In order to keep his favorite bookstore from being turned into a beauty shop, Harvey Dong transformed himself from customer to owner of Eastwind Books in 1996.
A graduate student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley in the 1990s, he was a frequent visitor to the Asian bookstore, which was then located on Shattuck Avenue next to McDonalds.
“The store was founded in 1982 by UC Berkeley academics and community people as an Asian resource center,” he explains. “It carried 80 percent Chinese language titles.”
It changed hands several times, and in 1996 was slated to close and become a beauty shop. As a last ditch effort, the previous owner appealed to Dong and his wife to save Eastwind. Dong recalls, “I was working in construction at the time, so it was an easy transition from wood to paper.”
In the past 12 years, the Dongs have kept the store going, broadened its scope and made it a cherished part of the local Asian American community, despite bumps along the way: competition from Internet giants, dwindling numbers of independent bookstores and the eternal lack of parking. In 1998, Eastwind moved to its present location on University Avenue. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect spot for an Asian Bookstore than being next to [Japanese] Ramen House, down the block from Plearn Thai and across the street from Anh Hong Vietnamese and Taiwan Chinese restaurants.
Eastwind occupies a comfortable, well-used storefront and sports a pastiche of posters on the walls: action shots of martial arts moves, a diagram of acupressure points, the Chinese phonetic system and a chart entitled Ken Hom’s Asian vegetables.
This unique shop also houses a wide-ranging inventory: cookbooks, foreign language instruction, alternative medicine, martial arts, history, philosophy, culture, religion, poetry, classical and contemporary fiction. Most titles are now in English with only 10 percent in Chinese. The cultures represented include: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Hmong, Hawaiian, Indian, Tibetan, Pakistani, Malaysian, Filipino, and Indonesian. With his interest in ethnic studies, Dong also carries books with American Indian, Cuban, Latino and African American themes. Eastwind supplies textbooks for many classes in the Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies and English departments at UC Berkeley, Berkeley City College, and Laney as well as a local acupuncture school.
Dong grew up in the Sacramento valley. His father served in the U.S. military; his mother was a war bride from China. As a former student activist at UC Berkeley in the ’60s who humbly admits he helped to establish its Asian Studies department, Dong says he likes to read about the early history of the Asian American community as well as current social issues, race and politics.
He cites two recent favorites: Little Sister Left Behind by Samantha Le, “an amazing book about the personal struggle of a Vietnamese girl who comes here with her family, goes through conflict and is able to become her own person”; and To Save China, To Save Ourselves: The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York by Renqui Yu, “which details the fight for civil rights in the 1930s and ’40s when there was a push to close down Chinese laundries in New York City. It had a big impact on me,” Dong said, “as it counters the stereotype that Chinese workers are perpetual foreigners and unorganizable,”
Dong reports that his customers represent three major groups: students, community members and recent monolingual Chinese immigrants, many of whom work in nearby restaurants. “I am really aware of aging when I see former Chinese-speaking immigrant restaurant workers bringing their children to the store and kids from Berkeley High who came in here when they didn’t know any English and who are now attending college.”
Dong acknowledges that “those of us who run independent bookstores are not doing it for the money.” Why does he do it? “For a little craziness and to provide literature and information about Asian American countries and peoples” with a strong emphasis on “the second generation, their struggles to deal with the pressure to assimilate and how they eventually redefine themselves.”
Eastwind also carries an extensive selection of children’s books.
Frequent book launchings lend support to small independent presses. To celebrate the Lunar New Year earlier this week, Ed Lin read from This Is a Bust, his gritty tale of a Chinese-American cop in New York City, and Lisa Chen read from her debut collection of poetry, Mouth, both by Kaya Publications. On Saturday, April 12, at 4 p.m. Moazzam Sheikh will read from his new book The Idol Lover, about Pakistani American life. Sheikh, a Pakistani writer who is a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, has written several books and translated works from Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.
Dong sees the potential “for bookstores in general to be a resource center and a community focal point. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have an independent bookstore in every neighborhood,” he says, then pauses. “Maybe that’s too much of a pipe dream.”
2066 University Ave. 548-2350.