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Cody’s Books Turns the Page On Telegraph Avenue Era,

Judith Scherr
Friday May 12, 2006

In 1956 Pat and Fred Cody borrowed $5,000 and gave birth to the original Cody’s Books in an 18-by-29-foot shop on Euclid Ave.  

But there might be no golden anniversary celebrations this year. Cody’s flagship store, on Telegraph Avenue since the sixties, will close its doors for the last time July 10. 

Owner and president Andy Ross, who bought the company in 1977, announced the closure in a press release Tuesday. Ross, who also runs Cody’s on Fourth Street and opened Cody’s on Stockton Street in San Fran cisco in September, cited competition from Internet sales and giant chains, as well as inadequate support from city officials as reasons the Telegraph Avenue business was losing money.  

At the Telegraph store, “business is down 66 percent from 1990,” sai d Ross in a brief interview among the tables and shelves of new books on the lower level of the Telegraph store. On the other hand he said, “Fourth Street [Cody’s] is doing well and San Francisco is growing.” 

Ross added that “the Telegraph store has been more academic and scholarly. The other stores are less academic and more literary.” 

People now tend to buy these books on line, he said. 

Moreover, Ross added, the city has played a negative role, having ignored Telegraph Avenue. 

“The city has decided to treat downtown as an economic opportunity and to treat Telegraph as a crime problem and not as an economic opportunity,” Ross said. 

City of Berkeley Community Development Project Coordinator Dave Fogarty said that retail sales, with the exception of restaurants, have been down in Berkeley since 2001. Downtown and Telegraph business districts are not doing well. “Adjusted for inflation, Telegraph Avenue sales are down 30 percent since 1990,” Fogarty said.  

Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement Distri ct Executive Director Roland Peterson said that on May 1, there were 23 vacant stores in the Telegraph Avenue area, 11 percent of the total area businesses. 

North Shattuck, Elmwood and Solano districts have been stable, while Fourth Street is the only ar ea where sales have increased, Fogarty said. He agreed that the city has put a lot of money into the downtown—retrofitting the library, the civic center building and the public safety building, plus amenities. 

“There has been nothing comparable on Telegr aph,” he said. 

And in the Telegraph shopping area, parking is inconvenient and social problems visible. 

“There are migratory youth and drug dealing,” Fogarty said, noting that people “are acting out obnoxiously,” shouting and sitting on the sidewalk with their feet sticking out. “People find it unpleasant.” 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the Telegraph Avenue area, agrees that the city needs to do more. That includes restoring the two bicycle police positions cut two years ago—there are still two bike cops on Telegraph—and restoring the team of social workers that used to work on Telegraph Avenue. Worthington said he is making that proposal to the City Council as part of the budget process. 

John McBride, a former bookseller at Moe’s Books on Telegraph, calls the scene on Telegraph Avenue “Berkeley’s zoo,” but does not think shoppers there are intimidated by homeless or disoriented people. 

Pat Cody identifies another problem: the poor mix of businesses that fail to address the needs of faculty and older residents. “Now there’s mostly fast food, geared toward students,” she said. 

Fogarty would like to see something like a nightclub open up on Telegraph, but that creates other problems and the police don’t want it, he said.  

Worthington pointed out that zoning laws hurt the business community. If a clothing store replaces a video rental store, there’s a lot of red tape because a retail business is replacing a service business, he noted. 

Pat Cody also blamed book stores’ prob lems on the publishing industry, which, she said, can market books directly on line.  

McBride, who worked at Moe’s between 1986 and 1997, said building personal relations between the booksellers and the customers is key. “(Moe) did not want anyone on sta ff low-balling the customers. He engaged the customers in building the store,” he said. 

Iwithout doubt Cody’s on Telegraph will be missed, both by other businesses which profit because it draws customers and from book-lovers that flock to the shelves. 

A lan Cheng was looking at titles on one of the shelves on Wednesday, picking up one or another to examine at his leisure. A New York high school teacher, Cheng said he visits Cody’s on Telegraph whenever he comes to the Bay Area. 

“It’s a great place to re lax and browse,” he said. He wouldn’t go to the nearby Barnes and Noble. “It definitely seems more personal here.” 

Over in the abundant magazine and book section, news of the closing surprised Laura Cunningham, who lives in a small city in Nevada. 

“Oh C ody’s is closing,” she said. “I grew up in Berkeley and moved away. I miss good book stores. Too bad.” 

Just outside, Gwynne Coffee was busy arranging flowers at the stand in front of the store. Ross had just told her that the stand would be able to conti nue leasing its site from him. 

A fourth generation Berkeleyan, Coffee wasn’t thinking about the vacancy rate among the businesses or economic development on the avenue. She was more interested in preserving the avenue’s individuality. 

“I’ll be really pissed off if another big chain comes in, especially a stinking Starbucks,” Coffee said.