Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bookstores

I mentioned just the other post that I read a 1926 edition of Growth of the Soil recently, a 1917 novel that garnered the Nobel Prize for its author, Knut Hamsun. I picked up the book at Berkeley's Shakespeare & Co. Books, on Telegraph Avenue, an across-the-street neighbor of Moe's Books. Moe's -- which I've patronized since I was a university student -- is the source of, conservatively guesstimating, half the books I own.

I hope publishing-industry professionals will cover their eyes as I type this: I still buy a lot of books used.

Publishing people don't especially like the used book market, for reasons that are pretty obvious once you stop to think about it. The profit in the used book trade doesn't go to publishers, editors, agents, or even authors. It goes to readers who recycle their libraries, and to workers at and owners of used book stores. Used bookstores do leave customers with a bit of disposable income that may or may not find it's way into the coffers of a major publishing house. Probably not. Maybe a little.

I have no objection to buying new books, mind you. And I've bought a fair few, nearly every one from an independently-owned store.

Buying from an independent bookseller used to be a whole lot easier in my part of the world, when Cody's was still going strong. Cody's was a legendary bookstore that once did business in the same block of Telegraph Ave. as Moe's and Shakespeare & Co., three blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus. We're serious readers here in Berkeley, no surprise there. Thank heaven for Mrs. Dalloway's and Diesel and University Press Books and Books Inc.

But let's not gloss over Cody's. Why was Cody's legendary, anyway?

Well, leaving aside a magazine section of international scope and dazzling depth and obscurity; the shelves of literary magazines; the shelf-yards of poetry; a technical and technology section unmatched by any bookstore I ever saw anywhere; an enormous selection of travel books; more dictionaries than even a dictionary-fetishist like yours truly could possibly take home and consult; deep benches in history, sociology, and philosophy; cookbooks for every cuisine you'd never heard of; a spectacular spread of kids' books; and on, and on, and on ... leaving aside all that, there was the legendary second floor.

Upstairs is where Cody's hosted readings, many each week. There was a big room with bookshelves-on-wheels that were pushed to the walls when authors read. Hung high on the walls of this room were photos, a gallery above the bookshelves, all the way around. The photographs were portraits of well-known authors. Not random portraits of well-known authors. These were portraits of well-known authors who had given readings at Cody's. Tom Robbins, Norman Mailer, Bill Clinton, Ken Kesey, Jimmy Carter, Maurice Sendak, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Walker, Joseph Heller. Salman Rushdie dropped by once. You'd look around at the portraits and the hair would stand up on the back of your neck ... the ghosts of all those minds in that one place.
I once passed by Cody's on my way home to find lines around the block waiting to get into a reading. Hundreds of people. Maybe thousands, that's what the news articles said later. So who the heck was reading and signing books that day in 1990? I happened to come by as the revered author was being dropped off at the curb and escorted into the store. I looked. I did a double take. I nearly dropped my teeth: it was Muhammed Ali, the legend himself.

The last reading I attended at Cody's was Leslie Larson's, when she signed copies of her first novel, Slipstream. Leslie is a neighbor, she lives down the street. Andy Ross, the fellow who owned and ran Cody's from 1977 until 2006, is an agent now. I pitched my own novel manuscript to him at the SF Writers Conference last year, after thanking him for all the books he sold me. Nice guy. He passed on the chance to represent Consequence.

When Cody's closed, The New York Times reported it.

Is it obvious by now that I have a very very soft spot for bookstores?

Feeling as I do, what was I supposed to make of a colleague's bombastic comment earlier this month that he hates bookstores? Or, to be fair, he hates what bookstores have become.

This colleague went so far as to say he hopes they all close. All they are now is coffee shops, he said. And he's not even a tiny bit interested in buying a "new" book over which somebody else has already spilled coffee. This colleague is an avid reader, sharp as a razor. He reads technology books because he's a top-notch software engineer and reading technology books is what it takes to keep up one's game in that space. He reads history and economics because he's voraciously curious. So what does he do for books if he so loathes bookstores?

Two vowels: the A-word and an i-Thing. Yep. Amazon and an iPad.

O brave new world, that has such readers in't.

Do you like bookstores? Did you ever? Do you like them still? Do you still like them well enough to buy books there?






Thanks to Galaxy fm for the photo of Muhammad Ali signing an autograph for Pope John Paul II, shared via Flickr.

4 comments:

  1. Vroman's in Pasadena.
    Yes they sell coffee and knick knacks and crap, but the main thing is they are still in business in this buggy whip business. I don't care if they sell hot dogs and cotton candy as long as they sell books. The town I live in closed it's only bookstore, a seedy Borders. I live in a town without books. Lindy

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  2. @Lindy -- That's bitter hard. A town without bookstores. I don't think I could breathe if I lived in a town without bookstores. Have you thought about opening one yourself? I hear it's the next-fastest way to make a million bucks, right after writing fiction ...

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  3. Haha. Yeah, I'll open a used bookstore with an art gallery attached. There should be a big market for that in the Central Valley. Thursday is poetry readings, get there early - the place fills up.

    The name of my store is "Live Nude Girls" that should drum up business - ask your friend which her prefers coffee or strippers with his books.

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  4. @Lindy: If it's good enough for Ann Patchett, Larry McMurty, Louise Erdrich, and Garrison Keillor ... at least you won't be in bad company.

    (Cf. Bestselling Author Anne Patchett Opens Independent Bookstore in the Huffington Post. Thanks to Matthew for remembering the story from a couple months ago...)

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