Computer Book Author Buys Black Oak Books

By Judith Scherr
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 09:50:00 AM
Gary Cornell is the new owner of Black Oak Books.
By Judith Scherr
Gary Cornell is the new owner of Black Oak Books.

Cody’s Books was taken off life support June 20, taking its place in the beloved bookstore graveyard next to A Clean Well-Lighted Place, Avenue Books, Mama Bear’s, A Woman’s Place Bookstore and others. 

So when people saw that Black Oak Books was closed, just three days after Cody’s announced demise, and saw a worker changing the store’s locks, some drew the conclusion that Black Oak had gone the way of Cody’s. 

The opposite, however, is true. The 24-year-old bookstore at 1491 Shattuck Ave. was closed for one day only. The store’s name and assets were bought by Gary Cornell, former University of Connecticut mathmatics department professor and author of some 30 computer books. 

According to Cornell, Black Oak is on its way up. 

“Black Oak had been running on fumes,” Cornell told the Planet in an interview Monday in the Black Oak office that doubles as shelf space for books. “It was experiencing hard times for two or three years.” 

What the business needed most was an infusion of capital, he said. 

That’s just one of the resources Cornell brings to the ailing business, whose owners announced publicly that it was for sale in January 2007. 

“The key is to embrace the Internet; I’m a computer person,” Cornell said. “I’m not going to try to fight it.”  

The new Black Oak will offer 100,000 to 150,000 used books housed in a warehouse on San Pablo Avenue near Virginia Street, all available for on-line sales. For those who come into the Shattuck Avenue store and choose a book from the warehouse, a van will pick up the book and have it at the store within a few hours. 

Cornell intends to open the warehouse to the public one or two days each month.  

Cody’s mistake was carrying only new books, Cornell said, adding that Black Oak will continue to have a healthy mix. The store is paying “top dollar” for used books to build the inventory, he said. 

In addition to computer skills, Cornell brings business savvy to Black Oak. He once ran Apress, a successful publishing business located in Berkeley and New York, that grew from four to 60 employees. He has since sold the business. 

He’ll oversee renovations of the interior space that will begin soon—and continue through July—aimed at opening up more space for books and making the place more attractive, with improved lighting. During renovations the store won’t open until noon. 

“It’s a little run down,” he said. “We’ll bring the store into the 21st century—or at least the 20th.” 

The children’s section will be enlarged, and include special seating, he said. Author readings will resume after renovations are complete. 

Cornell said he will continue, at least for now, to reside in his home near Cambridge, Mass., to which he’ll return after the store remodel is complete. He is turning over day-to-day operations to former manager Stephanie Vala. Former owner Bob Brown is charged with purchasing books.  

At the same time he is getting the store off the ground, Cornell is working on a math book for lay people. 

In addition to founding Apress, writing articles and books and translating others from German, he has served as program director in mathematics at the National Science Foundation and worked at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. 

Cornell can be reached at Gcornell@blackoak.com.