Back to Berkeley: The Independent Bookstore Scene Is Alive and Well

By Joe Eaton, Special to the Planet
Friday September 01, 2006

Yes, we miss Cody’s on Telegraph. Its closing was like a death in the family. But contrary to the East Bay Express’ predictably snarky cover story, the independent bookstore scene is alive and well in the Bay Area. Bookbuyers are still holding out against the blandishments of Barnes & Noble and Borders, and the online convenience of Amazon. Berkeley is home to a whole constellation of bookstores, generalist and specialist, used and new, with something for just about everyone—and then there’s Oakland and San Francisco. 

Moe’s Books (2476 Telegraph Ave.) alone still justifies a visit to the block where Cody’s used to be. This Berkeley institution, the creation of the late Moe Moskowitz whose cigar-chomping likeness is prominently displayed, remains the used book Mecca. Moe’s prices are reasonable, and the stock is always changing (they often buy personal libraries, and reviewers’ copies of new hardbacks show up regularly). There are new titles downstairs at a discount, rarities and collectables on the fourth floor, and remainders throughout. 

Also worth cruising for used books is Black Oak Books (1491 Shattuck Ave.), although prices are a bit on the high side. And the store has a full schedule of author events. Half Price Books (2036 Shattuck Ave.), part of an Austin-based chain, is a crapshoot, but I’ve found some real bargains there. Pegasus (1855 Solano Ave.), Pegasus Downtown (2349 Shattuck Ave.), and Pendragon (5560 College Ave., in Oakland) make up a local mini-chain; mostly used, with a good stock of remainders and notable first-of-the-year calendar sales. The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library store (one location in the main library at 2090 Kittredge St.; another at 2433 Channing St., hidden in the ground floor of a parking garage off Telegraph) is another place where almost anything may turn up, and astonishingly cheap. 

But if you’re willing to spring for new-book prices, there are lots of options. University Press Books (2430 Bancroft Way) is just what it says it is, with a few titles from non-academic presses. It might be just the place to find that specialized tome on Byzantine hermeneutics. Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave.) has strong gardening, poetry, and natural history sections, a choice selection of general titles, and its own author events—as does Diesel (5433 College, Oakland). Builder’s Booksource (1817 4th St.) specializes in architecture and design. And while the Telegraph store is gone, Cody’s Books on Fourth Street is still open. 

Other Berkeley and Oakland stores reflect the East Bay’s cultural diversity: Marcus Books (3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way) for African-American history, culture, and literature; Change Makers (6536 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) for feminist books; Eastwind (2066 University Ave.) for Asian and Asian-American subjects; Afikomen (3042 Claremont Blvd.) for Jewish-interest books. Although not a bookstore per se, The Spanish Table (1814 San Pablo Ave.) sells cookbooks and other works on Iberian and Latin American culture. 

You can buy legal advice in handy book form at the Nolo Press store (950 Parker St.). For jazz aficionados, The Basement @ JazzSchool (2087 Addison St.) purveys books and records. Down Home Music (10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito) has an extensive book section. Mr. Mopps (1405 Martin Luther King Jr. Way) has books for children. And don’t forget genre fiction: for science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery, as well as plush Cthulus and Monty Python action figures, there’s Dark Carnival (3086 Claremont Blvd.) and Other Change of Hobbit (2020 Shattuck Ave.). 

Reflecting a certain ambivalence, Walden Pond (3316 Grand Ave.) calls itself “a Berkeley bookstore in Oakland.” It has one of the East Bay’s best selections of new political/cultural titles, many from independent publishers, in addition to used books. Other Oakland used-book outlets include Spectator (4163 Piedmont Ave.) and Bibliomania (1816 Telegraph Ave.). 

Across the bay, San Francisco’s answer to Moe’s is Green Apple (506 Clement St.), a labyrinthine warren of mostly used books; the new stuff is downstairs. Kerouac and Ginsberg fans will want to make a pilgrimage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books (261 Columbus). Modern Times (888 Valencia) works the political side of the street. For a Chaplin trifecta, Limelight (1803 Market) specializes in the theater arts. Alexander Books (50 2nd Street) has strong African-American literature and poetry sections. Kinokuniya (1581 Webster, in the Nihonmachi Center) offers Japanese titles in both Japanese and English. In the Mission, Dog Eared Books (900 Valencia) and Needles and Pens (3253 16th) showcase zines and independent publications, and Borderlands (866 Valencia) covers science fiction and related genres. And downtown, there’s Stacey’s (581 Market) and the shiny new San Francisco Cody’s (2 Stockton). 

This just scratches the surface, of course. There are noteworthy independent bookstores on the Peninsula (Kepler’s, back from the grave!), east of the Caldecott Tunnel, and north of the Golden Gate. The obituaries for the non-chain brick-and-mortar bookseller may be premature. But for God’s sake, get out there and buy some books!