Lilla Gilbrech Weinberger Obituary
Lilla Gilbrech Weinberger, beloved Sonoma bookseller and political organizer, died suddenly and unexpectedly, Sunday, March 24th, following a tragic fall down a flight of stairs.That was how it ended. But that one sentence doesn’t begin to encompass her life.
Born in Pasadena, California, on October 8, 1941, she grew up in a mixed-raced, working class neighborhood. Her father was an engineer who spent the bulk of his career in aero-space and her mother was a skilled gardener and seamstress.
Lilla was always an avid reader. As a teenager she worked at the Pasadena Public Library and later on at the Huntington Library in San Marino. She loved to sing, and she had dreams of becoming an actress. She first attended Occidental College, then transferred to UC Berkeley, where she majored in Comparative Literature. Her experience at Berkeley fueled an interest in politics which led her to Washington, D.C. She landed a job there at the Library of Congress. Over time, she rose in the ranks and began writing speeches for officials and doing research for LBJ’s landmark education legislation.
When Richard Nixon was elected and began to systematically tear apart the Johnson legacy, Lilla took her government pension and went to India. There she went to work for Ved Mehta, a well-known writer at the New Yorker, who was touring the country, putting together a book on Gandhi’s disciples. Mehta was legally blind, and Lilla’s job was to describe the physical characteristics of the people Mehta talked to, what they were wearing, what the room looked like, and so on. In other words, without Lilla’s help, he had no book whatsoever.
That job lasted eight months. During that period Lilla became interested in photography. She decided to come back to the States and study it properly. She enrolled in one of the early experimental programs at Cal Arts and studied with prominent street photographers like Gary Winograd. She also became involved in the women’s movement, and through her photographs documented the rise of the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles.
In 1974, Lilla fell in love and married Andy Weinberger, someone she had known since she was sixteen. Together they had two wonderful, rambunctious children—Gideon and Tobias. They purchased their first home in LA in 1978. The mortgage was more than they could afford, and they soon made up the shortfall by renting rooms to Japanese students who had come to America to learn English. One of these students grew very close to them. On Christmas Eve of 1981, she called from her native village and said: Hello, I’m getting married. Andy replied, Oh, that’s nice. There was a pause on the line and then she said, And I want you all to come to my wedding. To which Andy said: Oh, that’s nice (meaning there’s no way this could possibly happen). There was another pause and then she said: And I’ve left a bank account behind in LA and I want you to use the money to come.
Three months later, Lilla, Andy, and their two children were boarding an airplane for Tokyo. They didn’t want to just stay for a week and return, so they leased out their house, quit their jobs, sold their cars, packed everything up and moved. Andy got a job teaching English while Lilla worked editing scientific papers. They stayed for a year and had a fabulous time.
This adventurous spirit was followed by eight years of living in Western Massachusetts where Lilla rose to the top of the Women’s Services Center, a non-profit dedicated to helping empower women, and in particular, battered women. Lilla was instrumental in the capital campaign to build the first ever battered women’s shelter in the state.
In 1990, Lilla was visiting Sonoma with her children on winter break. She was walking around the Plaza with her sister-in-law and noticed there was no New England-style literary bookstore in town. Her sister-in-law said there used to be one and people were really sad when it closed. This started Lilla to thinking and when she returned to where they were living in Housatonic, she said she thought she’d like to try opening a store in Sonoma. They put their home on the market the following day. And two days later, they had an offer.
The Weinbergers opened Readers’ Books on the day after Thanksgiving, 1991. It has now lasted some twenty-seven years. Thousands of authors have spoken there and it is an icon of the town.
In 2007, Lilla grew fascinated with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She volunteered to work in Nevada and ended up running the Reno office. From there she became the Northern California regional head of Organizing for Action. Then in 2012, she was tapped to be OFA’s State Field Director of Maryland, which meant she was responsible for sending volunteers into purple states like Virginia to turn them blue. She worked on the Ed Markey for Senate campaign in 2014, then took a position as the Executive Director of the National Foster Youth Institute in Los Angeles. When that job ended in 2017, she and Andy moved back to Sonoma where she worked on the capital campaign of the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation until her untimely death.
Lilla never forgot her working class roots and was always a champion of the underdog. She was a generous spirit and a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and friend to hundreds of people. She leaves behind her brother Skip, his children Katherine and Michael, her sister and brother-in-law Sandi and Steve Auer, her brother and sister-in-law, Jonathan and Lynn, her nephew and niece, Russell Weinberger and Tara Rand (and all their kids), her son and daughter-in-law, Gideon and Colleen, along with their two children, Joe and Emma; her son Tobias and his wife Janne, plus their son, Elijah.
Her husband, Andy, will grieve her loss forever. But she also leaves behind a fierce legacy of love and dedication. Those wishing to contribute in Lilla’s name may send money to Sonoma Overnight Support, the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation or the National Democratic Redistricting Pac. And if you can’t give money, remember to vote.