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Sonoma remembers Lilla Weinberger, who died this week at 77

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Lilla Gilbrech Weinberger, Sonoma bookstore owner, political activist and organizer – and friend to many – died on March 24 following a fall down a flight of stairs. She was 77.

Those who knew her said she was fiercely loyal.

“When she was in your corner, she was in your corner for life,” said poet Ada Limón, a Sonoma native.

Limón was 15 in 1991 when she walked across the street from the apartment where she lived with her parents, knocked on the door to newly opened Readers’ Books and asked the owners – Lilla and husband Andy Weinberger – if she could work for them. Limón was the bookstore’s first employee. She worked there off and on and during summers in her college years, until she was 22.

It was Lilla who was “instrumental” in Limón choosing a path to become a writer.

“Because I was so young, she was the person who encouraged me to find poetry, to see writing as a career,” said Limón, now 43.

Lilla Weinberger was encouraging and supportive of many writers over the years. She was a book lover her whole life, working in two libraries in her youth – Pasadena Public Library as a teen and then the Huntington Library in San Marino.

Jude Sales, Readers’ Books manager, said she and Weinberger had similar tastes in books and a shared concept of what they like in a bookstore. When Weinberger was transitioning out of the purchasing role for the bookstore, she and Sales sat down with a buyer and independently went through the same catalogue, marking which books they would buy for the store. They matched on all but one.

“We were sisters of the page,” Sales said.

Sales is close with both Andy and Lilla Weinberger – she described them as her best friends – and said when the couple was living in Los Angeles during the time Lilla was the executive director of the National Foster Youth Institute they would stay with her during their visits to Sonoma.

“People come to the bookstore because of them, not the bookstore,” Sales said.

There has been a steady stream of people coming to the bookstore at 130 E. Napa St. since Lilla Weinberger died, dropping off notes, muffins and other goodies to eat, and just to find comfort in their grief over losing Lilla.

A flower arrangement at the front of the store welcomes fans of Lilla to share in a journal their well-wishes and write about “a book that Lilla introduced you to.”

Lilla and Andy Weinberger met when Andy was 11, he said. He had a crush on her then, but she was six years older and, well, “that wasn’t going to happen,” then, he said.

Lilla Weinberger had “thousands of friends,” Sales said, and had a sense of adventure that took her to different parts of the country, and even the world, on a whim.

Early in their marriage, the Weinbergers rented a room in their house to help pay for the mortgage. One of the renters was a Japanese student they developed a close bond with who would later invite them to Japan to attend her wedding, and paid for the journey with money she left behind in a U.S. bank account.

The Weinbergers took it a step further. They leased their house, sold their cars, quit their jobs and took their two young sons with them to live in Japan for a year.

That spirit was evident not only in her life with her family and throughout her career, it was present in her generous nature.

Thea Reynolds, a 20-year-employee of Readers’ Books, said when she was telling Weinberger about her concerns of traveling to Vermont where Reynolds’ ailing father was, Weinberger told Reynolds she would accompany her. Reynolds doesn’t drive and Weinberger was offering to fly across the country with her and drive Reynolds to wherever she needed to go.

Weinberger did not go on that trip, Reynolds said, but she did accompany a volunteer of the National Foster Youth Institute who was very ill across the country for medical appointments. It’s just the way Weinberger was, Reynolds said.

From “Day 1,” when you met Weinberger “you are part of the family,” Reynolds said.

“If you knew Lilla, she just sort of absorbed you into her life,” Sales said. “When you talked she was totally focused on every word you were saying.”

Limón said she still considered Weinberger a sounding board, saying that Weinberger was a “good level-headed listener,” one who didn’t always try to solve your problems but helped you see things clearly.

A few years ago Limón asked Weinberger to recommend her latest book at the time – Limón has five published books and was recently awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for her new book “The Carrying.”

“I know many people in the academic world, and here she was still being the person I thought of most to help describe my work,” Limón said.

Weinberger was “the most warm and kind person,” said Roger Rhoten. “She was full of life and joy. She was somebody special.”

Kathleen Hill knew Weinberger for many years in different capacities of their lives and was part of a Tuesday lunch group with Weinberger. She said Weinberger was “quiet, but deep down a rabble-rouser.”

Weinberger most recently demonstrated that energy by working with Rhoten on a capital campaign for the Sebastiani Theatre.

“She’s a doer, she gets things done,” Rhoten said. “She dives into things and she’s just that type of person. When she gets involved she goes into it whole heartedly. That’s just her, to be a force of nature.”

Weinberger used that force and passion in political activity and campaigns, something that was fostered during her education at UC Berkeley where she earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature. She worked for Organizing for Action as a deputy regional director and California state director in 2014 and 2015; she was the regional field director for the Ed Markey for U.S. Senate campaign in Massachusetts; and, for the Obama for America campaign, she was the Maryland state field director.

Earlier in her career she worked at the Library of Congress and wound up writing speeches for officials and doing research for President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark education legislation.

She toured India with a New Yorker magazine writer, Ved Mehta, who was legally blind, helping describe scenes, people, their clothes and so on. After that she studied photography and became involved in the women’s movement and helped to document, through her photography, the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles.

Another women’s-support movement Weinberger was involved in a capital campaign to build the first-ever battered women’s shelter in the state of Massachusetts.

“She was a very strong female role model,” Limón said.

As tough as she was, Limón said she also showed her how to embrace her own emotions.

“She was as easy to tears as she was to laugh,” Limón said. “She wasn’t scared of showing her emotions,” and she showed how even women who cry can be seen as powerful.

When Limón learned of Weinberger’s death she went to Weinberger’s Facebook page. The last thing Weinberger had posted was a photo of Limón next to the jacket-cover of her new book that won the critic’s award.

“The last post she had made was about how proud she was of me for winning the award. That was so moving to me; that was the last thing she had put up.”

Andy knew their marriage was meant to be, “it was fate,” he said. They knew one another long before they married. In fact, Andy said Lilla went to his bar mitzvah – she was six years older than he – and he attended her first wedding.

At the wedding they served small white-bread sandwiches “with the crust cut off” with butter and cucumber inside. “This is so ‘goyishe’ – who serves this kind of thing?” Andy recalls thinking. “This marriage is never going to last.”

Andy was right. His marriage to Lilla, however, lasted 44 loving years.

Lilla Weinberger is survived by her husband Andy, their sons Gideon (his wife Colleen), Tobias (his wife Janne), three grandchildren, a brother Skip Gilbrech and his children Katherine and Michael, a sister, Sandi (and husband Steve) Auer, and many friends. A private service will be held Friday, March 29; a public memorial is being planned.

Those wishing to contribute in Lilla’s name may send donations to Sonoma Overnight Support, the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation or the National Democratic Redistricting PAC.

Andy Weinberger said, “And if you can’t give money, remember to vote.”

Email Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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