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The Return of Black Oak Books

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:28:00 AM
Black Oak Books owner Gary Cornell stocks shelves in time for the store’s Thursday re-opening.
Michael Howerton
Black Oak Books owner Gary Cornell stocks shelves in time for the store’s Thursday re-opening.
Manager T’Hud Weber and owner Gary Cornell prepare for Black Oak’s reopening.
Michael Howerton
Manager T’Hud Weber and owner Gary Cornell prepare for Black Oak’s reopening.

Gary Cornell could have lived the easy life with the fortune he made publishing information technology books. 

Instead, he decided to invest his time and money in rescuing one of Berkeley’s best-loved treasures, Black Oak Books—a move some might call foolhardy at a time when hundreds of bookstores are suffering amid the rise of the Internet. 

After Cornell and a group of local investors paid off the IRS in 2008 and bought the store from its previous owners, high rent forced the closure of the Shattuck Avenue storefront last June. 

Coupled with the closure of Cody’s Books, the loss of Black Oak seemed to some Berkeleyans like further evidence of the city’s slow descent into a future with no independent bookstores.  

But Cornell, despite his tech background, believes in the printed word and promised that Black Oak would rise from the ashes. And today it will—with 20,000 new books added to its inventory. 

Even before Black Oak went dark, Cornell believed that if he could own the building that housed the store, he could make it work. So in October he purchased the old Rountree’s nightclub at 2618 San Pablo Ave., gutted the dilapidated roof, and set up a cash register where the old bar used to be. He spent the 48 hours prior to the store’s Thursday opening getting the store ready for business.. 

“It’s a guy thing—I don’t like to lose,” Cornell said smiling as he stocked shelves Tuesday. “Which is why we are opening up here. We think we can win. We hope our customers will see through the chaos and see the potential.” 

The new store, Cornell said, is “bigger, easier to find things and there’s more parking.”  

Although the sign out front simply reads “Books,” Cornell hopes that will soon change. 

“That will go down soon, and the new one will say “Black Oak Books,” said Cornell, pointing to the black vintage awning adorning the front door. “At least it gets people out of the rain.” 

Cornell plans to keep most of the building’s “look and feel” intact, along with the two brass lions guarding the entrance. “They remind me of the New York Public Library,” he said. 

The new Black Oak, at 6,500 square feet, is about 30 percent bigger than the old store and is shaped like a rectangle, which means that although there may not be a rare books room anymore, bibliophiles can still search for first editions in a compuerized catalogue.  

“We might have a few rare books in glass cases,” Cornell said.  

On Tuesday, however, the whole space was a work in progress. 

“It’s not very ready yet,” said Cornell, “but we hope to have the used new books ready for Christmas. We won’t be able to get all the used books out until the next month or two.” 

Cornell said he hopes to stock twice as many old books as before and fewer new books because “the new books are competing with Amazon.” Cornell hopes to compete with Amazon a bit himself—he’s giving a 20 percent discount on new books during the holiday season and 10 percent after that. 

Cornell has always said that he’s not interested in making a profit, but he admits that right now, the “book business is a hard business even if you don’t want to make a lot of money.” 

“When a book like Dan Brown’s comes out, nobody’s rushing to the stores to buy it anymore,” he says. “They are going online. From time to time I wanted to shut Black Oak down, but I still had a feeling that it can be reliable.” 

However, Cornell warns, this time the store has to be self-sustaining. 

“I am not going to put any more money into it,” he said. “Basically it all comes down to sales. The amount of sales we need is a fraction of what we needed at the old Black Oak.” 

At the Shattuck location, Cornell was paying $18,000 a month. The mortgage on their West Berkeley property is a quarter or 30 percent of that, he said. 

Despite his wealth, Cornell is still the kid who grew up in the projects in Brooklyn. 

“I don’t want much. Books make me happy,” he said. “Just being surrounded by books makes me happy.” 

Walking along San Pablo near the new San Pablo Avenue store, Cornell examined the up-and-coming boutiques, gift shops and restaurants. APress, Cornell’s former publishing business, was located just a few blocks from Rountree’s until two years ago, so the move to San Pablo is something of a homecoming.  

“It brings back happy memories,” he said smiling. “It feels like I never left.” 

“It’s not the Gourmet Ghetto, but even Gourmet Ghetto wasn’t the Gourmet Ghetto when Black Oak started there,” he said, referring to the stretch of north Shattuck Avenue where the previous store stood. “I think of this area as being like Temescal. It’s starting to get shoppers—each store benefits from new stores.”