Public Comment

Commentary: Cody’s Goes Global, Leaving Local Shoppers Behind

By Anne Blackstone
Friday September 22, 2006

Having just gone through the process of accepting that Cody’s on Telegraph would be no more, I found the sale of Cody’s Fourth Street and San Francisco stores to a Japanese buyer something of a further shock. As well as an important reality check. Let us never forget, I thought to myself when I learned of the sale, that business is about money.  

A recent visit to the 4th St. store had shown just how real the money issue still was. I expressed surprise to the staff about the continuing lack of inventory. I had thought the distribution of the Telegraph inventory would have bulked up the Fourth Street shelves. I was told that the store had been in arrears with many of its publishers and distributors, and these financial problems were still very apparent. I was appreciatively thanked for my purchase and my continued support, and I left hoping for the best for the store.  

But now this sale to a Japanese buyer. The fiscal realities, responsibilities, and available options weren’t mine to wrestle with, so I am in no position to second-guess the choices and decisions owner Andy Ross and his partner Leslie Berkler have made. But to say I wasn’t disconcerted by this latest turn of events would be untrue.  

Now we have a former local store—a local icon, even—financially directed and controlled by a company based an ocean away with a CEO reportedly jet-setting between Tokyo and New York. True, Yohan, Inc. CEO Kagawa’s words to Andy Ross — “Keep raising hell” — sounded promising enough given that raising hell when hell needs to be raised is certainly a Berkeley trademark. According to the Chronicle, “Yohan, Inc. is a privately held firm with 120 employees and $80 million in revenue. The firm’s primary business is distributing English-language books and magazines in Japan.” Yohan’s coterie of businesses also includes “a Japanese publisher of books teaching English; Stone Bridge Press, which specializes in books about Japan; and 18 bookstores, including several that focus on works in English.” Like Ross, Kagawa is a book lover who also loved Cody’s when he first visited the Telegraph store more than 20 years ago. 

Still, there are issues. Most important, assuming there are profits, where do those profits go? Do they stay in the community or do they go to Japan? Same problem as with chains—where does the money go? Where are the decisions made? And based on what criteria? Statistics show vast differences in the amount of community investment between locally-owned and non-locally-owned businesses. From the standpoint of community strength and development, independent bookselling is not one and the same with locally owned independent bookselling. And that puts this new iteration of Cody’s in a different category from other San Francisco and East Bay independent booksellers where both finances and decision-making remain in local hands. I suppose that’s what bothered me about this news. It automatically shifted one of my favorite A-list locally-owned stores into a different B-list non-locally-owned category.  

Further, Japanese and U.S. cultures represent nearly opposite ends of a long pole, with the Japanese reconsidering aspects of their intense focus on group and communal values and the United States just beginning to reconsider its long-standing hyper-individualism. Kagawa’s desire to “consciously break with the narrow national focus of most other Japanese publishing companies” fits right in with efforts to re-balance Japanese cultural leanings, but is it what is needed here at the other end of that cultural pole?  

Even Andy Ross is talking about being able to go global now. It’s not entirely clear what that means. However popular or successful international selling may currently be, just the shipping issues alone are a problem—dependence on oil and externalized environmental costs entailed in worldwide shipping matter. Like many other book buyers, even when I do order a (used) book online, I now make every effort to purchase from a California seller even if the price is a little higher, just to cut down on the transportation distance.  

The fact that the “little guys”—whether small-business owners or individual customers—contribute but a drop in the bucket to environmental problems compared to the big boys doesn’t make any of it less serious. The quickly increasing awareness of these issues, however, creates an opportunity for a nascent venture such as this one to consider creative alternatives to the climate-changing global bandwagon even if cash makes such an option possible.  

Consumer choice is one of the few areas in which buyers and customers have an opportunity to “vote” economically. What goes into those choices increasingly includes not just loyalty to individuals like Andy and Leslie, great inventory and programs, price, service, etc., but a conscious “vote” for businesses that recognize their participation—desired or not—in a global economic paradigm that is environmentally bankrupt and largely rootless and that therefore take bold steps to counter its effects. Shortening supply chains and concerted community investment are two of those essential steps. For customers, it’s like choosing to pay a bit more for locally-grown organic produce, going a little out of the way to support local farmers, or shopping at locally-owned stores. 

Becoming a non-locally owned bookseller is obviously a done deal in this instance. Because I believe that strengthening locally based economies worldwide is one of the most promising options we have to counter the serious environmental- and community-busting effects of globetrotting, free-floating capital, the fact that Cody’s is no longer locally-owned will indeed affect my decisions about where to shop and order books.  

Nevertheless, I still hope that Andy Ross and Hiroshi Kagawa will find ways to do something different with their international cash—perhaps going “regional” instead of “global,” or following some of the many other ideas expounded, for example, in Michael Shuman’s new book (which they might find on their own shelves!), The Small-Mart Revolution. With the amount of press they have received, they would have a chance to make a significant difference by using their current flush of excitement and creativity to become leaders in the kind of environmentally-aware and community-building economic thinking that is intensely globally sophisticated but rooted in concrete local and regional solutions.  


Anne Blackstone is an Oakland resident. 





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