved that book so much, assuring and soothing Oliver that yes, we would take a look at it right that very night, even though it was six months from publication.

" Oh thank you, THANK YOU. I promise you'll be glad! I'll call you tomorrow!" and off he would go with his empty sample cases, practically sobbing and still talking about how he envied us the joy of starting the book fresh, and when he thought of a million readers turning to Page One he just .... he just .... and he was gone.

Well, you know how it is. Even when you don't see a respected and admired colleague for years at a time, it's always good to know that person is still out there, carrying on the work, whatever it is. Oliver had worked for Norton, a publisher he loved for its independence and respect for employees (who are, after all, part owners), for 21 years by the time he died at age 54.

One does make adjustments for death, but I don't think I'll ever stop wondering, whenever a Norton title is displayed with pride in a bookstore or reviewed positively in the newspaper, if this book might be The One by Oliver Gilliland's high estimation - The One that breaks all barriers as far as he might be concerned, the one that even the most jaded readers may find themselves hugging to their hearts.

From Linda Chleboun
San Francisco, CA

Oliver--which of the multitude of wonderful stories can be said of you. You were always there for me through the worst times, I will forever regret I could not do the same for you. I hope you know I was with you in spirit. May I always remember to be there for anyone who needs anything as you always are.

The one thing I will never forget about you Oliver, is the fact that whenever you called on Books Inc., you always dressed in a beautiful suit. I assumed you dressed like this for all your accounts, being the classy person you are, until the day I ran into you at another store where you were in casual dress. When I asked you about your clothing, you told me you always dressed up when you called on Books Inc. out of respect for Lew. Even though everyone had their own feelings regarding Lew, good and bad, you knew he deserved your respect.

May I live up to the standards you have shown me.
I will always love you.

The day I heard of the loss of Oliver, I obviously did not feel much like eating, let alone cooking. My partner and I ordered some Chinese food. Even though there was only two of us we received 3 fortune cookies. I told my partner one of them was for Oliver. The fortune in Oliver's cookie read, "Find release from your cares, have a good time." Oliver, you have been released, have a great time.


From Lisa McGowan
San Francisco, CA

I don't know that I have a definitive "Oliver Memory"; what I have are the memories of close to 20 years of little kindnesses (and big ones, too, whenever the opportunity arose).

So sincere. So honest. So intelligent and passionate and compassionate! --That was Oliver as he did his job, as he lived his life, and as he faced death, with such clear-eyed courage and grace.

Okay, here's an Oliver Story: When I learned of Oliver's illness I got angry. And terribly sad. And thought of how Oliver had touched my live in truly meaningful ways. --My life, and the lives of countless others. I wrote him a note, in an effort to express this and to let him know that he had truly mattered in my life. And how he mattered.

And Oliver wrote me a thank-you note back; not a simple, pat "thank you for thinking of me," but an engaged, thoughtful, generous response to my ramblings.

As he was dying.



I'll even dance for your book order.


From Andy Weiner
Abrams Books

Is it true that Oliver once danced on a table to get an order? I'm sure this was confirmed to me by both Oliver and by the instigator of this dastardly episode, Beverly Langer. If I remember correctly Beverly did not want to buy a particular title from Oliver, which was in her nature as a buyer (sorry Beverly), and Oliver felt strongly that she should buy it. How did it pop into her head to ask him to dance on the table? Maybe she'd been saving the idea for one of the handsome reps, but she told him she would buy the book if he would get up on the table and dance. And so he did. And the book probably sold, too.

When Lisa and I were moving to New York in 1993 for my Penguin regional manager job, Lisa was concerned about finding a job of her own. As soon as Oliver heard that she was available he told her about a marketing job at The New Press. In fact, he bought her a plane ticket so she could go to New York for an interview. And with his endorsement and backing she did get the job. In this case, Oliver literally put his money where his mouth was to help a friend.

Everyone here knows who Oliver was and how much he will be missed. Those of us who knew him loved him. From what we heard in the last month of his life, Oliver was blessed to hear, see and read firsthand what he meant to those around him. Writing as a member of the community of booksellers of which he was a part, I am proud to be a member of that community. We need to remind ourselves everyday that we are a community, that we share many things. We shared them with Oliver, too. My hope is that every day when we think of Oliver, and we will think of Oliver every day, we realize how fortunate we are to be part of a special community and that we never pass up the opportunity to let each other know how we feel about them, that we do everything we can to express the love and compassion and sense of community that we feel. We deserve it, and Oliver deserves it, too.



From Karen Maeda Allman
The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

Oliver always wanted to know what we were reading, and he was quick to promote books he truly loved, whether or not they were Norton titles. After every one of his book talks for the Elliott Bay staff, we left ready to dive into something he'd loved. "This one's for you," he'd say, and of course you had to read it. I loved recommending books to him and hearing what he thought when he came back our way. 

Oliver, now I'll never know what you thought about those Egyptian books. I'll miss you. You're in my prayers.



From Barbara Theroux
Fact & Fiction Books, Missoula, MT

The best part of the book business is the people--the authors, readers, booksellers, publishers and sales reps--and the friendships that develop over time. Oliver Gilliland was the best of friends. When sales trips became sales calls and finally once a year "catch-up visits" at a BEA booth, we continued to stay in touch, hug and laugh. During his illness I wrote several notes to cheer his day. On Feburary 24th I received this note: "Dear Barbara, Thank you for the wonderful, newsy note. I love hearing from you!...This experience has been a school of miraacles. Never before, have I experienced so much love and connection. Keep in touch. Love, Oliver"

The miles disappeared as I knew my friend had received and returned my love. Thank you , Oliver for your friendship, the books, the food and those great hugs. I know you are preparing to greet me again at some other time and place.


Oakland, 1982


From Michael Cooke
Guild of Saint Martin, Grace Cathedral
San Francisco, CA

I knew Oliver as an exceptionally loving and lovable man. Devoted to Grace Cathedral, he was, as leader of the Greeters Guild, one of its great assets. I shall always be particularly grateful to him for his support and comforting words of wisdom during a recent personal crisis in my own life. He helped to guide me back into calm seas. It is said that God often calls home the best first - a sad loss for us that He took you so young. Rest in peace, dear friend.

From Wendy Burton
New York, NY

The last time I saw Oliver was at the very crowded Norton booth at the New York B.E.A. Spotting Oliver at any point in time would literally make my heart leap - whether I was doing an inventory at Tower Broadway and looked up to see him smiling down at me, or walking in to Cody's for an appointment while he was walking out - my heart would always jump a little, and I would feel happy. Which is the way I felt at B.E.A. when I spied him across the booth and made my way over to him. That hug, that smile, the impeccable suit, that beautiful face - how he could make me glow! Like hundreds of other people who were graced by his astonishing kindness and humor and joy, I love Oliver, I will miss Oliver, and feel blessed for having known him.

From Donna Kane
Powell's Books, Portland OR

what i remember most is his gift of comfort. when you sat with him in an appointment you felt loved, respected and comfortable. he started out by coming in the door and giving you a warm hug.

the last time I saw him he showed me pictures of his condo, both inside and out. i commented that the design of the front of his building looked liked two arms waiting to welcome you home. i will never forget his smile when I told him that.


Yet another BEA

From Joan Vigliotta
San Francisco CA

In many ways, I am Oliver’s cosmic counter-balance.
 I don’t own any clothes that need to be dry-cleaned.
 I let the dust on my bureau get thick enough to write in sometimes before I whisk it away.
 I rarely iron anything & then am grumpy when I do the task.
 I hardly ever think about the quantity of crumbs in my toaster oven.
 I cannot distinguish between brocade & damask.
 I stack my plates without a shred of anything cushioning in between them.
 I get a candle to go in its holder by wiggling it & whamming it until it either fits or breaks.
 I will never be dubbed sartorially splendid.

In many ways, I am Oliver’s kindred spirit.
 I place a high value on a great sense of humor.
 I delight in my nest & have given much thought to how I want my home to be.
 I think that children deserve to be nurtured & loved, & told that they are loved.
 I admire objects of beauty.
 I savor moments that delight the senses, be it tasting delicious food, looking at the marvelous play of light on a lake, smelling fragrant lilies, hearing wonderful music, or touching a luxuriously soft fabric.
 I love to read & when there’s a book I have enjoyed, I want to encourage other people to read it too.
 I cherish my friends.
 I firmly believe that love is the most important thing in the world & gives profound meaning to our lives.


At home, The Regillus, 2002

From Elaine Petrocelli
Book Passage
Corte Madera CA

One of the remarkable things about Oliver was the absolute trust you could put into what he told you. W.W. Norton was reflected beautifully in Oliver, with its spirit of independence and dedication to books and authors. If Oliver knew I liked a book, he'd move heaven and earth to make sure I could meet the editor or talk with the author. It never stopped with just a sales call. In fact, seeing Oliver never felt like a sales call; it felt like a two-person book club.


At home, The Regillus


At home, The Regillus

From James E. Stofan and Ronald R. Roth
The Regillus, Oakland, CA

With Oliver everything came in threes. So let me say three things about this wonderful man. Ron & I had Oliver down to our place a number of times reviewing our latest rearranging of furniture, lamps, vases, etc. asking for his approval. His sense of style and his understanding of how to best use the architectural gifts available to us at the Regillus were unique and valuable. We always counted on him to give us an honest but kind response to our quarries and we always knew we would have a collection of three items placed throughout our place by the time he departed.

Oliver also had a sense of of fairness. He played the smoother at the board meetings, hoping to calm the waters when he could. He provided a good well thought out words to help bring consensus to a contentious issue facing the home owners.

Lastly, because of his love of books and his thirst for reading, he assured all of his extended family at the Regillus were given the same opportunity. Through the establishment of the reading library in the lobby of our building and the books he bestowed to us, he provided a lasting memory of who he was; an intelligent, kind and gentle man.


SPD Open House

SPD Open House


From Ann Smith
Powell's Books, Portland, OR

On Sunday in the hospital, shortly before Oliver went home after his surgery, he and I were on a build-strength walk through the corridors. Oliver was walking slowly and carefully, his attention turned inward. Oliver looked up to see two black women of a certain age walking toward us. They were dressed in stylish, colorful, well-cut suits and matching accessories - my guess is they had come to the hospital straight from church. Oliver stopped and took them in. He gave them a big Oliver smile, wished them good morning and said "You both look beautiful!" The two women were at a loss for a brief few seconds as they took notice of Oliver in his guise as an invalid. And then they were engulfed by a wave of love and frank admiration. Who could resist? They beamed back and wished him a heartfelt good morning in return. We all continued on our way - spirits lifted.

The First Edition Sleuth
From Beverly D. Greene
Executive Director, Small Press Distribution
Berkeley, CA

Oliver Gilliland was a wonderful supporter and resource for Small Press Distribution in his role as a member of the Board of Directors for the nation's only nonprofit literary book distributor. During SPD's board meetings, Oliver's comments always helped to keep the organization focused on ways to increase the distribution and access of independently published literature. His suggestions while serving on the Marketing Committee were invaluable. His strategic and tactical comments have been pivotal to SPD's success.

It was in his role as an official greeter for SPD's semiannual Open House Celebrations that Oliver brought the world of literature into the light for the casual browser as well as the seasoned literary bibliophile. Oliver always volunteered for the early shift of the Open Houses which highlight independently published literature during National Poetry Month in April and the Holiday season in December. Even though he was usually only scheduled for two hours, invariably he stayed until the end, chatting with all sorts of people.

It was after the Open Houses were officially closed at the end of the day that another facet of the real Oliver emerged. Oliver was a first edition collector and connoisseur. Even with SPD's warehouse of over 100,000 books, Oliver always managed to find incredible first editions. And even if he already owned the first edition of a particular book, by the time he finished extolling the finer points and virtues of acquiring first editions, he convinced me that even I had to have more books. (And I have plenty.)
I will think of Oliver Gilliland every time I turn the title page of a book in search of first editions.


Topeka, 1991 Reunion



From Sara Guettel
Dallas, TX

I was helped into this world in 1948 with the assistance of Dr. Lucien Pyle, Oliver's step dad to be. Dr. Pyle delivered so many of us in Topeka, Kansas. Oliver's mother, Katie Pyle, was Dr. Pyle's nurse, and she and my mother were very good friends for many years until my mother's early death in 1964. Oliver and I attended Southwest Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas, and we were in several classes together.
My strongest childhood memory of Oliver was created when he became my very first and real "date" to one of the special dances in 7th grade. We attended junior high schools in Kansas for 7th-9th grades. Such an awkward time it was! Most of the girls were taller and more developed than the boys. We faced the scorn and taunts of the 8th and 9th graders, some of whom were already dating high school students. It was a very nerve-wracking time for me, as it was for so many. And we were in the height of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was built. We watched TV as the "Missiles of October" were nearly launched. Later we realized how really scared our parents were. Right down the highway a few miles was a Strategic Air Command, or SAC base -- Forbes Air Force Base -- packed with the very B-52 bombers and nuclear weapons that Kennedy would consider sending to destroy Moscow. Missile silos were scattered around Kansas. I remember the fallout shelter information in the coffee table drawer. We learned to "duck and cover."

But in the midst of this madness we 7th graders were worrying about popularity, pimples, terrible cafeteria food, and gym class. I never expected to be asked on a date, but Oliver bravely called me. I'm sure Katie and my mother conspired. I told Oliver at our last high school reunion in 2001 that I thought he was terribly brave to put up with it and ask me. The best part of the date was Oliver's insistence that the parents not be involved and he came to pick me up in a cab. Very New York City. It was so cool and so very Oliver. I remember guys and gals lined up on different sides of the gym, awkward and gossiping in groups. But I had a date! Alright! I remember a corsage, the mandatory mirrored ball, and "Theme From A Summer Place" and "Wonderland by Night." Oliver was just so sophisticated about the whole thing. So very much in command. We had some great laughs reminiscing about the date at the reunion.

I shared classes with Oliver in junior high and high school and then we drifted apart in college and for several years afterward. Then at the 20th high school reunion for Topeka West High School, I saw Oliver again. Many of us continued to get together over holiday visits and reunions after that. We had great long chats in Katie's living room and found time for dinners together or the favorite visits to Bobo's Drive In, a Topeka landmark for many decades. My husband and I joined Oliver and several others at Bobo's at the last high school reunion. I vividly remember Oliver joining us in throwing caution to the wind and ordering the famous Spanish Burger and fries and the apple pie a la mode. That was a fabulous day.

Several of us Topekans, including Oliver, tried to get our schedules together in 2002 so that we could visit friends and family at the same time, but it didn't work out. I got to talk to Oliver a few times during the year, and we e-mailed quite a bit. I last talked to Oliver a few days before he was to have his surgery. He sounded wonderful. My husband and I shared some good laughs with him. We wished him well. And wouldn't you know it, Oliver spent the last of the phone call consulting with ME about locating someone to make visits and possibly assist my aunt in a nursing home in Topeka. What a selfless, open, smart, creative, witty, energetic, uplifting human has left my life. I still cannot fathom that I will not be growing old with Oliver.


Xmas, 1992

From Mary Nichols
Topeka, Kansas

I can't remember ever NOT knowing Oliver (or Gil, as we knew him as children) from the Angel choir--a definite misnomer for the pre-schoolers that we were, as I recall-- at First Presbyterian Church in Topeka, and on through high school at Topeka West. I, like David and Sara, was delivered by his stepfather, Dr. Pyle. I wonder how many obstetricians there were in Topeka back then?

I guess my memory that seems important to share at this time is of his mother, Katie Pyle. So many of those who have written here knew Oliver the adult--the bookseller, the impeccable dresser, the decorator, the Episcopalian (how did that happen, anyway?)--in short, the adult. What you may not know is how adored he was by his mother, and how her eyes would light up whenever he was able to come home. I swear, she was more excited than I was about our last class reunion! She counted down the weeks for me. She has been a member of our choir for all of my memory, and although she has begun to have "failures" in memory, she came home from Oliver's memorial service with such peace and absolute clarity, and such gratefulness for the care and love that was shown for her beloved son. For that, I share her gratefulness. All of you who did kind things for him, know that they were also appreciated by her, and by those of us who saw Oliver infrequently, but loved him as well.

Everyone is right about his huge smile, his welcoming hugs, and his love for life and those he cared about in this life. We will see him again.



From Joan Culver and Brett Culver
Grace Cathedral

He was a gentle man with a heart of gold who gave so much to all,
He always tried to do his best and smiled at everyone,
He always saw the good in most and thought the best of thoughts,
He was a ray of sunshine in this world of discontent,
He had a treasured soul and laugh that we shall miss for sure.
We will miss this sweet kind man who did so much
but I will always know he was my friend.


From Peggy Schmidt
Pacific Grove, CA

I met Oliver when we were high school students in Topeka, Kansas. We became reacquainted in the mid-1970s when we were both living in San Francisco, and we stayed in touch through the years.

In the early 1990’s, Oliver’s sales territory extended to the Monterey Peninsula where I live, and my family and I saw him several times a year. He liked to buy fancy dresses for my young daughters for holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

The shopping trips had a specific agenda. We’d all pile in the car and drive to Macy’s, where the girls had free reign to try on any dress that caught their fancy. They would run into the dressing room and put on one dress and then run out to show Oliver. He would rave about that dress and encourage them to try on the next one, and so on.

Of course, after the selection was narrowed to a few, the process had to be done all over again with the final contenders. And, when the dress selections had finally been made, he insisted that they select matching accessories, such as hair ribbons and socks.

I’m not certain whether Oliver or the girls had more fun, but these were not-to-be-forgotten excursions for my daughters.


Italy 1999

From Janet Boreta
Orinda Books
Orinda, CA

I remember seeing Oliver from the beginning of my store, 26 years ago. He had a way of focusing on you, the buyer, and the books, so that title was concentrated upon for as long as it took to make a decision. I trusted and loved Oliver and knew he knew my store and cared about it. I did say that when I saw Oliver’s name in my calendar I knew it was going to be a wonderful day – and it was.


From Eve Ilsen
Boulder, CO

My friend and housemate, Ann Dreyfuss, introduced me to Oliver in San Francisco in the 70's. Oliver was managing a children's bookstore at the time, and, horrified to learn of all the classics I had missed in my childhood, rushed to make up the deficit. I owe some of my best reading in those years to him.

Our friendship included books--how could it not?---but also much else. We danced, cooked, sang, went to concerts, walked. I'll never forget, following one of those Messiah Sing-alongs, Oliver intoning "For He shall lead His flock..." in an Oklahoma accent.

Oliver is the one who taught me about giving away items that I loved, not just ones I was through with, by what he gave to me.

As I left the Bay area, our relationship became one of notes and letters, cards and occasional phone calls, and the rare and wonderful visits. His utter presence, honesty, charm, warmth, heart, humor and flair always filled those exchanges. The last time we saw each other he sent me home with his furniture polish, which he asured me would do wonders for my honey pine bookcases in the dryness of Boulder, Colorado.

This was one of those rare friendships that survived and grew with time and change. I assumed, of course, that we would see each other grow old. We last spoke, after a long pause, just before he received his diagnosis. I knew he was worried, and it sounded like he needed to be private, so I held off calling back to find out the results. By the time I called again, it was too late.

I am so glad to know that he was surrounded by such love and caring during these last months.

I will miss him.


From John Farrington
Grace Cathedral

The last time that I spoke to Oliver was on the last occassion that he visited Grace Cathedral. As the Sunday school chap, I asked all my children to make gift cards for Oliver which the children gave to him that same day when he arrived for coffee hour! He was overwhelmed, and so was I.

On the way home with my son Gabriel, my son told me that I had to buy 2 hamsters, I asked him why, he wouldn't tell me, he just had to have 2 hamsters that very day. So I bought him 2 little boy hamsters. He named one Gabriel, the other Oliver, and told me that if he looks after Gabriel and Oliver (the hamsters) then maybe Jesus will make Oliver better.

Oliver became Gabriel's 'uncle' in the short two and a half years that we knew him. We joined the Cathedral at the same time and went to Inquirers Class together. Oliver and I would discuss the many ways that we can make the world and better place for children. We adored him and he adored my son.

Thanks Oliver, thanks for all the stories that you told the children in Sunday school. You are quite simply the sweetest person that I have ever had the honour to meet.

I'll see you again one day, you can be sure of that!

From Valerie Richard
Grace Cathedral

I met Oliver Gilliland at Grace Cathedral. I was there to hear a speaker at Forum and I was really lost. Luckily, I was found by Oliver who dashingly guided me to the right place with the warmest smile. He never failed to greet me with exuberant joy and a warm hug. I only knew him for a few seasons but in that short time he really found a place in my heart.

When I found out he was not well and was having surgery, I sent flowers to the hospital. Ever thoughtful, Oliver called me the next day to thank me, warning me that he was on morphine and that he might say something unusual. It was our last conversation. I did not know he was dying.

I am still so stunned about his passing. Oliver embodied all of the things that are right about this world. I miss his kind heart and shining soul.


From Emily Fitzgerald
Austin, TX

My love for Oliver is inbedded so deeply in me that it has taken this experience to realize just how much I love Oliver. I have known Oliver since I was in my mothers womb. He has been my teacher, uncle and friend for twenty two years. My whole realationship with Oliver I experienced complete patience and unconditional love from him. He taught me playfulness, elegance, style and exposed me to an incredible amount of great books.

I am still learning from you Oliver. Thank you. I'm learning how imporant it is to be aware and focus my energy on the ones I love. The importance of communicating that love always regardless of distance or time. The importance of gratitude. When I spoke with Oliver the last few times he expressed to me his gratitude for all his friends and how he was inspired by the power of prayer.

I love you Oliver, you will always be in my heart and prayers.


The Regillus, Oakland, CA

Oliver's 7th Floor Apartment

Shoes by the door


February, 2003

From Diana Abu-Jaber
Portland, OR

I got to know Oliver over a plate of chicken tagine.

We'd originally met through my editor in New York, who considered him a great inspiration and a true mentor to her career. When I met him, I was taken not only with his poise and intelligence but with his sweetness and his incredible fashion sense.

"If you're ever in Oregon", I said to Oliver, "Please look us up."
I love it when people look me up, but no one ever does!

Well guess what...
Oliver appeared at our door two weeks later and the night turned into My Dinner With Andre. We called up the glitteratai of Eugene, such as it is, and started cooking a great platter of my father's chicken tagine with prunes, apricots, and almonds. Oliver sat at the head of the table wearing an impeccable snow-white cotton damask shirt with pearl buttons, tastefully setting off the glints of silver in his hair. And he regaled us with utterly unrepeatable tales of the naughtiest authors he ever knew -- and he knew several.

My favorite was the one about the aging movie-star author he'd escorted to dinner one night. Afterwards he watched her deconstruct herself in her dressing room, ripping off eyelashes and wig, and then unhooking some tape that had hoisted her cheeks back above her ears. "Her whole face went boy-yoy-yoy-yoing!" he hooted.

He also talked about the many books he loved, some he represented, many he did not, but for all of them he evoked a genuine, full-hearted love that made you want to go and empty the shelves at bookstores. He inhabited his books and they in turn lived inside of him, in a way that I think many of us hope that art will possess and transform us -- make us deeper, wiser, and better.

That abiding love and joy in books -- and in naughty authors -- is what I remember best about the night so many years ago.

Apparently what Oliver remembered best was the chicken tagine.

For years after that dinner, everyone from publishers to booksellers to literary agents -- usually total strangers -- would stop me on the street somewhere and say, "I've got to try your chicken tagine!"

Two years ago when I was exhausted, burned out on teaching, anti-social, losing faith in writing, and a big chunk of time had passed since the publication of my first novel, two years ago when I finally had the nerve to show a draft of my new novel to someone, Oliver was the one I asked to read it. I did it in the way people send out wishes on milkweed seeds or messages in bottles. I knew Oliver was too busy to read some crazy messy disorganized stack of story, but I felt better just knowing he had those pages in his hands. You see, he was someone that I really trusted.

And a few weeks later, I got a letter from him. In his letter he was gentle, kind-hearted, utterly compassionate, and damn honest. He had some problems with the characters -- he enjoyed them as individuals but he didn't think they'd found their story yet. He told me to keep going. And so I did, I kept going.

Oliver had the wise and abiding love for writing and for books that authors dream of finding in their readers. And he was a compassionate and peace-loving soul in a time and place inflamed, toward the end of his life, by the rhetoric of war. He was one of the spirits who deeply understood E.M. Forster's dictum from Howard's End to "Only connect." When my new novel was accepted for publication, a great part of the reason I was so excited about the publisher was because I knew Oliver was there.

So I could give you a long list of his many accomplishments, a ticker tape full of testimonials from friends and colleagues, but I'd rather just leave you with the image of Oliver, presiding grandly over a large dinner table made out of a barn door, waving his arms as if conducting a symphony, laughing and telling us, "Okay, I'll tell you one more -- but you can't tell anyone I told you this!"

Oliver, we will miss you.

From Michelle McKenzie,
former bookbuyer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey, California

I wish I had a wonderful photo to share with you all, but his image is burned in my heart. I met Oliver many years ago when I was a bookbuyer. I loved him instantly, and he seemed to love everyone around him. Oliver was smart and funny.I really loved this guy, and will miss him greatly.


Lake Merrit from Oliver's Window


December 23, 2002

by John Mutter -- 3/17/2003
News > Obituary

Oliver Gilliland, 54

Oliver Gilliland, Norton's national field sales manager, died at his home in Oakland, Calif., on March 1. He was 54. The cause was liver cancer. Norton president and chairman W. Drake McFeely said, "There was no one more devoted to this firm, its people, its independence and, most of all, its books."

Gilliland started his book career in 1968 as a sales clerk at Alpha Omega Books in Topeka, Kans., becoming manager in 1972. Later, he was a sales clerk at Sonoma State College Bookstore; in 1976 he became manager of Bookplace, a children's bookstore in San Francisco. In 1978, Gilliland crossed over to publishing, joining Morrow as New England sales rep. In 1980, he became assistant sales manager, children's books. In 1981, he joined Norton as sales rep for Northern California and the Northwest. He remained in this position until 1999, when he was promoted to national field sales manager. Gilliland was also on the board of directors of Small Press Distribution in Berkeley.

From Susan Mayall
Goodenough Books, Livermore, CA

Oliver knew the names of all the staff at Goodenough, and became a wonderful friend to me and the store. I loved chatting with him about books and life in general. He was a listener as well as a great narrator - he was fun, interesting , gallant and warm. When he stopped coming to us as a rep. he invited me and my husband Brian to dinner at the Bay Wolf in Piedmont - that lovely evening will remain one of my favorite memories of Oliver. We will miss him always. .


Dolores River, 1994
From Pam Houston
Creede, CO

The most vivid memory of Oliver that I will hold forever is this:

We were floating down the Dolores River, eight strangers to each other, connected in one way or another to me. We had just survived a rather nasty crash in a rapid known as "The Wall" that sent several people diving into the water and Oliver to the floor of my boat in response to my urgent, "Oliver, Get Down!" as I tugged and tugged on the oars. We had some wet and cold and shaken people after that crash, but Oliver--Mr Group Dynamics--got us all singing and dancing. I have a photo of he and a Hollywood producer named Carol two-stepping on top of the kitchen box as my boat rocked through some smaller, kinder waves. When we finally got to camp that night we built a massive fire and sang everything, from Moon River to Godspell, from the entire score of The Sound of Music to every verse of American Pie and all that comes in between.

Which is to say nothing of the fact that when my first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, came out, it was Oliver's idea to send an autographed copy to every major independent bookstore owner in the West. It's probably not much of an overstatement to say that in some large part, I owe my career to Oliver's enthusiasm and kindness.

Oliver's death leaves a hole in the book business, a hole in the world, that will never be filled. I feel more fortunate than I can say that I was in his presence long enough to learn some of what he had to teach about grace.







From Bob Baldock
Berkeley, CA

When he came into Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley with the new list, Oliver always endeavored (with Oliverian fastidiousness) to avoid Moe (Moskowitz), Emperor of Used Books, Outspoken Loather of New Books, Sanctified 60's Anarchist. More than once the stage-struck Moe had suddenly halted amidst one of those perpetual performance art pieces behind the register to take in the arrival of Oliver, elegant in appearance if betraying an air of clear trepidation (thoroughly warranted), plucked the cigar stub from his mouth, and muttered a full frontal assault on Norton's brave Rep.

Pretending to have not heard, Oliver would ask for me, buyer over two decades of new books for Moe's. I would appear. We would retreat. We would talk, Oliver y yo, assessing one another and the new books, all the time cleaving, growing together.

I loved Oliver. I love Moe. To me they were richly organic embodiments of DeTocqueville's neo-Manichean reduction of the United States: democratic zeal for equality vs aristocratic, elitist zeal for uncommon excellence. Moe and Oliver.

Moe was loud, Oliver quiet. Both conveyed tenderness.

What mixes we are.

When he came to my house for supper, Oliver, in a blue Levi jacket, tailored and eerily dry-cleaned, always looked around before compassionately suppressing the obvious response: "It's perfect. You could do so much with this room!"

When Moe came to supper, all too obviously discomfited by the neo-order, the (sort of) cleanliness, he invariably left on the floor around his chair an ample circle of crumbs, bitten-off cigar ends, dandruff, other unidentifiable detritus. He did it his (possibly Druidic) way.

He also gave impulsively to those who asked. So did Oliver.

Truth: I loved them both. Both still inhabit me. But this, being about Oliver, I should say, must say: you inhabit me, gentle Oliver, with grace, with all the complexities of this time, with the nourishing sweetness of, yes, olives. Thank you, friend, dawn light bringer, campañero, sweet inhabitor of this old soul, thank you.

Kathleen Weaver
Berkeley, CA

For Oliver I think the beautiful and the true best came together at Christmas time. I understand more now his delight in this holiday and his faith. He liked to share his likes with friends - Arvo Part, the Tallis Scholars singing plain medieval chants. He gave Bob and me tickets to the Christmas Revels in Oakland more years than we cared to go. I remember the luminous masks of the players representing Sun and Moon, the lively songs of hospitality and the Yuletide light welcoming revelers in from the cold and begging the Sun to go no further away from the earth.

What treats there were at that house in Trestle Glen! Glint of gold-tipped wine glasses in candlelight, stockings hung by the hearth, no shabby socks, but rich swatches of (probably Gobelin) tapestry. The tree was magnificent - of course! specially ordered from somewhere remote and of manorial scale, flush with sweet needles and trimmed with red ribbons. Certainly no misshapen tree from a supermarket lot would do for Oliver. He took pains that could have seemed an aberrant attention to detail, yet now appear as a kind of piety and respect for design in all things. His tree had no side that needed to be turned to the wall to be hidden, no list to one side or another. Like that tree, Oliver had nothing to hide from friends, nothing that couldn't bear harsh scrutiny. In his bedroom, a gouache watercolor (original of the art for a Norton edition of Rilke) of an evergreen in a dusk-pink snowscape. In the pagan greenery and in the antique crÈche on his mantel, the Christ-child endured, with Mary, Joseph, and the animals brought out each season to share with friends. Dearest Oliver...










From John Neiswanger
New York City

It was a cold, January afternoon in 1955 when I first met Oliver (then known as Gill). His mother, Katie Holmes Pyle, had married Luke Pyle, who was the OB/GYN guru in Topeka who delivered me into this life, a few short months before Oliver was born, on September 29, 1948 (I was spanked on the back-side by his step-dad in July of that year).

Oliver and his mother had just moved to Luke's home, at 3139 Canterbury Lane in Topeka -- and my grandmother lived at 3109 Canterbury - just a few doors apart.
Oliver was awfully nice to pay a call on me (he and I were in second grade together at Southwest Elementary School in Topeka), but not yet neighbors, except through my grandmother.

Oliver and I shared one amazing thing -- a love of model cars. We both collected them with a passion and we both showed our latest acquisitions with a huge amount of pride and enthusiasm. He had the best on me, because his mother, Katie, had a brand, new, cool Pontiac Chieftan (or maybe Star Chief -- cant remember the name) -- all in black, with a white interior. That was not a model, that car was for real. His step-dad had a fancy, Buick, two-door Century, which was also impressive, and Oliver enjoyed riding in it up and down our street.

In less than a year, my family bought and moved into the house my grandmother had owned, and Oliver and I became neighbors and the friendship grew. We went through junior high school (see Sara Guettel's story above) and then on to Topeka West.

To be totally honest, Oliver and I were not especially close throughout those years, but we were definitely good friends. We shared neighborhood birthday parties with other tykes our age (and there weren't too many in those days)and enjoyed collegial Cub Scout dens (he was in Den 1 and I was in Den 8). Both of our Scout dens met at the local Congregational church a few blocks away. I bet Oliver enjoyed the Scouts just as much as I did (?)

When at Topeka West, Oliver hosted an American Field Service Exchange Student from Thailand. I think -- named Bart. He and Bart (I hope were great friends) -- but, again, don't remember all of the pertinent details.

Oliver also spent some time at Monmouth College,in Illinois, not mentioned in his accounts, but then went on to California.

My most memorable times with Oliver were at our Topeka West reunions -- he was such a fun member of our class and brought back so many memories of all of our days together in Topeka.

At our last reunion, in 2001, Oliver was one of the stars. He had so much enthusiasm and energy and was the true, bigger than life, spirit of the gathering. We all stayed at the Club House Inn in Topeka, and sat up late at night, and got together again early in the mornings, with Sara Guettel, Dave Porterfield, Rosemary Menninger and Natalie Holzman, and countless others.

We all looked forward to growing "older" (we're not "old", right?) and had great plans for our next reunions.

I was impressed with Oliver's new-found relationship with the Episcopal Church, and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in particular. Much of that must be due to David Porterfield, a true friend and classmate of many of us in Topeka.

Oliver visited me in New Jersey last spring, and we had a wonderful time together -- and then he went on to visit Hannah Fink, another of our childhood compatriots.

In terms of our next reunion, I guess it will not be in Topeka. But, I hope it will be in a better place. When Oliver left me, stepping aboard a train for Princeton, he waved and said "I'll see you at the next reunion!" I look forward to that next meeting with him. I hope he has some new model cars by then.


From Peggy Fox
Vice-president and Managing Director, New Directions Press
(on behalf of the entire staff)

New Directions and Oliver Gilliland arrived at W. W. Norton at roughly the same time (c. 1979) so for us at ND, Oliver really was the "face", the persona of our distributor. By inclination and enthusiasm, he loved our literary brand of publishing and championed our books both within Norton and to the booksellers and book-buying public.

When he died, we wanted a way to remember him that would not just be a statement today that would fade, but something a little more permanent and came up with the idea of dedicating a book that was representative of New Directions to him. Therefore, the New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, which has just been published, bears the inscription (as written by our President and Publisher, Griselda Ohannessian): "This book is dedicated to the memory of a special New Directions friend, Oliver Gilliland, one of the best bookmen ever."

But not only do we remember Oliver the bookman. Those of us who have known Oliver from the first, have also known him as a devoted friend with whom we have shared our new relationships and our misalliances, celebrated weddings, grieved over deaths, swapped pictures of house renovations and laughed over dinner party disasters. Oliver was a full-service friend and we will miss him always.

  From Rhiannon Merritt
W.W.Norton, Denver, CO

I met Oliver in 2001 at my first Norton sales conference and I was so thankful when he came right up to me and introduced himself, it made me feel welcome in a room full of strangers. Oliver always made me feel special--like he really saw me.

The last time I saw Oliver was in the Fall of 2002 when he had a small group over to his house after a day at NCIBA, including me and my husband, Jason. Jason had not yet met any of the sales reps I worked with at Norton and Oliver was just the perfect introduction to my work; he was so passionate and alive, that I think he almost convinced my non-fiction loving husband to rethink his aversion to reading. The last compliment Oliver ever gave me, while sitting there with him in his beautiful home, was when he called me ebullient - a word I was not familiar with in definition at the time. So I asked Oliver to explain the definition to me. He became very animated and using his arms and hands in frenzied swirling motions, he explained that it meant "overflowing with enthusiasm, an exuberant, bubbly personality." But all he really had to do, instead of standing there waving his arms all around, was to point to himself, because ebullient is a word that completely captured Oliver !

...and I feel honored that he saw me in this way. He was the most ebullient person, that is to say, the most high-spirited, the most-enthusiastic and vivacious person that I have ever had the joy to know, and I thank him for being in my life, if only for 2 years. It seems to me that Oliver always saw the best and most unique qualities in people, because that is the kind of person he always strived to be, and was. He just had an amazing spirit that bubbled up over everything and everyone he met, and he touched us all.

From Amanda Adams
Seattle, Washington

I only met Oliver once.

We met over dinner; my husband was a brand new sales rep with Norton, and Drake, the company president, was with us too. Stuffed to the brim with gigantic portions of halibut and lobster tails (well, there was actually only one tail and Oliver insisted it was mine
to eat) mashed potatoes and a wedge of key lime pie the size of a Blondie's pizza slice, I spent the night talking with Oliver and knew him to be magic.

We spoke of our love for Andrea Barrett and her writing, of Black Oak Books in Berkeley, and of Seattle gray. All the while he insisted that I read Erica Jong's "Fanny". He believed that I too was an " independent, free-willed thinker." I just had to read it.

Oliver was one of those rare people who make you feel wonderful - about the night, about yourself, what you're saying, just everything. We made plans to get coffee together in Berkeley when I was home for the holidays, and I thought to myself, "yes, yes, yes, I
won't let that guy get away!"  And he did, he got away.

I have never felt so heartbroken over the loss of a person barely known to me.
Oliver, I really wanted to get coffee with you. I hope you know how many people love you; how many lives you touched, however briefly


This memorial created for the friends of Oliver Gilliland
by Richard Friedman and Victoria Shoemaker. Thanks to
everyone for the photos and stories.

This page last updated October 25, 2004 7:30 PM  PST