Editorial: Don’t Blame Telly for Cody’s Woes

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday May 16, 2006

Few recent events have prompted more letters to the Planet than last week’s announcement by Andy Ross that he plans to close the Telegraph Avenue Cody’s bookstore. Many of them can be found in this issue. Correspondents have a wide variety of reactions and theories about why this decision was made, and there’s probably some truth in all of them. 

First, it’s generally acknowledged that Telegraph Avenue is more than a bit seedy, and that a variety of dubious individuals hang out there. But the problem with this as a total explanation for closing the store is that Telly has been like this at least since we moved to Berkeley in 1973 and probably before. The publisher and I had our software development business in the ’80s upstairs in the historic building that now houses Rasputin’s records. The genteelly modernist Fraser’s furniture store downstairs was long gone, replaced, thanks to the city’s short-sighted economic development policy, with a Southern California western clothing chain, Miller’s Outpost, which was a dismal failure in hip Berkeley. Miller’s owned the elegant historic brick building, and was letting it slide rapidly downhill. That made for cheap rent on the second floor, of course, ideal for a start-up with no venture capital which needed easy access to computer science graduate students. But the 1989 earthquake gave us a good scare about being in an unreinforced masonry building, so we moved.  

We loved being on Telly while we were there. The Caffe Mediterraneum was still owned by people who took their responsibilities seriously, both for roasting coffee and for keeping order in the shop and on the street in front. The bookstores were splendid. But most of the annoyances which people complain about today were around then. The Hare Krishnas went past our windows twice a day with loud amplified music. Late at night, we worried about being mugged as we walked home or to our car. Sullen teenagers lounged on the ledge outside our door all day, looking as ugly as they could manage. Assorted street people, crazy, drunk and worse, were everywhere—there was a guy who would stick his index finger into your coffee and stir it. Once one of our customers wearing a suit parked next to People’s Park and was followed down the street by people yelling “Businessman, businessman!” 

And Andy Ross at Cody’s complained loudly about all of it, 20 or 25 years ago, just as he does today. City functionaries, some of them like Dave Fogarty still on the job 20 years later, scrambled to try to please. They banned parking even at night in the loading zones in front of the bookstores, and towed anyone (including our hapless programmers and late-night book shoppers) who parked there. The theory, I seem to remember, was that they were preventing out-of-town gangs (read non-white youth) from gathering. The loading zone in front of the Med was filled in so that outside tables could be added on what was once the public right-of-way, creating more opportunities for confrontations and sites for lounging. But Telegraph managed to maintain its rowdy edge, home away from home for those who enjoy behaving badly and experiencing the last gasp of the counter-culture in its head shops and leather emporia. Nothing much has changed since then, no matter what Ross or the politicians who’d like to profit from his problems would like us to believe. 

What has changed is the culture industry, specifically the book and record businesses. Multi-store corporations and Internet sales now dominate the new book business, and it’s not the fault of the ugly punks on The Ave. Moe’s Books, next door to Cody’s on Telegraph, selling mostly used books, has kept a toehold in the market by recognizing early that change was coming and building a strong Internet presence; Cody’s management didn’t.  

A variety of ways of blaming others for the store’s problems surfaced. Ross endorsed a Berkeley ballot measure aimed at stopping panhandlers from asking for money which was tossed out in federal court. He apologized later, but lost years of patronage from First Amendment absolutists like me who abhor attempts to restrict free speech. Independent booksellers, including Ross, launched an ill-fated anti-trust suit against the chains and lost that too.  

Ross’s most recent strategy has been to open two new branch stores in upscale locations, Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping enclave and Stockton Street in San Francisco. I’ve only been to the Fourth Street store once, but I’d characterize it as Cody’s Lite: many coffee-table art books and best-sellers, very much like, in fact, the chains. Closing the Telegraph store seems to be not just a geographic decision, but a decision to abandon the infinite intellectual variety that was the hallmark of the original Cody’s.  

Meanwhile, if you believe Ken Sarachan, things aren’t bad at all on Telegraph. He’s the proprietor of Rasputin Records, Blondie’s Pizza and more. Encountered over Thai food in an area restaurant, he asked to be quoted as saying “I’m going down with the ship” on Telegraph—except that he says the ship’s still profitably afloat. He’s got a flourishing Internet operation and owns a good bit of property on and near The Ave. He earthquake-proofed and restored our nice old building, which is now his very successful flagship store. 

This would be where I ought to confess that Ken’s been a long-term advertiser in the Berkeley Daily Planet, believing as he does that local businesses should support one another. On the other hand, Cody’s has pretty much declined to do so, which, personal pique aside, I think is a mistake. I don’t usually get involved in the Planet’s advertising sales, but since I was a successful marketeer in my mid-life, I would advise booksellers, both local and chain, that our extra-literate readers are natural buyers for their products. I couldn’t say for sure that if Cody’s on Telegraph had advertised in the local paper they might have done better business in the last few years, but it might have helped.