Black Oak Books Moves Out

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 06:55:00 AM
The shelves are empty at Black Oak Books.
Riya Bhattacharjee
The shelves are empty at Black Oak Books.
Shattuck Avenue's Black Oak Books closed up shop Monday.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Shattuck Avenue's Black Oak Books closed up shop Monday.

Shattuck Avenue lost an icon Sunday.  

After more than two decades in North Berkeley, Black Oak Books, one of the city’s best-loved bookstores, is moving out. 

“The economy is bad, and Amazon is so powerful and discounts so heavily, and we cannot afford prime retail anymore,” explained owner Gary Cornell, who bought the Black Oak name and some of its assets from the store’s founders last summer. “It’s not that our landlord was raising the rent. But the only way bookstores can survive is if you own the building or if you pay subsidized rent.” 

Cornell tried to negotiate a lease with landlord Ruegg & Ellsworth for several months, but Carlo Battino, who works at the real estate firm, said the two sides had been unable to agree on something that would have been “mutually beneficial.” 

“We tried any and all considerations but couldn’t meet in the middle,” Battino said. “Gary Cornell was a philanthropist trying to save the store, but unfortunately he couldn’t make ends meet. We are saddened and disheartened to see the bookstore go—it’s a Berkeley landmark. But it was a business decision, and we wish him all the best.” 

Cornell, Battino said, had informed Ruegg & Ellsworth in December that he would be terminating the lease on May 31 because of poor sales, but that his company had continued to negotiate with the store to see if some kind of a deal could be reached to extend it. 

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, where it has a warehouse. 

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 Bob Baldock, Bob Brown and Don Pretari 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 store up for sale, blaming declining sales on sluggish foot traffic and loss of market share to Internet giants like Amazon.com. The store’s San Francisco branch closed in early 2008.  

A self-confessed “book nut,” Cornell said he moved back to Berkeley from the East Coast to try to save Black Oak. 

“It was the addict in me, the bibliomaniac,” he said. Cornell’s residence in El Cerrito is stuffed to the ceiling with books, and his cars are parked outside to make room in the garage for even more books. 

A former math professor and author who taught number theory at the University of Connecticut, Cornell also founded Apress, a Berkeley-based publishing company specializing mainly in computer software books. He sold the business before moving east. He remains involved in Apress as a senior strategic advisor. 

When the IRS was about to shut down Black Oak Books last year, Cornell formed a corporation with a couple of his friends and paid the tax debt. He bought 25,000 new books—more than the former Cody’s Books had during their brief existence on Shattuck—and spent thousands of dollars on energy efficiency, revamping the store into something more suitable for the 21st century. 

Embracing the Internet instead of trying to fight it, Cornell went on to sell an inventory of more than 100,000 used books from a warehouse at 1730 San Pablo Ave. via the Web.  

He retained most of the staff, including manager Stephanie Vela, and continued to involve Brown in the business. But as sales declined, Vela had to be let go, and Black Oak is now down to only three full-time employees. 

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

“I didn’t want to make any money, but I didn’t want to lose any money either,” he said. “I just wanted to break even. But we inherited quite a mass, including an immense amount of gift certificates and trade credit we were not obligated to honor, because we were a new business, but we quite stupidly decided to do so for three or four months.” 

That move, Cornell said, bled Black Oak for a while, and, after a “so-so Christmas,” when the economy took a tumble and sales took an even bigger fall, the store had no reserves left. 

“That was a wound from which we never recovered, tens of thousands of dollars,” he said, talking of the gift vouchers. “In 20/20 hindsight, we should have opened up under a new name.” 

Cornell said the final blow came when California decided not to tax Amazon sales. New York recently passed a law that taxes book sales on Amazon.com, and a similar bill was introduced in the California Legislature, but it failed. 

“That was the final kiss of death,” he said. “People would come in and browse. A lot of them were buying or not buying from us, but on Amazon books were heavily discounted, and it saved them another 10 percent in sales tax.” 

Sitting in a black swivel chair Monday in Black Oak’s cramped narrow back room, which doubles as his office, Cornell looks quite unfazed for someone who has to move tens of thousands of books out in the next couple of days, not to mention take care of bills, insurance and other sundry stuff that comes with packing. 

It’s easy to see that his heart lies somewhere else, quite possibly in the plans he is making for Black Oak’s future. 

Cornell and his friends plan to open a small retail store at their 2,800-square-foot West Berkeley warehouse in the coming weeks, while scouting for a larger space they could buy and turn into a bookstore. 

“Ultimately what a bookstore needs is a gross lease, where you pay a percentage of your sales, and when things get better you pay more,” he said. “But most people are not interested in charity. A landlord is not going to rent at below-market. I am hopeful that if we find a building we can own, I think Black Oak Books will survive. It will never make a lot of money, but hopefully it won’t lose any money either.” 

Cornell said that he had approached the landlords for the former Cody’s on Shattuck—which has been vacant for more a year—but they had not expressed any interest. 

“The future of the retail book business is really up in the air,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, whose district includes Black Oak and who was involved in the various lease negotiations. “I want to ask how many people in Berkeley profess to love independent bookstores but go online to buy books.” 

Black Oak is 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.  

Walking through the Children’s Room one last time, Cornell stood under a poster that quoted from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “So please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV act away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookshelf in the wall.” 

“I am disappointed,” he said, taking a really deep breath and looking around at the dismantled wicker rocking chairs, bookshelves and jigsaw puzzles that added a special touch to this corner. “We tried really hard, and it sucks basically. I don’t blame people who are buying from Amazon. Everyone’s been very supportive, but the thing is, magic wands are in very short supply outside of Harry Potter.” 

In the Rare and Antique Books Room, T’Hud Weber, who has been with Black Oak for the last two years, was packing a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s works. 

“It’s sad,” she said, handling the almost-century-old pages of the book delicately. “Shutting the life out of the store on Sunday was brutal. I can’t imagine what it will do to the people who have been coming here for the last 26 years. I will miss matching people up with the books and hearing their stories.” 

Cornell watched as she packed six volumes of Dryden’s dramatic works next to a book on Chinese painting dating back to the Yuan dynasty. 

“I think the used book business is OK,” he said. “But I can’t say the same for the new book business. Some people will buy out of loyalty, but it will never be the same lucrative business it used to be once upon a time because of Amazon. That is over.” 

Margot Schevill, who was passing by, stopped to read the “we are moving sign,” on Black Oak’s glass doors. 

“I will miss it so much,” said Schevill, whose late husband, the poet James Schevill, once held poetry readings at Black Oak. “I supported it in my little way. When the new owner took over, it changed a bit, but at least it was there.” 


EDITOR'S NOTE: This version of the story corrects an error in the print version concerning the names of the founders of Black Oak Books.