A Search for the Perfect Bookstore

Our little campus community takes a back seat to no town or city in the world when it comes to having dynamite book stores. Research has shown that if you stand at any random spot on Telegraph Avenue between Bancroft and Dwight and throw a brick over your shoulder without taking aim, there is a 90 per cent probability that your missile will cash through a window and knock over a display copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Pretty much the same holds true with many other parts of Berkeley: it's a case of bookstore, cafe, theater, pizzeria, bookstore, cafe, bookstore.

postcard2000.jpg

Now, you may think of a bookstore as a place you go to buy a book -- a common misconception. Sure, you can buy a book, but it's not required. There aren't any security guards to make sure you effect a purchase before leaving the premises. So what else, you may ask, does one do in a bookstore? The answer: first and foremost, you browse. Browse is an interesting word. To my knowledge, it applies to only two phenomena: livestock feeding, and people hanging out in bookstores. Think about it a moment, And what are such grass-eating beasts frequently called? Ruminants. And what do you do when you're in a bookstore? Ruminate. It follows that spending time in a bookstore is a pretty peaceful, even pastoral activity. It soothes the nerves and stimulates the digestion. You can do it for hours, and it needn't cost you a cent.

Let's start out little tour at the corner of Telegraph and Dwight. We make a big point of definitely not going into Crown Books and instead check out Shakespeare & Co., across the way. If you know your Richard Ellman, you're aware that Shakespeare & Co. was the name of the book store in Paris run by Sylvia Beach, patroness and friend of such luminaries as James Joyce and Ezra Pound. What's in a name? Well, the fact is that the place does have the feel of continental browsing; it's like a curbside bookstall run slightly amok. Nothing fancy. The high wooden shelves are rough and seldom painted, but piled high with excellent reading matter. It's floor to ceiling book in here.

There's a small and interestingly idiosyncratic selection of brand new titles in one corner, art books on tables on the central floor and in a side nook, and the rest is given over to used books of every variety. Price are decent. There's a lot of books for one dollar; it was here that I once found a volume of old 'Vic and Sade' radio plays, a treasure I would not part with for a night out with Madonna or twenty dollars cash money. Nice tunes on the stereo. In Shakespeare's you always have the feeling it's a beautiful rainy day outside. For coziness, intimacy, open-ended (if limited) selection, and good prices it can't be beat on Telegraph or any other avenue. But this is just a start.

Let's jaywalk over to Moe's, a half block up. Four floors of books, count 'em. On the bottom floor you've got your new titles -- everything from literature to gardening. I've always enjoyed the paperback modern fiction selections here. You can idle through a good half hour picking up novels and short-story selections by women and Latin Americans you never heard of -- a nice way to keep (somewhat) abreast of developments in the field of belles lettres. We hike up the stirs to the second level and find more literature, only used and mostly hardback. We've already seen maybe twice as many books as we did at Shakespeare's, and we're only halfway to the top. To get to the third level we can either continue up the stirs, or take the elevator. That's right, a used book store with an elevator.

On the third level we decry vast phalanxes of used tomes -- anthropology, psychology, religion, music, what have you. It's a nice spot for widening your horizons, flitting from subject to subject and sipping little drops of verbal nectar from each one. And if that cup of coffee you had a half hour ago is making its move, you've come to the right place: there's a restroom on this floor. Some employee (or, who knows, maybe Moe himself) has considerately placed a bargain book bin right in front of the restroom door, so you can hold down (there usually is one) and still get in some browsing. But there's no line at the elevator, and a quick ride takes us to the Olympian fourth floor, Temple of History.

You're gonna find more history books here than you can shake a stick at, plus there's a side area enclosed in glass with expensive art books and first editions. Baroque music plays on the stereo. You want to speak in hushed tones. One of these days, maybe Moe's will have a fifth level, then a sixth, a seventh. The sky's the limit. Only thing is, you're never going to fell as at home in Moe's as you will at, say, Shakespeare's.

Word around the pool halls and opium dens has it that Moe's prices for desirable used books are unconscionably high. Indeed, one friend of mine who is far gone in his dissolute passion for literature and good books will not cross Moe's threshold -- traumatic fiscal experiences within those portals, he says, have scarred him for life. Other lost should concur. But if you're serious about finding a particular volumes at any price, Moe's is the place to try. And the store does have the only available restroom among all the businesses mentioned here.

After we've passed through the bomb detector (or whatever it is) at the door, we're ready to trip up to the corner of Telegraph and Haste and step inside one hell of a fine bookstore. This here is Cody's, friend. Truly a Berkeley institution. Fred Cody, the original proprietor, died last year -- may he rest in peace -- and Berkeley has had few finer friends or more willing benefactors. The man loved books, and devoted his life to making them available to others of his ilk and, besides, did everything he could to support struggling local poets and other writers.

When you're inside Cody's, you know you're in a bookstore. No used books in this baby -- just one large floor of new hardback and paperback titles, with a big selection and congenial format. This is where you come to check out all the recent fiction offerings. If you want archaeology, or history in quality paper, Cody's is your store. If up-to-the-minute poetry is your bag, Cody's carries a lot of the little magazines and obscure anthologies you may be lusting for. If it's exercise you're after, you can hike up the stair to the upper deck where I'm told the selection of foreign-language works is fairly impressive -- not to mention the bargain books and the room given over to children's fare. Big glass windows, floor to ceiling, looking onto the street set the light and action of Telegraph Avenue come pouring into the place. Interesting and attractive people circulate. There's a centrally located information desk. It's not as cozy as Shakespeare's, and (like I say) you won't find any used books here, but other than that it's nonpareil.

Think of what we're about to do as a character-building experience. We're going to leave the blessed haunts of Cody's and walk toward campus till we reach a store with the odd and untoward moniker of Waldenbooks. Yes, I'm afraid it's true -- this shopping-mall travesty of a book emporium has dared to sink roots in the sacred soil of Telegraph Avenue, one of the world centers of rampant bibliophilia. I would venture to say that no one who really loves books had anything to do with the birth of Waldenbooks, and that no such person has dealing there. What do you see in the window? The latest opus of Phil Donahue. NO sooner do we tremblingly step inside than our eyes are blasted by garish signs announcing bargains -- books by the pound. Vast impersonal masses of reading matter make the air close and oppressive. Near the cash register, there's a bin where you can select a fish-net bag containing three assorted novels and a plastic pouch of shampoo. (Presumably you paw through the bin till you find a bag with three novels you wouldn't mind reading some day, maybe.) One wall you'll find alternative signs: PYCHOLOGY, SELF-IMPROVEMENT, PSYCHOLOGY, SELF-IMPROVEMENT; on another: FICTION, LITERATURE, FICTION. LITERATURE. Whether this alternation denotes confusion on the part of the management as to just what the hell kind 'o' books they're sellin' here, or whether Mr. Waldenbooks imagines that fiction and literatuer, say, are synonymous word -- your guess is at least as good as mine. Besides, my head hurts. I don't wanna think about it anymore. All I know is that there's hundreds of these places over the country, and that when they set up shop in a commercial mall, I have no objection, but when they choose to sully the immediate campus vicinity with their rot, it makes my blood boil.

As we scram out of the place, I'll give you the story of Waldenbooks in a nutshell: It is an abomination unto the Lord. Same goes for Crown, and also for Upstart Crow (unless you're dying to pay four and a half bucks for a hamburger). If you love books, buy them somewhere else.

Sorry, I didn't mean to get carried away. Yes, I'm feeling better now. Let's go get the car and drive over to the North Shattuck area and wash the taste of Waldenbooks from our mouths with a few leisurely minutes at Black Oak Books, which opened just last year and bids fair to become one of the premier browsing spots in the East Bay.

The first time you walk into Black Oak you know you're on to something good. The ambience is superb: blond wood surfaces, good light, lots of space but lots of books, too. Most on one long wall is given over to used fiction, and the selection is first rate. Nearby, there's a couple of big shelfs with new fiction titles -- an arrangement reminiscent of Moe's, and for what I understand to be good reason. Street scuttlebutt has it that Black Oak is owned and operated by former Moe's employees who, morally outraged by the high used-book prices at the latter store, decided to secede and start their own place. And they've done pretty creditably. Their reserve of secondhand tomes doesn't come anywhere near Moe's in terms of volume, but it's not a bad selection and you're likely to find some interesting stuff. On the other hand, reports have it that the prices for same are not all that uniformly reasonable.

A friend of mine was thrown into agonies of indecision when a book on Chinese mythology she absolutely needed was found at Black Oak to cost something like forty dollars -- way out of her range. The poor woman couldn't sleep for days, and took only the most sparing nourishment. Finally, she pawned her grandmother's diamond tiara, went crawling back to North Shattuck, and made the purchase. It was worth it, she said, and all's well that ends well; but she hasn't been the same since.

One word of clarification. Don't go thinking we've exhausted Berkeley's book store resources -- far from it. For every store we've checked out this evening, we've passed up two or three. Ther are scores of them out there, and the folks behind the counter in every single one will be happy to see you. So don't be shy, get out there and browse.

-- By Roger Anderson, Daily Californian, August 28, 1985