Bay Area Bookstores for the Purist

MANY people take vacations in and around San Francisco to see such physical landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Nob Hill or the bumps and grinds at the famous bars on Broadway. But another type of vacationer visits the Bay area to seek out intellectual landmarks such as the novels of Mark Twain, first editions by Jack Kerouac, collectible comics by R. Crumb, scholarly volumes, detective novels, biographies, autobiographies -- books about everything from cabbages to kings.

''People come here on book-buying vacations,'' said Bob Brown of Black Oak Books in Berkeley.

''There are 50 bookstores in the East Bay alone,'' said Peter B. Howard of Serendipity Books, also in Berkeley.

''For the size of the area, the concentration is amazing,'' said Don Pretari of Black Oak (who looks like Friar Tuck). ''There isn't any other place like it in the United States. This really is about as good as it gets. In Berkeley alone we have a great used bookstore, Moe's. There's a great new bookstore, Cody's. There's a great scholarly bookstore, us. A great first-editions bookstore, Serendipity. A great Judaica bookstore, Afikomen. And Shambhala, a great Eastern-religions bookstore.''

Have these people come down with a severe case of civic bookstore boosterism? Of course they have, but they really do have a lot to be immodest about.

And across the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, book buyers can continue their tour. Passing up Pier 39's Turbo Ride, they enter an amusement park for the mind with such famous attractions as Green Apple Books, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, Acorn Books and City Lights Books.

Many of these places sell CD's, too, but you won't find a cafe among the shelves. And all of them are independent shops, somehow surviving in a chain-store age.

Serendipity Books, 1201 University Avenue in Berkeley, is housed in a building that once sold wholesale wine and wine- and beer-making equipment. There is a big wine barrel still mounted on the front of the store. The lintel over the front door is shaped like a wine-barrel stave, as are the lintels over all the windows. Inside, the chandeliers are made from the tops of wine barrels. It seems the perfect setting for a California bookstore.

As I entered the high-ceilinged building in May, I tripped over a stack of books. Looking down, I noticed that the book on top was an obscure volume called ''The Hippie Papers'' by Jerry Hopkins. The title was appropriate because the atmosphere reeked not only of wine but of the 1960's. Clerks and customers had long hair. The floor of the store, from one end to the other, looked like the top of my desk: one seemingly disorganized stack after another. But the shelves themselves were meticulously ordered.

Serendipity is personified by its founding owner, Peter B. Howard, who wore a white shirt soiled by dusty boxes he had lifted. He also sported a white Hemingway beard. On his head rested a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. He is not a casual fan of books or baseball. He has 410,000 volumes in his store and attends some 80 games every season. ''I like to think about baseball,'' he said. ''Baseball's about life and death.'' His shirt pocket was crowded -- full of receipts, papers, a checkbook, yellow pencils and a blue toothbrush.

I removed a notebook and pen from my pocket to start taking notes. Mr. Howard stopped me. ''When you're around books,'' he said sternly, ''you should take notes in pencil.'' He handed me one.

Then he gave me a tour. We passed a saddle and spurs on our way to a wall of so-called compact library shelves. These shelves move on rails and fold together into a tight formation. They resemble a giant filing cabinet that can be opened and closed.

Mr. Howard added the compact shelving when he bought the library of the late Carter Burden, the socially prominent politician, businessman and philanthropist. ''I'm the only bookstore with shelves like these,'' he said.

We climbed a flight of stairs to his mystery section. Most stores have cases of mysteries. Serendipity has a large room. ''As a bookseller, one looks for opportunities,'' Mr. Howard said. ''One opportunity is detective fiction. These books walk right out of here. I've sold first editions of 'The Maltese Falcon' in dust jacket and 'The Big Sleep' in dust jacket.''

I bought less expensive but nonetheless very hard to find volumes: ''Elephant's Work'' by E. C. Bentley and ''Imago'' by James McClure. They cost about the same as a couple of decent bottles of Napa Valley pinot noir.

''As a junior at Haverford, I started collecting D. H. Lawrence,'' Mr. Howard said. ''When I came out here to Berkeley, there were three of us who wanted to build ideal graduate-student libraries. I discovered that it gave me more pleasure to find books for the other two than to use those books to build an academic career for myself.'' He spent eight years as a graduate student in English at Berkeley, but ''lacked enough confidence in my own intellectual ability to keep me on track as an academician.''

Mr. Howard kept acquiring books even though he lived in what he calls the smallest house in north Berkeley, for which he paid $90 a month when he moved in. Soon his books sealed off his fireplace. His wife, Alison, told him to move out. Or rather to move his books out. In 1967, Mr. Howard rented a small shop on Shattuck Avenue, where he also paid $90 a month rent, and went to work as a bookseller. Over the years, he grew to five storefronts for which he paid $5,000 monthly. Then in 1986, Mr. Howard bought the Oak Barrel Building and moved the books in.

After all these years Mr. Howard has about gotten over his disappointment at not becoming a professor. ''I've harvested at least seven of the libraries of my own U.C. professors,'' he said with a smile.

''A couple of books do linger in the mind,'' Mr. Howard said. ''I had William Carlos Williams's first book of poems, called 'Poems,' printed in Rutherford, N.J. I had 'Battle-Pieces' by Melville. It's about the only moment when he participated in the Civil War, a skirmish near Washington. The book was inscribed to the guy who led the skirmish party.''

Across the Bay in San Francisco, Richard Savoy named his Green Apple Books after Eve's apple, plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. He says all book lovers owe Eve a debt of thanks. Thirty-one years ago, Mr. Savoy moved from New Jersey and started his bookstore in the shadow of Golden Gate Park, at 506 Clement Street. He was a hippie then, but he has grown up to be as dapper and well-groomed as Serendipity's Mr. Howard is disheveled. Both men, however, are tall and wear San Francisco Giants baseball caps.

The overstuffed two-and-a-half-story store has rickety staircases, nooks, cubbies, crannies and 250,000 books. On the main floor, the owner's collection of masks is on display, including Kwakiutl Indian headdresses, Mardi Gras masks, African masks and even a Betty Boop mask.

Green Apple keeps a scrapbook in the employees' lounge of items accidentally left in the books it buys. There are photographs of all kinds: a stiff family photo from the dawn of photography, a snapshot of two nude girls, baby pictures, a poodle staring at a mushroom, a woman in a bathtub, an Associated Press reporter's photo ID, a birth certificate with a baby's footprints . . .

Oddities turn up with some regularity. Somebody left two hundred-dollar bills in a copy of The Paris Review. Somebody else left a pistol in a box of books.

Green Apple has fewer rare books than Serendipity, but it nonetheless offers a well-stocked case of modern firsts. Mr. Savoy got into the comic book business early and now prides himself on Green Apple's extensive, well-ordered collection. The store recently sold an R. Crumb Zap Comics No. 1 for $1,000. Two years ago, it sold a Superman No. 2 for $1,000.

A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (601 Van Ness Avenue) in San Francisco's Opera Plaza is, of course, named after Ernest Hemingway's short story about a Spanish cafe. The central character in the tale is a deaf and almost used-up old man, but the store, which opened in this location in 1982, sells shiny new books.

''Our specialty is an experienced, well-trained staff who talk books,'' said Neal Sofman, a co-owner of the roomy store, which has about 80,000 books in its one-story building. He added: ''We don't just sell them.''

The staff posts short reviews of books on shelves and tables all over the store. Someone who signed herself Margaret wrote of ''The Harlot by the Side of the Road'': ''Vacation Bible School will never be the same.''

Roger called ''Depth Takes a Holiday'' a book ''by and for the overeducated and underpaid.''

Carrie characterized Shena MacKay, author of ''Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags,'' as follows: ''If she were a boxer, MacKay would knock you out in 10 seconds flat.''

All this love of books, written out carefully in longhand, knocked me out.

And there are so many more stores.

Moe's Books, at 2476 Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, has the 1960's frozen in time at its front door. You can buy tie-dyed T-shirts or give to the long-haired beggars who frequent the street, then go inside to shop for used books. There are four floors, which house more than 200,000 used volumes, with some rare books tucked away at the top. I bought a used copy of ''Wonderful Life'' by Stephen Jay Gould for about the price of a bottle of Thunderbird.

In Berkeley's gourmet ghetto, with neighbors like Chez Panisse, Black Oak Books, at 1491 Shattuck Avenue, is about as a big as a fair-sized restaurant, offering more than 150,000 books. It sells new books, used books and rare books. But its specialty is concentrated in a large back room: scholarly books. Because my daughter was taking a Greek drama course, I asked to see the classics section. It turned out to cover most of a wall, much of it in Greek and Latin. I bought ''Aristophanes' Old-and-New Comedy'' by Kenneth J. Reckford ($30), which turned out to be a fine book. I also picked up a first edition of Mark Twain's ''Life on the Mississippi,'' my only purchase in three figures -- it cost about the same as a case of that Napa Valley pinot noir.

Cody's Books, down the street from Moe's at 2454 Telegraph Avenue, deals in new books and periodicals. In fact, it has the best newsstand in town, featuring not only magazines but zines. It also has more than 140,000 books in stock.

In San Francisco, Acorn Books, a well-stocked rare-book store at 1436 Polk Street, is as neat as Serendipity and Green Apple are controlled messes. It resembles a huge, walk-in card catalogue with each aisle numbered and lettered in bright colors. Its 100,000 books rest on shelves that reach 15 feet.

City Lights Books, in North Beach at 261 Columbus Avenue, started out in 1953 as the country's first all-paperback bookstore, but it now sells hardbacks too and has grown from one to three floors. Founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, recently named the city's first poet laureate, the store also publishes books. In 1956, City Lights put out Allen Ginsberg's ''Howl,'' the little volume that lit the fuse of the Beat Generation.

Ten years ago, City Lights persuaded San Francisco to rename several of its streets for authors who have written about the city, includ ing Ambrose Bierce, Dashiell Hammett, Jack Kerouac, Jack London, William Saroyan and Mark Twain. Today Kerouac Street runs between Vesuvio's Bar and City Lights Books.

Where to browse, from cover to cover
These are the stores I visited in the Bay area:

Acorn Books, 1436 Polk Street, San Francisco; (415) 563-1736. On the Internet: Used and rare books, first editions.

Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 486-0698. New and used books. General interest, fiction, poetry, classics, antiquarian.

City Lights Books, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco; (415) 362-8193. On the Internet: General interest, contemporary and Beat literature, poetry.

A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco; (415) 441-6670. Internet: General interest, music, mystery, fiction, travel.

Cody's Books, 2454 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 845-7852. On the Internet: General interest, computer, psychology, fiction.

Green Apple Books, 506 Clement Street, San Francisco; (415) 387-2272. On the Internet: New and used books. Literature, psychology, history.

Moe's Books, 2476 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 849-2087. On the Internet: New and used books. General interest, art, fiction.

Serendipity Books, 1201 University Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 841-7455. On the Internet: www.serendipitybooks. com. Antiquarian books.

Many of the following stores, which I did not visit, were also recommended to me.

Afikomen Jewish Books, Gifts and Arts, 3042 Claremont Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 655-1977.

Berkeley Art Museum Store, 2626 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 642-1475. On the Internet: Art, architecture, photography, film.

The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco; (415) 863-8688 or (800) 493-7323. On the Internet: General interest, fiction, poetry, film, music.

Collected Thoughts Bookshop, 1816 Euclid Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 843-1816. New and used books. General interest, poetry, science, literature.

Dark Carnival Bookstore, 3086 Claremont Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 654-7323. On the Internet: Mystery, science fiction.

Diesel, a Bookstore, 5433 College Avenue, Oakland; (510) 653-9965. New and used books. General interest, children's, fiction.

A Different Light Bookstore, 489 Castro Street, San Francisco; (415) 431-0891. On the Internet: Gay and lesbian.

Dolphin Dream, 1437 North Broadway, Walnut Creek; (510) 933-2342. New and used books. Metaphysics.

E.A.R. Books, 1513 Cypress Street, Walnut Creek; (510) 932-6023. Audio books.

Easy Going Travel Shop and Bookstore, 1385 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 843-3533. On the Internet: Travel books, guides, maps.

Forever After Books, 1475 Haight Street, San Francisco; (415) 431-8299. Used books. Spirituality, psychology, history, holistic health, true crime.

Gaia Bookstore, 1400 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 548-4172. Spirituality, feminism, social issues.

Get Lost Travel Books, Maps and Gear, 1825 Market Street, San Francisco; (415) 437-0529.

Half Price Books, 1849 Solano Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 526-6080. New and used books. General interest, discount music, back-issue magazines.

Key Book Shop, 545 Eighth Street, Oakland; (510) 444-2915. New and used books. General interest, black studies, occult.

Kinokuniya Book Stores of America, 1581 Webster Street, San Francisco; (415) 567-7625. Japan and Asia.

La Casa del Libro, 973 Valencia Street, San Francisco; (415) 285-1399. Spanish-language.

Mama Bears Women's Bookstore, 6536 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland; (510) 428-9684. New and used books. Feminist, gay and lesbian, children's.

Mr. Mopps' Children's Bookshop, 1405 Martin Luther King Way, Berkeley; (510) 525-9633. Children's books, tapes, toys.

Pendragon Books, 5560 College Avenue, Oakland; (510) 652-6259. New and used books. Fiction, art, magazines.

Shambhala Booksellers, 2482 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 848-8443. New and used books. Metaphysics, religion, philosophy.

Sierra Club Bookstore, 6014 College Avenue, Oakland; (510) 658-7470. On the Internet: New books. Conservation, science, travel, maps, gifts.

String Box Books, 1210 Union Street, San Francisco; (415) 776-2665. New and used books. General interest, literature.

Sunrise Bookshop, 3054 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 841-6372. New and used books. Metaphysics.

University of California Botanical Garden Bookstore, Centennial Drive, Berkeley; (510) 642-3343. Botany, gardening.

Walden Pond Books, 3316 Grand Avenue, Oakland; (510) 832-4438. New and used books. General interest, fiction, history, art, radical literature.

Zen Center Bookstore, 300 Page Street, San Francisco; (415) 863-3136. Zen Buddhism.

Correction: October 25, 1998, Sunday An article on Sept. 27 about bookstores around San Francisco omitted the name of one of the two co-founders of City Lights Bookstore. It was founded not only by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but also by Peter Martin.

Aaron Latham taught magazine writing at the University of California at Berkley last spring.

-- The New York Times, September 27, 1998