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Black Oak Books Buys West Berkeley Home

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:11:00 AM
By Michael Howerton

Berkeley’s Black Oak Books is planning a resurrection. 

The bookstore, which closed in May after more than two decades on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley, has announced plans to reopen at the former Rountree’s nightclub at 2618 San Pablo Ave., converting the space into a combined bookstore and performance venue. 

Black Oak owner Gary Cornell, a former University of Connecticut math professor who moved to Berkeley in 2008 to save Black Oak, said he had bought the West Berkeley property along with some friends—the same group that had also invested in Black Oak—and was getting ready to open by Dec. 1. 

Right after closing the North Shattuck location because the store could no longer afford the rent, Cornell told the Planet that Black Oak might open a retail section at its San Pablo Ave. warehouse, but on Monday he said that won’t happen. 

“I am very excited we found a new place,” Cornell said. “If all goes well, Black Oak Books will reopen by the end of November. I don’t know how realistic it is, but right now we are just focusing on getting it open for business.” 

The new space, at 6,500 square feet, is larger than the old location at 1491 Shattuck Ave. 

“It could be a little restaurant or café,” Cornell said, talking about some of the possibilities. “Even a place for jazz performances.” 

Books will take up half the space, Cornell said, although there won’t be as many new books as before. 

The red brick Rountree’s building—which in the past housed the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame—was vacant when Cornell purchased it. 

“It’s in a rather rundown state cosmetically, and it will take some time to get it into a better shape,” Cornell said. “We are getting a new roof next week.” 

Cornell said low property prices in the area, especially on San Pablo Avenue, had attracted him to the building, which he feels, in spite of its predominantly industrial location, has promise. 

“We tried to get the former Cody’s space downtown,” Cornell said, referring to the former Eddy Bauer showroom at 2201 Shattuck Ave., which Cody’s Books had fleetingly occupied before going out of business. “But the landlord there didn’t feel it was important to have a bookstore downtown and wouldn’t lower the rent. Things are cheap on San Pablo, so we decided to buy our own place.” 

When asked how much he paid for the property, Cornell said, “it’s a meaningless number.” 

Real estate sites advertised the 7,290-square-foot lot listed by West Berkeley developers Norheim & Yost at $625,000. 

On Wednesday, workers were tearing down the gilted panels inside Rountree’s, slowly removing all the jazz memoribilia from the walls. A “Jesse Jackson for President ‘88” poster and some Duke Ellington color reprints peeked out from behind the bar, a stark reminder of the club’s bygone days. 

Cornell announced the rebirth of Black Oak two weeks after Berkeley’s newest bookstore, Books Inc., opened its doors at 1460 Fourth Street.  

Books Inc. co-owner and President Michael Tucker called their 12th Bay Area branch a “great community location.” 

“There was a huge vacuum after Cody’s closed down, and possibly Black Oak Books closing,” Tucker said. “I actually wasn’t planning on opening a bookstore this year at all.” 

But that changed when Fourth Street developer Denny Abrams told Tucker he wanted an anchor bookstore which would fill the gap left by Cody’s, even if it meant lowering the rent on 3,000-square-feet of prime retail space previously occupied by NapaStyle. 

“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Tucker said. “He really really wanted us to get in there.” 

When Books Inc. opened Oct. 5 after an aggressive remodeling effort, Tucker said they received a terrific response from the community.  

The store is planning a grand opening in November which will feature a series of author readings and other events for the entire family.  

Tucker said Books Inc. has survived the dismal fate of other independent bookstores by departing from the “cookie-cutter” concept. 

“Each of our stores are different,” he said. “You really need to know who your customers are. Our store managers are like a small book community in themselves.” 

The 12 employees at the Berkeley Books Inc. are a mix of former buyers and store managers from Cody’s, Stacey’s Books and Borders who have a tremendous amount of autonomy over their stores, Tucker said. 

Books Inc., which stocks an impressive fiction and non-fiction collection, also takes special orders from customers daily and has an online section as well. 

It collaborates with local schools and libraries to host special events as a way of creating a niche for itself in local communities, in some cases donating 20 percent of the night’s sales to the institutions themselves.  

As if Black Oak’s resurgence and the new Books Inc. isn’t reason enough for bibliophiles in Berkeley to celebrate, Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue recently expanded into half the space occupied by the former Elmwood Pharmacy, which closed down a year ago. 

Mrs. Dalloway’s, whose name is inspired by the first line of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” has evolved from a specialty store to a full-blown general bookstore spread across 3,000 square foot of retail space. 

“We were getting asked for more and more things,” said Marion Abbott, who co-owns Mrs. Dalloways with Anne Leyhe. “Politics, biographies—when Cody’s went out of business a lot of their customers came to us.” 

The new section boasts more children’s books and a deeper fiction collection. 

“These are all very good signs for independent booksellers,” Abbott said of Black Oak reopening. “It’s a great thing they are coming back.” 

Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s Association, said that given all the positive activity around bookstores in Berkeley, the city’s independent bookseller business might finally be turning around. 

“The independent bookstores doing well are the ones that are somewhat smaller than Cody’s,” Landon said. “The model has changed. It’s important to be small and to be in a good neighborhood. Bookstores will make it if the rent isn’t excessive—and that part depend a lot on the landlords.” 

Currently the NCIBA has 20 Berkeley bookstores on its membership list ( 

“They are not all general interest, but it’s still a lot of bookstores,” Tucker said. “People saw how bookstores go away—so if they want bookstores to stick around they will have to support them.” 

Tucker admitted that sales are currently flat for Books Inc., but added that he is hopeful things will improve after a year. 

“With the Bay Area’s unemployment rate at 12 percent, it’s a tough ride,” he said. “People are very cautious about what they are buying. I am hoping that it won’t be a worse Christmas than last year.”