I knew I had to make one last farewell visit to Cody’s Books on Telegraph before it closed. To leisurely browse one last time the new-book tables in the front and wander through the stacks to see what was “new and notable.” And mostly just to drink in the vibe of being in what to me was the heart of Berkeley—the freedom of ideas, the right to challenge entrenched power and thought.
I didn’t know there would be an “event,” though if I’d given if half a second of thought, of course I’d have known. If I, a single customer closer to the outer fringes of middle America than to the core of leftist Berkeley radicalism, was as shocked, disbelieving, and grieved by the closing of this Berkeley icon, this favorite destination that I just assumed would be there forever and always available should I need a serious book-browsing fix, imagine the feelings of those for whom this was a cultural/political center before and through the 1960s, site of countless poetry readings and book launches by up-to-then unknown writers. Of course there would be an event.
So I arrived to a crowd of people sitting and standing in the middle of the store where all the cards used to be—cleared away to make room for the chairs—listening to Andy Ross, the store’s manager for the past 29 years, giving the last of his remarks. When it came time to move from reminiscences to actually saying his goodbyes to this historic location, he was simply unable to continue. His wife and partner, Leslie, completed his remarks. There were tears and applause all around as years of memories and associations and sense of loss washed through the crowd.
The store simply could not make it financially. Sales had steadily drifted downward over the past decade from $10 million to $3 million, and the overhead at this location was just too high to turn things around. The Fourth Street and San Francisco stores are doing better—growing, even—but like all independent bookstores, are still struggling. More than 6,000 independent book stores once belonged to the American Booksellers Association (ABA). Now 1,000 do.
The chains and Internet are the primary sources of monetary exodus. Andy and Cody’s had been in the forefront of independent booksellers taking publishers to court for unfair practices in granting chains discounts not offered to independent booksellers. There had been successes. Independent stores were not going to go down without a fight. But at this location it had not been enough.
I can vouch for the problem, with an astonishing number of books purchased through Amazon.com to my name. Since I first heard that Cody’s on Telegraph was closing, I have sworn off Amazon for anything other than what I cannot, for whatever odd reason, order through my local independent book stores. This was just too painful a loss.
Maxine Hong Kingston emceed the event. Pat Cody, who started the store 50 years ago in 1956 with her husband Fred, recalled memorable events: the start of the speaker’s program, the “low-key” harassment (relative to the later firebombs and pipe bombs surrounding the Salmon Rushdie Satanic Verses reading—one of the holes in the ceiling from that bombing is still there); how publishers used to call Fred to ask what was new, what people were talking and thinking about, what they should be looking for in new writers and manuscripts versus the current practice in which publishers often won’t sign a contract with a writer until they have gotten an okay and an estimate of sales volume from the chains, including Wal-Mart.
Susan Griffin—feminist writer and poet—spoke. As did many other writers and poets, one of whom made a point of noting that Cody’s always carried the work of local writers, even unbound copies of their work. A letter from Salmon Rushdie expressing sadness about the closing of the store was read. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates spoke, a Berkeley councilwoman presented a proclamation. A letter from Barbara Lee was read.
In speaking to the deep attachment to this location, a writer said it best, I thought, when he likened it to the pruning of an aging tree—that sometimes some of the older branches need to be pruned back for the tree itself to live and thrive. One can only hope that this is what it will turn out to be.
It could also be a harbinger of things to come—the ’60s activists gradually dying, the passing of an era. There are aspects of that era that are probably best left to pass on, but what are we putting in place of that which was good and vital and important?
We shall see if Cody’s on Fourth can measure up to Cody’s on Telegraph. In some ways the answer is a foregone conclusion: of course it can’t. It just doesn’t have the ambience, the vibe, the history of Telegraph, and it never will. Can the kind of free thought that flourished on Telegraph be sustained in the gentrified environment of Fourth Street? I question the very possibility of it. But will it, on the other hand, morph into something different but still worthy of celebration 50 years from now? Time will tell.
I know, however, that it won’t have a chance in hell of surviving if people like me, who know that independent book stores are struggling, roll over and decide that it is just too convenient to have Amazon (at bottom, let’s face it, a “big-box retailer” if there ever was one) ship me my books rather than call Cody’s or Pendrangon/Pegasus or Black Oak or Diesel or Moe’s or Walden Pond and ask them to get it for me.
If I let my favorite stores go under by little more than laziness and maybe saving a few bucks, if by my actions, I “decide” I don’t really need or want a community of local, independently minded store-owners and am happy to have chain stores take over the “heart of the village,” then I guess I deserve what I get and have no right to complain or grieve.
But on its last day, I just needed to say farewell to my favorite Cody’s on Telegraph book store. It will be so missed. Damn.
Anne Blackstone is an Oakland resident.