I moved to Berkeley five years ago next month in part because of the promise of job with a regular paycheck just a dozen or so blocks from Cody’s Books.
I’m not merely an avid reader. I’m a biblioholic, enamored of the printed page.
For me, there’s something almost erotic about a book. The look, the heft, the smell, the glory of great typography and the feel of the page—ranging from the heavy slick gloss of an art book to the fibrous texture of the heavy stock used by publishers proud of the words they printed.
All that plus new worlds to explore!
I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love books.
At age 7 or 8, I convinced the crew at the Abilene, Kan., public library to give me that most precious of possessions, a card that let me check out books from the adult section upstairs.
And whenever I went anywhere with my parents, I invariably insisted on stops at two establishments: museums and bookstores.
Everywhere I’ve lived on my own since, from Alamosa, Col., to Las Vegas and L.A., the first thing I’ve always done on arriving in a new town is to scope out the local bookstores, quickly mastering the terrains of the history, science and mystery sections, along with occasional expeditions into art, architecture, philosophy and whatever else was the passion du jour.
Moving to Sacramento late in 1983, I quickly discovered that while River City had some decent independent booksellers (chains I visit mostly to scope out the remainders), it had nothing like the long-vanished Book City and the other great stores I’d found in L.A.
So I headed west to Berkeley, knowing from my brief days as a street artist a decade earlier that only Telegraph Avenue would sate my as-yet unrequited passion for fulfillment between the covers.
And it was always Cody’s that drew me in first—in the earliest years with my son, then later with my two daughters.
Sure, we went to Moe’s and Shakespeare’s, but it was always Cody’s, with its unparalleled array of new titles stacked to unreachable heights, that proved the most powerful magnet, and I never left the place with my wallet less than $100 lighter.
The vibrant street life of the Avenue was an added bonus, most memorably when we took a rather strait-laced family from New Hampshire to see the sites and shelves and they were rewarded—though that’s not the word they would’ve used—by the naked bodies of Debbie Moore and the Xplicit Players before the City Council got all prudish.
The shock on the faces of those dowdy Northeasterners is something my daughters and I still recall with relish, and their sons with glee.
Over the years, I calculated recently, I dropped well over $20,000 into the coffers of the Codys and Andy Ross, their successor as owner, enriching myself, my children and my friends with a colorful profusion of ideas and images.
Dennett, Dawkins, Pinker, Zinn, Kershaw, James Carroll, Hobsbawm, Hiassen, Chandler, McDonald, Macdonald and countless others all moved from Cody’s shelves to mine. So much so that I’ve literally been buried in books, after an earthquake rattled my Napa home and momentarily entombed me beneath hundreds of hardbacks; I remember briefly thinking, “Well, not a bad way to go.”
When Cody’s was departing from Telegraph, I made one final purchase, a wonderfully executed one-volume collection of Raymond Chandler’s Collected Stories, a constant source of inspiration for a writer in search of a clean, incisive prose style.
I went to the Fourth Street store only twice, finding it sadly unlike the original and all too much like a chain in its array of titles and manner of display.
I visited the Shattuck Avenue store only once, three weeks before the closing, along with Samantha, my youngest. We found it a rather dolorous place, a pale simulacrum of the original.
Still, when I sent her an e-mail to notify her of the closing, she responded, “ :( and on my birthday. . .”
How odd that a city like Berkeley, which houses perhaps the most literate and highly educated populace in the Bay Area, finds itself unable to support a first-class bookstore.
Sure, there’s always the Internet, but buying online isn’t the same. I can’t flip through the pages, search the author’s acknowledgments, get a feel for the quality of the print, the touch of the paper or the fidelity of the color plates.
Instead, buying a book has too often become something like buying toothpaste, where we are forced to disregard that old maxim about judging by covers and to settle for terse online descriptions and scanty images, along with reader reviews that are often little more than the rants of deranged ideologues.
So it’s Moe’s and Pegasus for me from now on, along with the occasional excursion into the World Wide Web when all else fails.
But there’ll always be a large, unrequited ache for the place that was once filled by Cody’s.
Besides writing for the Daily Planet, the writer has also written two nonfiction works under his own name. One, Fuller’s Earth: A Day with Buckminster Fuller and the Kids, is being reprinted by New Press in October as part of its Classics in Progressive Education series.