When Rebecca’s Books, specializing in poetry, opened Oct. 27 at 3268 Adeline Ave. in South Berkeley, the Morning Star Choir came up from the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Los Angeles to sing.
It’s the choir that store proprietor Mary Ann Braithwaite and her son used to sing with, and Braithwaite just commented, “That’s love!”
“My friends came up from L.A. for the opening,” she recalled, “and said, ‘You’re home!’ And I feel I’m home. I miss my support system there, but people here say, ‘We’re your support system!’ Amazing people I never have would thought to meet are coming in and out. And I’ve been learning from strangers. That’s part of Berkeley, too. I’m the happiest I’ve been since I had my children.”
Walking im off the street, one feels what Braithwaite says her customers keep describing—Rebecca’s Books is warm and homey. Colorful covers—most new poetry books, some used, some cultural titles and a growing collection of children’s books—are on display around the main room and in ‘Polly’s Place,’ a children’s room in the back.
“Rebecca’s Books is named after my mother,” Braithwaite said, “Polly was her nickname.” Looking over the back room, she remarked, “This is the hardest challenge.”
Artwork covers the walls, much of it from Braithwaite’s own collection, with other pieces brought in by her old friend of 30 years, Oakland artist Woody Johnson as well as artists he’s referred. “People started coming in, saying ‘Woody sent me’—then Woody came in and hung them up!”
There are cards, journals, jewelry, some handmade candleholders Woody Johnson provided. It’s a bookstore with a particularly personal touch, arrayed neatly yet casually. Asked about how the books are organized, “Braithwaite joked, “There is no organization! Somebody alphabetized it, and I ended up switching everything. It has its order. And I’ve had no complaints about it.”
Another old friend, poet Reginald Lockett, has helped with the selection. “Every book is handpicked, 90 percent my own favorites.”
Others have weighed in, too. “Ishmael Reed came by and offered to help. Berkeley poet Rebecca Fromer, a cofounder of the Magnes Museum, and her friend Ruth “came in at just the right time and soothed me ... I’m an impatient person, but that’s not the way to do it. I learn as I go along. I’m not going anywhere.”
There are open mic readings every other Friday, M.C.’d by former Cal student Brandelyn Castine. More readings will be scheduled. California Poet Laureate Al Young has agreed to appear. And others less known have come by with their books and manuscripts.
Braithwaite’s attitude is truly catholic, community oriented: “I don’t want to get a reputation having only strangers; on the other hand, all started that way. I’ve read things given to me that weren’t my type, but possibly those writers could do a reading. We’re very diverse. I was taught by Sister Mary Carol in school that it’s a matter of interpretation. Like music, poetry says different things to different people. And maybe that wasn’t the way it was written! I say, ‘If indeed your poetry means this, maybe I just don’t get it—but don’t tell me I’m wrong! I just see it different.’”
Looking at pictures of her mother on the wall , Braithwaite talked about how her parents married in Tennessee and moved to Chicago, where she was born, moving again to L. A. when she was 11. She worked as an administrator for the Catholic Church for 21 years, retiring early and selling her house to found Rebecca’s Books. “I truly loved it, but always knew I’d do something else.”
She’d lived in San Francisco from the late ’70s to the mid ’80s, and started visiting again a few years ago when her son was attending Dominican University in San Rafael. She acquired the store a year ago last month, and moved here in May.
“I wanted this to be a black bookstore,” Braithwaite said, “But one day I was sitting in the Vault Cafe, on Adeline, with the young man who was my orderer, who’s white, looking around—and I said, These are my customers. So it’s black-owned, but for everybody, including children.”
“It’s really sad kids aren’t exposed to poetry,” she went on. “I did Black History Month a while ago at our school down in L.A. I auditioned the kids to read poetry—as the poets. I picked them so they looked liked the poets. I had my little Ishmael Reed with long hair, my little Al Young ... my Langston Hughes was a tall, lanky kid ... I said, ‘You wear a suit and tie!’ I gave them each a poem and two days to prepare. They really got interested! They got on the internet and found more stuff—‘Can we read this?’ I had to tell them we only had ten minutes. It was kind of like my little going away.”
Asked why she wanted a poetry bookstore, Braithwaite replied, “There’s a need. When you walk into most bookstores, you see the same four or five generic poets—and don’t get me wrong, I love them—but the same in every store. Poetry needs exposure. It does something to me, for me. I love to read. The majority of these books are in my house. That’s a good thing—and a bad thing!”
With friends sending her library discards to give away—“and my accountant, who keeps telling me I’m not a nonprofit!”—Braithwaite wants Rebecca’s to be part of the scene, making its own unique contribution. “People come in and say, ‘I’ll be back,’ then bring in someone else with them. And there’s no competition. The biggest compliment I got was when some people walked by, and one said, ‘Honey, look! A City Lights in Berkeley!’”