Black Oak Books Moves Out

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Monday June 01, 2009 - 01:35:00 PM

Shattuck Avenue lost an icon Sunday. Owner Gary Cornell confirmed Monday morning that Black Oak Books, one of Berkeley’s best-loved bookstores, is moving out. Cornell has been trying to negotiate a lease with landlord Ruegg and Ellsworth for several months. 

Rumors started circulating in mid-May that Black Oak was leaving its 1491 Shattuck Ave. storefront and moving to San Pablo Avenue and Dwight Way.  

Ruegg and Ellsworth have been advertising the space for sale for at least three months by posting signs on the building and notices on the Internet. The company posted a May 13 advertisement for the single-story 5,666-square-foot space on Craigslist, listing it at $2.60 per square foot. 

Founded by Don Pertari, Bob Brown, Herb Bivins and Jeanne Baldock in 1983, Black Oak soon became a Berkeley institution, its labyrinthine aisles stocked with new and used books, first editions and rare collector’s items. Famous authors and poets from the Bay Area and beyond often appeared for free readings and business boomed through the 1990s, until e-commerce websites made it easier for customers to buy books online rather than from bricks-and-mortar stores. 

In 2007, the owners put the bookstore up for sale, blaming declining sales on sluggish pedestrian traffic and loss of marketshare to Interent giants like Amazon.com. The store’s San Francisco branch closed in early 2008.  

Cornell, a former computer science professor and author from the University of Connecticut who called himself a “long-time friend” of Black Oak, bought the store in July 2008. 

Cornell said he would revamp the store into something more suitable for the 21st century, selling an inventory of more than 100,000 used books from a West Berkeley warehouse via the Web. 

He retained most of the staff, including manager Stephanie Vela, and continued to involve Brown in the business. 

At the time Cornell took over the store, the store’s lease was $16,000 per month. 

It’s the fourth Gourmet Ghetto storefront to go dark in recent months. Starbucks shuttered its north Shattuck outlet earlier this year, as did Cafe de la Paz, and Elephant Pharmacy closed in February. 

For more information on Black Oak Books’ relocation plan, keep checking www.berkeleydailyplanet.com in the coming days.