Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Decline of Western Civilization--Part VIII. Cody's closes

Buddy, can you spare a trilogy?--Every writer I know loves bookstores (of course) and particularly loves independent, family-owned bookstores. I'm not sure why, except most writers love underdogs and independent book owners are underdogs. These stores fight the dumbing down of culture, where people stop reading books to watch television, and they fight huge chains that undercut their prices. It's a losing battle and most just fold.

Another legendary bookstore has been added to the list. Cody's, the institution in Berkeley, will close its main store. It has been losing a fortune and you can't feed your family on sentiment.

It's been there for 43 years, on Telegraph Avenue, in the heart of Berkeley near the University of California campus, one of the great intellectual and political centers in America."We have lost over $1 million attempting to keep the store open,'' said owner Andy Ross. "As a family business, we cannot continue to afford these ruinous losses.'' In fact, it's been losing money for 15 years, faced with competition from the chains and Amazon and BN on the web. Let's face it, it's easier to sit at your computer and buy a book than shlepp to the store, as pleasant as that may be. I'm about to do it, in fact, this afternoon, research for my next project.

Part of the problem, it must be said, is Telegraph Avenue, which long ago became a singularly unpleasant place to visit, what with panhandlers and scores of people who have not been taking their medicines like good people, and many of the older readers didn't like going there. Nonetheless, Cody's was a retreat; the minute you walked in the door you were in another world, a world full of books and people who read books. It is my definition of heaven, to be surrounded by more books than I can possibly read and people who want to read them as much as I do.

It has a unique history. In 1989, after a minor firebombing, the store announced that it would continue to sell Salman Rushdie's controversial Satanic Verses -- a decision that Ross called "our finest hour.''

"Rushdie came to the store once, a surprise visit when he was still in hiding,'' Ross said. The author gave the bookstore five minutes' notice to announce that he was in the store and would sign books. "There's a hole above the information desk from the bombing. Someone scribbled 'Salman Rushdie memorial hole.' When Rushdie was here, he looked up and said, 'Some people get statues, others get holes.' "

Being old, loved and good at what you do, is not even remotely protection from the changes in culture, economics and society. Kepler's, Cody's equivalent in the Bay Area, folded last year but its customers would not let it die and resurrected the store. It's still there, hanging on. Barely, I presume. Many classic stores in New York City folded. Cody's is not completely dead; it has two satellite stores that will continue to operate, in nicer neighborhoods. And my favorite bookstore is still there, having beaten off one chain and apparently learned to live with another. A bow to Neal and the folks at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Long life and prosper.

And, if anyone is going to be in Baltimore on June 17th, I am doing a booksigning at the Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road. And a salute to them as well.

Here's the story in the Chron.

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