Public Comment

The Last Chance Book Store 

By Paul Matzner
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:57:00 AM

At the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste in Berkeley, there is a unique bookstore. On the sidewalk where the entrance to Cody’s Books once stood, a man arranges rows and rows of books of every conceivable description. Next to the books is an old card table with a battered coffee can and a hand-lettered sign that says, “Books 50 Cents.” The sign used to say, “Books 25 Cents,” Like everywhere else, nowadays, inflation has taken its toll. 

The volumes are carefully organized into sections—there are large format books on art, gardens, history, animals, etc.; there are mysteries, hardcover novels, and paperbacks. Many are damaged—spines broken, pages torn, but all the injured have been carefully mended with scotch tape.  

This is the Last Chance Bookstore, the place where old and tired books come to die, but not before ordinary folk have a chance to buy these well-used tomes and give them one last read before they expire.  

The books have been set up almost every day, for the last 5 years, by a man named Ace Backwords. Ace the creator of this treasure trove is usually not to be seen. He has retired into an obscure corner of the Cody’s Building where the events calendar used to be, sitting, on a milk crate, inconspicuous. He is a shy man.  

He has not been shy, however, about his lifework, his love of books. Out of nothing he has created something that is needed, both for these books and for the people; it is a place to find a valued possession: just the book you were looking for, or just the book did not know you needed, or just something totally new to your fantasy, lying there in its well-worn covers.  

Ace Backwords is the hero of this oasis, in this strange place called Berkeley, where contrarians thrive, where the almighty dollar, contrary to the rest of the world, does not rule supreme, where people do not strive for wealth but for substance, for value in the moment of talking to someone else whom they have just encountered on the street. Or where they just have the privilege of being alone with their thoughts with the buzz of others around them, who are also alone with their wild and crazy ideas. They are alone, together in this town that devotes itself to independent thinking, to the radical idea that people can think and that if they have an idea they can speak about it freely and others will listen and perhaps cooperate with them to make it a reality.  

So here was the Last Chance Bookstore sitting there on the street corner like a spare changer doing its everyday Berkeley thing, no more remarkable than a thousand other things that happen in this town but unheard of elsewhere. It had been set up next to the shell of Cody’s flagship store on Telegraph—our famous Berkeley bookstore, untenanted for the last three years. Cody’s closed its last store a year ago after 52 years of serving our community. Cody’s Books was an icon of the independent book movement, an epicenter of free speech and the geographical birthplace of the street-vendors movement in Berkeley. Here was the Last Chance Bookstore, a phoenix arising like a phoenix from the ashes of Cody’s, keeping the spirit and soul of the book alive in Berkeley.  

We talked together for about 20 minutes. Ace broke through his shyness and I found more about him. He still considers himself homeless; even so he has at least one book, Surviving on the Streets: How to Go Down without Going Out, available on Amazon.  

Last year around this time a Halloween supply store took over Cody’s. Halloween has been taken over by capitalists and merged into Thanksgiving, making it part of one long buying season through Christmas and the New Year. Here in the Halloween store was the epitome of creative entrepreneurial money making. Yet there on the adjacent corner was the antitheses of this enterprise, equally brilliant, put together for no good reason and making a minimal amount of money each day, the anti-capitalist old-books graveyard, put here strictly for the enjoyment of the people and fueled by the love of this man, Ace Backword, and his legion of grateful customers.  

All of this may be changing radically. The current owner of Cody’s is getting ready to open a new bookstore, rumor has it. And Ace has announced he is ready to close shop.  

Well, I hope that this article has put tears in your eyes and they are not there because of tear gas. However, if this one small vignette about Berkeley and Ace Backwords has made you “stop in the name of love” and think for a moment about this parallel universe, Telegraph Avenue, well then, maybe you are a citizen of Berkeley or, if not officially living here, a wannabe. You are an honorary member of the Berkeley diaspora, existing all around the world, made of those people willing to stop for a moment and not think about how to make the next dollar but simply listen to a stranger on the street or even speak to them. Still, if you are a shy person like Ace, well, come down to Channing and Telegraph and visit the Last Chance Bookstore. Stop, in the name of love or a moment, and look at some old homeless books waiting to be adopted by people willing to give them a last chance before they hit the landfill. Maybe Ace will change his mind and say a bit longer. Maybe, then, those of us concerned for the future of this city can get some sleep, secure in the knowledge that there are people who are thinking and reading and talking to others about new ideas, which they are ready to contribute to this world that is in such great need of them.