Public Comment

Commentary: Panhandlers — Not Aggressive Enough

By Carol Denney
Friday September 08, 2006

The more articles I read about Cody’s bookstore on Telegraph in Berkeley closing its doors, with all the usual finger-pointing at panhandlers and street artists as the culprits responsible, the more peculiar the story seems. 

Each article briefly mentions owner Andy Ross’s having started up two new Cody’s bookstores, one in San Francisco and one on fashionable Fourth Street in Berkeley, despite supposedly losing money on the Telegraph store, without actually cracking open the financial books and explaining how such a miracle took place. 

Each article assumes it’s inevitable that the Telegraph bookstore should be the one to close, despite Ross’s admission that the Telegraph store makes more money than the others. Ross explains that the Telegraph store has more “overhead” costs, and the politicians don’t miss a beat fawning over the store closing as though somebody had died, loudly lamenting its loss, but never raising a question about what the word “overhead” in this context means. 

I’m just reading through the lines, but doesn’t it mean he took the longest-lived store, with the legendary origin but also the highest labor costs, and booted those jobs in favor of the cheaper labor in his new, legend-free enterprises across town? I could be wrong, but how do you manage to secure loans or make enough money to expand your business if it is really failing? And I haven’t seen the financial books, but who would stay in the business of bookstores, opening two additional stores, if they really had no financial faith whatsoever that they could make some money? 

The literary and free speech mantle so easily coupled with a bookstore sits uneasily on the shoulders of the man who inherited wealth enough to buy, and then eliminate, Cody’s flagship location. Andy Ross wholeheartedly supported the mean-spirited, unconstitutional efforts of Berkeley’s City Council to silence panhandling, an ordinance which was overturned by the courts, and his employees could at times be seen (and were photographed) turning hoses on anyone in a sleeping bag near his property at dawn. 

But reporters wouldn’t know these things unless they took more time with the story. Politicians wouldn’t ask these things unless they were willing to run the risk of annoying a rich and powerful man. And nobody would hear about the homeless people getting sprayed with freezing water unless it had happened to their friends or to them, and they’d had to spend a cold, foggy morning stuffing their last quarters into the dryer at a laundromat, hoping to have dry bedding by sundown. I know the local newspapers would have me see something heroic in Andy Ross for inexplicably closing his Telegraph store. But I remember the bewilderment in the eyes of the people whose precious few drawings or books were ruined by getting hosed while doing nothing more threatening than sleeping. My heroes are the patient, weary souls who gathered their soaked belongings, and simply walked away. In my eyes, they are not aggressive enough. 

Intelligent readers will note the absence of the larger story, the story of landlords’ skyrocketing rents in commercial districts so that respected businesses of decades’ duration are kicked to the curb like the panhandlers and craftspeople were near Cody’s. The fluffy stories about Andy Ross’s tear-stained lament for his own bank account do nothing to reveal greed of the property owners who impose huge burdens on small businesses, caring nothing about the careful composition of businesses it takes to keep a commercial district healthy. 

Andy Ross and his wealthy circle of mourners will continue to nod in the direction of People’s Park or nearby homeless services and homeless service users as somehow burdening businesses, because the press and the public love to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It doesn’t matter how tired the menu or how absent the foundation, blaming the poor always finds a seat at the table. 


Carol Denney is a local musician and activist.