Monday, June 23, 2008

Cody's closes its doors, and a bit of Berkeley is gone

Does it ever seem like you blink and you miss something really important? Last week I did. I had a doctor appointment on Friday and so didn't go to the gym at lunch. And didn't walk past Cody's, a bookstore that has been a Berkeley institution for over fifty years, weathering the tear gas of the free speech movement, surviving being fire bombed for carrying Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and providing the unique service and service that only a local independent bookstore can.

Cody's is in the background of this shot of the National Guard marching on People's Park during the 1969 riots.

And so I didn't know that on Friday Cody's closed their last store for the last time.

When I read of Cody's demise in the weekend San Francisco Chronicle, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I had bought a book there last month (The Little Prince for Sophie), and I had planned a spree to stock up on books for my upcoming vacation. I had a list, but I was too late.

The corny Tony Bennett song tells of leaving one's heart in San Francisco, but I left mine in Berkeley, over a decade ago when I lived in Washington, D.C. and took a trip down the California coast with a girlfriend from college and her husband. I spent my first evening in Berkeley at Cody's listening to Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest; thrower of parties that provided literary inspiration for Allen Ginsburg and Hunter S. Thompson; and the leader of the Merry Pranksters, whose cross country bus trip Tom Wolfe memorialized in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Kesey was reading from his book Sailor Song, slugging what was rumored to be peppermint schnapps from a thermos. He was absolutely lit an hour into the reading. And while I'm not one to extol the virtues of substance abuse, it was impossible not to notice that the creative juices were roiling. This was clearly a man on the path of his own destruction, but what a time he was having on the way. He finished his selection from the book (which no one really wanted to hear anyway) and quickly departed to stories of the Pranksters, the bus, old friends, and old times (which everyone wanted to hear). I was just discovering the Beat writers, having spent an afternoon in the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and leaving with a stack of titles including Ginsberg's Howl, Kerouac's On the Road, and a biography of Neal Cassady. Seeing one of their gang in the flesh was an amazing cap. I came back to pick up my heart several months later after securing the job I had interviewed for the day of that reading and then driving myself across the country to settle in a place I could finally call home.

In the first years I lived in Berkeley, a boyfriend and I would spend an evening wandering down Telegraph Avenue from bookstore to bookstore: Cody's, Moe's, Shakespeare. We would stop for a latte and later a taco and consider it a perfect evening. Over the years, my book buying habits changed. I was no longer willing to battle for parking, step over the homeless, and hold my breath through a cloud of patchouli to shop at the Telegraph Avenue location. I patronized their store on the posh, upscale Fourth Street, where I could park next to the building and combine a trip with stops at Benefits to buy fancy cosmetics and the gourmet shop to pick up my favorite black flaked salt and expensive cheese.

The death march was slow: First the Telegraph flagship store, then the Fourth Street store, and finally the much-reduced and only briefly existing Shattuck Avenue store. There are still independent bookstores with selections chosen by an actual person rather than a corporate office and staff who can recommend books and talk with you about them rather than an indifferent teenager who knows only how to work a cash register, but there are fewer all the time. And with the Big Kahuna of our area gone, how long will the others last?

Over the years, everyone who was anyone read at Cody's. The portraits exhibited of authors who passed through included all the greats. Where do those voices go when the independent bookstores are all gone? There are quotes and reviews on, but there are no voices of writers reading their works, just the clacking of keys and click of the mouse as people navigate through screens in isolation. That direct connection between writers and readers is gone. Berkeley has gained another empty storefront, with only echoes of those voices that a decade ago read to crowds pushed up against the walls and spilling into the street. With chain retailers and internet sites like we've gained cheaper books and free shipping, but look what we've lost.

Thank you Fred Cody, Andy Ross, and Hiroshi Kagawa for fifty-two good years.


Sabina said...

nice essay figs.

i gasped in astonishment as i read this sad story. weren't we JUST discussing their sudden move a few short weeks ago? i'm so sad--it seems that the tiny independents are able to hold on, but the larger ones keep falling in defeat. places like powell's have a big online presence perhaps that's why they're still alive. sad, sad, sad.

Anonymous said...

That is so sad. My summer job for three years in college was as a bookseller at an independent store in Louisville. (Hawley Cooke) They closed their doors a few years ago after Borders followed Barnes and Noble into town. Such a shame.

Anonymous said...

Sad to see another one go. Cody's sounds like it was a gem.

MsMVNJ said...

What a bummer; if my indie shop closed, it would break my heart.

Monica said...

That's too bad. Don't you hate that everything is going the chain route? I love shopping at independent bookstores and eating at local, family-owned restaurants.