Walking into Book Zoo feels like stepping into someone’s living room. It’s a funky little used bookstore in North Oakland, with hardwood floors, an abundance of plants, posters, and artwork, a children’s play area, and hanging in the back, an American flag with the peace symbol. Erik Lyngen and Nick Raymond are co-owners of Book Zoo, mavericks who don’t use a cash register or sell books online and are trusting souls who leave a cart with sale books out overnight with a slot in the door for payment.
The place feels inviting, but Erik and Nick face some serious challenges. The store, at 6395 Telegraph Ave., off Alcatraz, has been open nearly a year and a half in its present location. Business has been slow so far. Erik and Nick couldn’t afford the high rent of a more traditional shopping district, so they settled on a somewhat problematical location. “It’s hard getting people out of their geographical grooves. A lot of people have written off this area. There’s a little bit of everything here, drugs, alcoholism, prostitution, urinating in public, homelessness,” says Erik, 37, a friendly guy with a mop of black, curly hair.
And then there’s the larger issue of a small independent bookstore attempting to survive in today’s climate of chain bookstores, Amazon.com, and a blizzard of available media options: radio, TV, movies, CDs, DVDs, video games, etc. The East Bay has a relatively high degree of literacy, with an abundance of book lovers, and yet many independent bookstores have not been able to survive here. Cody’s Books and Shambhala Books, two longtime fixtures on Berkeley’s bustling Telegraph Avenue stretch, were forced to close shop in the past few years.
Dyrell Van Fleet of Bibliomania in Oakland, who sells antiquarian and collectible books, says, “The Internet undersells booksellers. Ten copies are competing against each other, so people who know about books are being replaced by people scanning bar codes.”
Van Fleet sells books online but admires Erik and Nick for sticking to their principles. “Selling books online would help their economic viability. I’m glad that people like Erik come along, young booksellers with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Erik and Nick served their apprenticeship at local bookstores and now enjoy being their own boss. It allows them the freedom to buy the out-of-the-mainstream books of radical politics, art, sexuality, and the occult they stock their shelves with, shelves with often playful labels like “druggy fiction” or “bathroom reading.” Many intriguing titles, such as The Way of Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs, Tales of Wo-Chi-Ca: Blacks, Whites and Reds at Camp, The Psychic World of California, and Ann Hooper’s Pocket Sex Guide greet customers.
Erik and Nick honor their core values of simplicity and ease by using minimal technology. They record sales by hand, although later some information might be entered into the computer. They believe selling books online is too far removed from the relaxed, intimate reading experience they pride themselves on creating for their customers. “You can’t easily browse online. They can’t compete with us,” Erik says.
“It depresses me to think the Internet’s highest function is a home-based shopping mall,” adds Nick, 28, who’s tall and lanky, an appealing combination of shyness and congeniality.
They feel that Book Zoo’s friendly ambience and eclectic selection of high-quality, affordable books will eventually bring in more customers. They are the only workers in the store, which they see as a distinct advantage: it cuts down on paperwork for employees and allows Erik and Nick to coordinate their used book buying, giving Book Zoo a more coherent character than stores with several different buyers.
They’re firm believers in word-of-mouth and would like to have regular author events, which would help spread the word to the numerous independently thinking book lovers. But Erik and Nick have limited time; each works second jobs, Erik at the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley and Nick at the Oakland Public Library. In addition, Erik is married and has a 2-year-old daughter, Ramona.
Still, there are occasional author events at Book Zoo. On a cool, gray Sunday afternoon, I attended a screenprinting demonstration by John Isaacson, author of Do It Yourself Screenprinting, with the subtitle Turning Your Home into a T-Shirt Factory. About 15 people, mainly young women, some new to the store, were in attendance. Anyone who wanted to got the chance to make a print, including Erik’s daughter. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. I didn’t make a print but was happy to discover a copy of Selected Essays by Robert Louis Stevenson, in good condition, for only $4.
The turnout pleased Erik, who remarked, “Drawing a young crowd is our only hope of survival because the core of used bookstore customers are 50- to 60-year-old men. They’re automatic; you don’t have to make a big effort to get them.”
He spoke excitedly about a poetry reading at the store given by two 1960s icons and current political activists, John Sinclair, a founder of the White Panthers, and Ted Rosenthal, ardent marijuana advocate. “John’s poetry lit up the small room. It’s nice knowing we could stage events that tie us into a higher stream, history that’s still happening. The community involvement at our readings when there are good exchanges reminds us it’s not just an anonymous space.”
I understood Erik’s feeling of exhilaration, having once been a bookstore reading series coordinator myself. Also, his comments made me realize that Book Zoo has a strong ’60s flavor, a sense of exploration, of going against conventional wisdom, as well as a longing for community. Perhaps these qual-ities, combined with Book Zoo’s small town feel, make it unique among local bookstores.
In the mid-’90s, Erik and his wife, Sarah Guy, spent two years teaching English in Japan, followed by a year traveling about the United States supporting themselves by odd jobs. They settled down in Oakland, California in 1999. The following year, Erik got a job at Walden Pond Books and became fast friends with co-worker Nick. When the idea of opening his own bookstore began calling to Erik, he and Nick discussed becoming partners.
In 2003, they opened a tiny, cave-like store called Book Zoo on Telegraph Avenue and Blake Street in Berkeley, about a mile from their current location. They closed the store three years later, reluctantly acknowledging it was a lost cause. Nick recalls, “It seemed to attract every esoteric personality. We were very lenient at first about drug use and other behavior. Sometimes people used the bathroom for hours at a time. This store has more room and more sunlight. There’s a more diverse population, and it’s a lot more kid-friendly.”
Erik’s wife Sarah and daughter are in the store a lot, mingling easily with customers, adding to Book Zoo’s personal flavor. Sarah is blonde, blue-eyed, and has a quiet, calm manner. She teaches kindergarten at Archway School, a small private school in Berkeley. She says, “The hardest part is the money burden. Everything I make at Archway goes back into the store at this point.”
But she smiles recalling how Book Zoo got launched, with friends enthusiastically pitching in to build shelves and paint.
Steve Margulis and Peter Herkoff are former colleagues of Erik’s and Nick’s at Walden Pond Books. Margulis says, “Since Erik and Nick opened their first bookstore, I’ve seen how much they’ve learned. Their stock is so much better now than at the hole-in-the-wall. There are feel-good vibes the moment you walk in now. They’re still working out their philosophy. Will it be a neighborhood store or one that draws people from further away?”
Peter adds, “Erik and Nick have a lot of integrity and passion and knowledge of books. They’re very eclectic, which is good but also limiting. They have a certain philosophy of not carrying popular literature. As a neighborhood bookstore that feels right, but you worry about their long-term sustainability. They’re a throwback to a different world, like the old general store.”
And Sarah puts Book Zoo in a larger perspective. “I want more independent stores like this where you can ask questions about what’s important to you. I want to live in a community where I know the people who run the stores, and they know their customers.”
4-10 p.m. Thurday and Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
6395 Telegraph Ave.