Could Cody’s Rise Again?

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:51:00 AM

When downtown shoppers pass the southeast corner of Shattuck and Allston these days, they’re apt to see unhappy-looking people with their noses pressed to the glass in the door of the storefront there. That’s because the last stand of the fabled Cody’s bookstore suddenly closed its doors a couple of weeks ago, leaving books on the shelves and signs announcing upcoming author talks in the windows. A combination of changes in the publishing industry and unsuccessful business decisions with accompanying debts prompted the current owner, a Japanese corporation, to withdraw funding from the enterprise.  

Cody’s Books, first under the ownership of beloved founders Fred and Pat Cody and then operated by a succession of buyers including Andy Ross, was older than many of its patrons, who took it for granted that Cody’s would always be there for them and their children. Its closing has left an enormous hole in the lives of chronic book browsers. They find it hard to imagine a Berkeley without a big independent bookstore, even though most new titles of their choice are now available online. The author talks that had become a staple at Cody’s were also very popular, with famous writers sometimes playing to standing-room-only crowds. 

It’s not that there are no independent bookstores left in the East Bay, of course. Bibliophiles were happy to hear that a buyer had been found for Black Oak Books, which is increasingly relying on used book sales. Moe’s on Telegraph, founded by Moe Moscowitz, a contemporary of the original Codys, and still run by his daughter, is going strong in that market, as is its neighbor Shakespeare and Co. In Oakland, Diesel and Spectator are alive and well. Mrs. Dalloway’s on College in the Elmwood serves a neighborhood and specialty market.  

But none of these fine businesses quite fills Cody’s niche. Book buyers, particularly those who shop with their kids, love stores that stock a well-chosen selection of all kinds of books in one place: the latest scholarly history or computer volumes under the same roof as escape fiction, with comfortable chairs and a cozy kids’ section to keep the younger readers busy (and to sell lots of books!) while the parents shop elsewhere. There are still stores like this around the bay. 

Bookshop Santa Cruz, owned and operated by the Coonerty family since it started, is the anchor tenant on Pacific in the center of that university town, a magnet for eager shoppers day and night. The last time we were there sex expert Susie Bright was delivering a late-night book talk to a rapt audience which must have numbered in the hundreds. In Menlo Park, Kepler’s almost went under, but after being closed for a tense month “angel investors” joined Clark Kepler, son of the founders, to re-open it in newly invigorated form. Bookshop West Portal, started by the founders of the late Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, is doing well. 

The Kepler’s story has inspired some Berkeleyans to wonder if it could also happen here. Could our community pull together to reconstitute a bookstore which would be a worthy successor to the one Fred and Pat Cody founded? Rumors have been circulating ever since the Shattuck store closed that Someone would buy out the recent Cody’s corporate investors and open it again. The name of the O’Malley family has been attached to some of these rumors, but—you read it here first—that’s not going to happen. We have our hands full rescuing one local institution. 

What we have been doing, though, is talking to a few local people who share our interest in trying to make something good happen on the Berkeley bookstore scene. First and foremost, no surprise, is Pat Cody, still vigorous, smart and creative in her eighties. She still knows the book business like the back of her hand, though she and Fred sold their store a long time ago. We’ve had a couple of meetings around Pat’s dining room table. 

Linda Schacht Gage, another participant, has distinguished herself in Berkeley book circles by her work for the Berkeley Public Library, on its board and running its annual Authors’ Dinners. Her husband John was Cody’s computer book buyer way back when, and though he went on to great success in the high tech world he’s still a book lover. Clark Kepler sat in on a meeting, as did Heyday Books publisher Malcolm Margolin. Other key book industry veterans have also been talking with us. 

We’ve discussed a number of promising options, including non-profits, co-op status and trying to attract a small number of public-spirited investors who don’t need to make big profits to a new company. Everyone agrees that we need to look at new models for what bookstores can do. In recent years the best bookstores have functioned as community centers, not only sponsoring author appearances but offering programs for school kids, for writers and more. We’d like to explore such directions. 

Now it’s time, we agree, to ask everyone in Berkeley and beyond who cares about bookstores to join the discussion. We’ll be holding a public meeting as soon as we can get it organized, and we want to invite everyone who’s interested to join in the effort. Pat Cody is going to start writing a blog to keep the community informed about what’s happening, and to provide a place for ideas to be presented. We’ll tell you where to find it when it happens.  

For now, if you have ideas to share, send them to books@berkeleydailyplanet.com—these letters will be forwarded to the blog when it’s up and running. Please get in touch soon. We need everyone’s help if we’re going to make this work. We believe it can.