Arts Listings

The Berkeley Book Tribe

By Dorothy Bryant, Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 29, 2006

If you are new to Berkeley, chances are that up to now you’ve done your book shopping online or at a giant chain store in the nearest mall. 

The same chain stores serve the Bay Area, but they are far outnumbered by independent bookstores of all types and sizes, with a staff of one to 25. 

The Yellow Pages list, within the borders of Berkeley alone, over 30 independent bookstores—new, used, and mixed—general and specialized: children’s books, sci-fi/mystery, builder/landscaper, legal, comics, political, metaphysical/religious, antiquarian/rare, environmental, erotica, and one devoted to books published by university presses. 

These bookshops are not only retail stores, but hangouts for booklovers who come to buy or just to browse and maybe to schmooze with the frantically busy people who work in them. These are the people who will (only if asked, mind you) tell you if that new hot novel is really worth reading, or which is the best book on repairing antique furniture. 

They delight in playing Sherlock Holmes to locate the book that—well, all you can remember is that it’s a translation from Lithuanian and has the word “waterfall” in the title? After you’ve been in Berkeley for a while, you and they will begin to recognize each other and greet one other like old friends—as, in a way, you have become, although—while catering to your reading taste—they have ended up knowing a lot more about you than you know about them. 

I decided it was time to correct that imbalance, so I barged into seven or eight stores, notepad in hand, grabbed whoever happened to be working, and announced, with my usual tact, “I’m here to interview some of the weird people who work in bookstores.” 

As soon as they found out I wasn’t asking for yet another lament on how high rents, chain stores, and the Internet are killing the independent bookstores, people were willing to answer questions like, who are you, and how did you end up working here?  

Bookstore people have come here from all over. Michele is that rarity, a native Californian; Roger is from Illinois; Tatsuya came 10 years ago from Japan, Stas, 13 years ago from Russia. They range in age from early 20s to well past the usual retirement age. 

Some had one or two family members with experience in bookselling—most obviously Doris, who owns and works in the store named after her father, Moe. “It took me seven years to persuade my father to give me a job in the store; he fired me twice, but then apologized and rehired me.” 

Others, like Kay, grew up with no books and no readers in her home. Yet, “I can’t remember a time, an existence, before I could read, and did, constantly.” 

Typical of over-credentialed Berkeley, most of the people I spoke to had at least a B.A., and a sprinkling had completed most or all of an M.A. or Ph.D. 

Clay is an exception, who “always haunted bookstores in Massachusetts, but could never get a job in one because everyone they hired had degrees, and I couldn’t afford to stay in college. Ten years ago I came to Berkeley, and got what I always wanted—this job.” 

Most of the others drifted into bookselling because, after finishing a B.A., they needed a job while they made up their minds what to do next. “And so here I am,” says Nick, “thirty-five years later, realizing there’s no place else I’d rather be.” 

Others have more specific reasons for starting and staying in bookstores, like flexible hours. Amy and Laura cite more hours spent with their children, even, Laura says, “taking one to work with me in the stroller, and keeping an eye on her between the shelves.” 

Peter is grateful to be able to juggle care of his son, working at both Analog Books and University Press Books, and writing, while his wife, an M.D., brings home the major income. 

A primary attraction, mentioned by all, was, “I don’t have to get dressed up to go to work.” 

Lewis started off teaching English at Yale, then hopped from one college to another, across the country, to land as a research consultant for a large firm in San Francisco, plus some hours at Black Oak. 

“One day I came straight from the office to my shift at the store, wearing a business suit. One of my fellow workers stopped me at the door and said, ‘Hey, you can’t come in here dressed like that!’ and I knew I’d found my home.” 

Jon followed a strangely logical zig-zag path to his bookstore. 

“In 1978 I was majoring in music at Sonoma State and living in a trailer with a couple thousand books,” he said. “I’d bike to the campus, spread a few books out on the lawn, sell a few, enough to get by. Sometimes I hitchhiked to flea markets to buy books for resale. One day Harvey, then a professor at SSU, picked me up, and we got acquainted. By the time he left teaching and bought Shakespeare & Co. from Bill Cartwright, I had my own store in Cotati. He asked me to wholesale books to him, then, later, to work nights for him in Berkeley. In 2004, he was ready to retire and sell Shakespeare & Co. So here I am!” 

The main reason for staying, mentioned by everyone, was “the books, just being around books all day,” and the word used over and over again was “excitement,” at the arrival of a fascinating book by an old or new author, introducing a new subject or a new take on an old one, with a new or old design or a typeface, a style, a quality of paper or binding rarely seen.  

Katsuya, whose interest has shifted from his college major, French literature, to history, and recently to philosophy, says, “I am surrounded by my university, with access to life-long learning.” 

Kimn catches her breath when she says, “Every book is someone’s mind.” Her degree in Anthropology was broadened by her independent study of Jung. Lately her interest has shifted to “design, in everything we use, because beauty is so essential to our lives.” 

Only one person I interviewed had plans to move on to another profession: Patrice is finishing an external (on-line) degree, after which she hopes (after 25 years in bookstores) to go to divinity school. 

Nearly everyone had worked for many bookstores, wholesalers, publishers, libraries, printers, newspapers, magazines. The bookstores they named echo in memory like lost mythological kingdoms: Pellucidar, A Woman’s Place, Books Unlimited, Holmes, Bookpeople, Mama Bears, Upstart Crow, Paper Tiger, Shambhala. With a few exceptions, bookstores come and go. Continuity is provided by the people who work in one, then another store.  

Many have known each other over the long-term (“Ever since my now-20-year-old son peed on Kay’s counter at Paper Tiger” says Amy) like a nomadic tribe or clan with shared cultural roots. The shared culture goes beyond Berkeley, East Bay, Bay Area, to form a nation-wide tribe that gathers at annual trade shows and book fairs.  

“At an ABA dinner, oh, 30 years ago I ran into a friend from Northwestern U. who knew Andy, and that’s how I ended up at Cody’s,” says Michele. 

These broad ties run deep as well. “When my husband died,” says Amy, “there I was with our three young sons, and my three Pegasus/Pendragon stores. The staff was wonderful, a real family. I don’t know how I would have made it without them.”  

Everyone can name famous artists or poets or novelists who have at one time or another worked in a bookstore. These are part of a tiny percentage of practicing artists; most, no matter how accomplished and respected, must keep their day jobs. A couple of well-known local people who juggled parallel artistic/bookstore careers for many years are artist Susan Jokelson (whose cards you can still buy at Cody’s Books) and radio broadcaster Denny Smithson, whose eye-witness-reporter voice you will hear whenever anyone presents a documentary of 1960s political demonstrations. People working in the bookstores now will modestly admit to keeping up that tradition. 

Kay used to perform with “The Mother Pluckers” and still plays guitar weekly with informal groups. In fact, there are enough musicians and singers to form a few booksellers’ bands. As Laura puts it, “part of my soul is in books and the rest of it wants to sing in a smoky old dive.”  

Matthew paints in oils and does pen and ink drawings. Isla works mostly in pencil. Russ modestly denies being an artist, but “yes, I sew. I make aloha shirts, like the one I’m wearing, for me and my friends.” 

Robert is studying film-making when he’s not reading or playing sports. “I have a wrestling mat in my basement” (good training for hauling and shelving books). Roger has edited anthologies and is in demand by university libraries to do appraisals of rare and learned collections. Bruno is the publisher of AK Books, which specializes in handsomely produced reprints of “books by and about outsiders, drifters, marginal people.” 

He also is a mainstay of the Prison Literature Project. (You can donate books and money at Moe’s.) Carla edits the literature/art magazine Kitchen Sink. Stan’s Subterranean Shakespeare Co. used to perform in the basement of LaVal’s Pizza (dishwashers thumping and swishing overhead). “My first cast was half pizza makers and half booksellers.” He is now directing for Live Oak Theater. “Hey, plug my new adaptation of Hedda Gabbler, will you? We open Oct. 20.” 

Owen may be the most active poet, but definitely not the only one. Almost everyone—if pressed—will admit that s/he is writing or has written poetry or has “a novel on the back burner.” Clay insists modestly, “I write poetry but I think I serve poetry just as much by arranging the readings at Pegasus.” 

Lewis, in charge of the well-attended calendar of readings at Black Oak, prepares the most unpretentiously authoritative introductions of writers I’ve ever heard. Some of his introductions have been incorporated into his published book reviews, and people are always urging him to collect the best of them in a book. 

Lewis not only arranges readings requested by publishers, but goes after admired hard-to-get writers, and is not above bribery. He tells me of the very famous poet who, he learned, is a foodie. 

“Now, if I can persuade Alice Waters to cook a special meal for him, maybe I can get him to come and read here,” he said. 

Lewis receives interesting phone messages, like a recent one: “Lewis. Single mom seeking. Call Rachel.” He laughs and says he was relieved to learn that “Single Mom Seeking was the title of a book that Rachel wanted me to schedule for a reading.” Speaking of phone callers, Michele loves them all, including “the people who call us to ask for the name of a good restaurant or the best movie or play in town this week.” 

I asked the same question of everyone: what do you like best about working here, and what do you like least? Universally named as best were the people, customers and co-workers. “Intelligent people ask my advice all day,” says Russ. “And they say please and thank you,” says Charles. 

Isla was inspired by her co-worker Carla to find her direction in art, and Elliot credits a co-worker for introducing him to his great love, opera. 

“I love writers,” says Nick. “You know, they work alone, they have trouble with their publishers, sometimes with their agents, with their lives—and when they come here to do a reading, they greet us like their best friends. And maybe we are.” 

Under what they liked least about the job, nearly everyone said “money,” the comparatively low wages, though Russ said, “I’m broke now, but I was broke when I was earning ten times more, doing work I hated, and compensating myself by buying and spending.” 

Complaints about money went beyond the personal to store-budget constraints, the necessary limits on stock, the expense (not to mention regret) of shipping returns, the limits on advertising and promoting books and authors. Everyone felt “kind of squeamish” about collecting money from customers—as if they shrank from trading a sacred object like a book for cold cash. (Which doesn’t mean theft is okay: “Depressing, as if you welcome someone into your church, and he spits on it.”) 

Depending on location, there were the problems posed by street people, mentioned with a shrug, like a inevitable rainy weather. 

One answer to “liked least” was given on condition of strict anonymity. “It’s when someone comes in to sell us a trashy book, and I have to take it because I know we can sell it, or when somebody buys a book, and I want to tell him, ‘look, you don’t want this, we have a much better book on the subject.’ I try not to show those feelings in my face or my eyes or any gesture.” The reason for this person’s concern is the reputation of booksellers, “that we’re snotty and arrogant.” 

Gino says, “There’s some basis in history for this, you know, the old one-man-owner-alcoholic-crank who sat behind his counter and growled at you as if you were an intruder. He was real enough.” (No more lone curmudgeons. Wayne at Cartesian Books is shyly civil, while Roger at Turtle Island is expansively cordial.) 

Yet the negative image, says Laura, of “not checking my personality at the door,” lives on. (Laura needed plenty of “personality” in the ‘70s, when she broke the gender barrier both at Holmes Books/San Francisco, and at Moe’s, becoming the first woman visible on their selling floors.) 

Of course, Moe (who had been an actor in his youth) created an imitation of the old grump, but everyone knew his gruffness covered pure cream-puff generosity. Besides, Amy says, “customers need a little eccentricity, and we offer it for free.”  

I thought I noticed a general discomfort among the bookstore people about what to call their job. They were willing to settle for the title Bookseller, though they wished there were some way to indicate that their interest lay in books, rather than in a career in “sales.” Book Clerk? Too stuffy and pretentious.  

“I suppose,” said Roger, “you could just call us users, junkies, pushers, trying to spread our addiction to books.” 


Coming Friday: A guide to Bay Area booksellers in our Back to Berkeley section.