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Shambhala Booksellers Closes After 35 Years

By ALTA GERREY Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 09, 2003

When Philip Barry told his son that Shambhala Booksellers had to close, his nine-year-old protested, “But Dad! I want to work there when I grow up!” The boy immediately made some bookmarks to sell to help the store make more money. 

In spite of the dedication of the staff and appreciation of the community, Shambhala did indeed have a closing ceremony Nov. 26. 

The founders, Sam Bercholz and Michael Fagan, both idealistic 20-year-olds when they started the business in a tiny side room of Moe’s Bookstore, were joined by current owner Philip Barry in saying farewell to this precious member of Berkeley’s bookselling community. 

When they began, their vision was to “create a space to propagate the Wisdom Traditions of the World.” So-called “new age” books were few, but the classics of spiritual and esoteric literature were carefully gathered and presented. As new spiritual leaders became published (many thanks to Shambhala Publishing, which came later and still continues), the stock outgrew the tiny space and moved into the larger space next door, becoming its own bookshop. The owners chose to call it booksellers rather than bookshop, to emphasize that it is people-based rather than product-based. 

I could not resist asking, “How did a spiritually based bookstore deal with shoplifters?” 

Philip folded his hands, “It depends. One man we still see on the street sometimes used to come in and lie on the floor, then get up and buy his favorite book. Every time he came in, he would buy the same book. As I was working the counter one day, he came in and kneeled at the center table. I thought, “Uh-oh,” and as soon as I had a moment, I walked over to him. He was trying to shove his favorite book—which is a large volume—into his unzipped pants. 

I shouted at him ‘Now you’ve made it bad for everybody! You can’t come in here anymore!’ So that’s what we do with shoplifters; we eighty-six them.” 

What was the book? Tools for Tantra. 

For 34 years, the store survived riots, the recession of l989 and the high-crime 1990s. I asked Philip for his favorite memory. “I was just leaving a shrine room where I’d been meditating, and found an urgent message: ‘Come to the store!’ I thought, ‘Oh, no—another riot.’ But in fact, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche had arrived in Berkeley, and had come to the store. 

The clerk had found a bottle of good champagne I was saving for another event and opened it. Rimpoche stood at the door, quaffing champagne and grinning and introducing himself to everyone who wandered in. He was so pleased with the sign over the stairs—YOU ARE ENTERING THE KINGDOM OF SHAMBALA—that he autographed it, and suggested adding a second “h” after the “b” to help Americans correctly pronounce it. The spelling was immediately changed on our sign to “Shambhala,” as he suggested. 

Recently, customers frantic to save the store suggested fundraising events. In an open letter, Philip responded, “We are a business…(we are) not asking for donations. The only way real change can come is if people realize what is at stake and support local businesses with ongoing patronage… Still, 35 years is a pretty good run for a little bookshop.” 

As irreplaceable stores close, such as Shambhala Booksellers and Juicy News on College Avenue, which carried 4,207 magazines, our access to information may continue on the Internet, but the serendipitous encounters that book lovers cherish are irretrievably lost. 

California poet Justice Putnam was upset to hear about Shambhala. “That’s so sad. Man, I guess I wasn’t even aware of that! Was it because of rents?” 

Indeed, expenses increased, but the loss of customers to chain stores and the Internet is what wipes out independent booksellers. The neighboring bookstores on Telegraph Avenue—Cody’s, Shakespeare & Company and Moe’s—all respected Shambhala’s focus and agreed not to carry their best-selling books so that the smaller specialty store would thrive. The large chains have no such concern for the independents. 

I encountered the chain store attitude when I ran Shameless Hussy Press. If it had not been for the independents, 42 of our 44 books would never have seen shelf space in a store. Of the two that that were carried by chains, their shelf life was a maximum of three weeks. Any copies that did not sell within that time frame were returned to us. My basement filled up with returned copies until I gave up and had a truck haul these irreplaceable but unsold books to the recycling center. 

Berkeley still has more bookstores per capita than any city in the world—49 stores for a population of 127,000. But even in this environment, Shambhala was special; whenever I entered that space, I came away feeling nourished. It was part of the gourmet section of international literature. Their loss means less arugula and more canned corn. Edmund Burke puts it more eloquently: “The bonds of community are broken at great peril for they are not easily replaced.” 

Four blocks away on Bancroft near Telegraph is a surviving independent bookstore, University Press Books, which just celebrated their twenty-ninth anniversary. In a beautifully designed space next to the only exclusively classical music shop in the world, they feature books published by university presses, most of which would never last past the allotted three weeks in a chain store. 

University Press Books’ anniversary party featured memorable l950s tasty food like bologna on sliced white bread with no lettuce. “Some party,” grumbled an employee, “when the friggin author doesn’t show up!” He did show up three hours later but was told it was all over. It was not. I was still happily chowing down bologna sandwiches and waiting for him to autograph my copy of his book on humor. Unfortunately he believed the clerk in front, and just walked out of the store before ever joining the historians in the back room busily arguing about who best embodied the 1950s: the Kingston Trio or Rosemary Clooney. 

Founders Karen and Bill McClung started University Press Books in the arcade off Dana Street before moving into this building redesigned by architect Thadeus Kusmierski. Now on Bancroft, they have their main customer base directly across the street, which helps explain their survival, when three other stores with the same focus have closed in London, New York and Boulder.  

As well as books by university presses, they now carry some trade academic presses and a few titles by Berkeley-based Heyday Books. 

Collected Thoughts, another independent shop owned by Lorraine Zimmerman, has been saved from closing by moving in to University Press Books and bringing their children’s books and cards.  

There are weekly book signings for the foreseeable future, and there are so many beautifully designed books on these tables that one customer claimed she considers it the most dangerous store to enter when she’s trying to stay within her budget. The staff is friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. Enjoy the ambiance and take your glorious new purchase next door for a quiet cup, where classical music thrives as well.