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The Other Change of Hobbit is Living in South Berkeley

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday August 10, 2010 - 12:08:00 PM

Other Change of Hobbit, Berkeley's pioneering science fiction-fantasy bookstore, now in spacious new digs at 3264 Adeline Street, between Harmon and Alcatraz, near popular destinations like The Vault and Sweet Adeline's, has been forced to contemplate the future—the near future—and survival in a gloomy economy. 

Dave Nee, co-founder of the store—which goes back as a book service to 1975, with the three original partners "book-running" to local organizations—recounted the saga of its establishment, and its three Berkeley locations.  

"We were supplying books to groups like the San Francisco chapter of The Elves, Gnomes & Little Men's Chowder & Marching Society, founded in 1949, by Anthony Boucher, among others. Three of us shared the organizational duties of supplying and mail order—Tom Whitmore, an old friend since high school in Palo Alto; Debbie Notkin and me. We've always been in Fantastic Fiction—Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror ..." 

Nee went on: "At the WesterCon—West Coast Convention of Science Fiction and Fantasy fans—in LA,1976, Sherry Gottlieb of A Change of Hobbit, the Santa Monica bookstore (founded in 1972) came up to our book table and asked if we'd like to open a storefront operation in Berkeley. She kicked us over the edge with the suggestion, and lent us the name, as long as it was a little bit different, 'So the bills won't get confused.' 

"We tried 'Son of Change of Hobbit,'" Nee joked, "Even 'Bride of ...'—but finally settled on Other Change of Hobbit, which preserves the pun." 

The partners looked at different potential locations—"a whole lot of spaces"—finally finding "a little hole-in-the-wall under the garage in Sather Gate plaza, where Friends of the Berkeley Library is now. The City was the landlord, looking to fill spaces ..." 

The time, Nee recalled, seemed ripe. "We stumbled into good timing. Everybody seemed interested in reading Science Fiction." Star Wars opened in theaters the last week of May that spring, and the partners treated themselves to opening night. 

"We supplied space for club meetings," Nee said. "Authors came in. The three of us were known in Science Fiction fandom, so word spread. A community started to form." 

Business slowed in the early 90s. "The first big recession was in the winter of '92. That killed A Change of Hobbit in Santa Monica. It certainly was killing us. We tried to renew the lease, but the guy at the City who got us in had died—and the City wasn't taking care of the property. It was dark in the Mall. And we were tired of it. There were drug deaths in the building. And the City wanted double the rent. We figured for that kind of price, we could get something out on the street." 

Other Change of Hobbit moved in at 2020 Shattuck, near Addison. "It was a step up—longer, deeper, more shelves ... Business went up as much as the linear footage." 

Nee looked back on the long tenancy downtown. "We had a good run for 17 years. Then there were more ups and downs economically. We saw Berkeley's economy hit the skids again. And had the first of three floods in the building. We've been plagued with the curse of water. The landlady tried to plug the leaks, but it never really got resolved. The air conditioner broke down. We tried to change the terms of the lease—and were offered a one year lease with a one year option by the agent! We continued on a month-to-month basis at the same rent, on a hand-shake with the landlady." For seven years, the agent tried to find a new lessee.  

Business kept shrinking for the store. "It was any number of factors overall," Nee said. "More and more people were turning to online reading and downloading over the last three-plus years. In 2000, all bookstores were hit when the Bush people shut down Alameda Air Station. A 10% hit in sales. The military bases closing, Silicon Valley collapsing ... People were scared, what was expendable income dried up; the arts community, retail were hit ..." 

Debbie Notkin had dropped out of the partnership in 1994, the year after the move to Shattuck. Jan Murphy, an investor, came into the corporation and has been working in the store. "Tom and I blew off two inheritances trying to keep afloat," Nee said. "How do you make a fortune running a bookstore?" Last year was slow; the store fell behind in rent. "The end of the year was slack; Christmas didn't happen." 

A new tenant was found, a developer with plans for a restaurant. The store got an eviction notice in February. Scouting around, looking for a place "near public transportation, with a certain amount of square footage," Nee first came into his present location for a meeting of the Adeline-Alcatraz Merchants Association, while considering a place around the corner. "It was a very vibrant, energetic meeting. I sensed things were happening—and about to happen—down here. I liked the feel of the space, but wasn't sure we could afford it. I may yet be proved right!" 

He also liked Rebecca's Books next door. "Nothing better than two bookstores; they create a synergy...” Rebecca's Books closed at the end of July. 

Nee looks back on the problems of business downtown, even as he hears about problems in his new neighborhood, which he feels are often exaggerated—or reflect the past, not the present. 

"There's parking here. Downtown, we had the feeling nobody in City government wanted to hear about anything. And when the Downtown Business Association cited a book, they didn't tell people to go to Pegasus, they directed them to Amazon!" 

Other Change of Hobbit celebrated its 33rd anniversary in Berkeley May 27th at the new location. "We commissioned cupcakes from Sweet Adeline's." Nee likes the new neighborhood.” There’s a real feeling of community here," he said, "which we never felt up on Shattuck. Bookstores should be community centers, but how can they survive? Downtown, it was mostly students, business people, transients. Here, families come in. I see parents and grandparents coming in with children" (The front of the store has a section for young readers.) "Up Shattuck, our clientele was getting older—and no new readers came in. And our regular customers from the campus—not just students, but faculty and staff—have been hit by Schwarzenegger's payroll cuts and furloughs. I went to The Vault for brunch, and looked around. A lot of their customers were our customers. And our old ones, some of them who stopped coming downtown due to parking, have seen us driving by, and are very supportive." 

With 30,000 new titles—and much more in used book—Other Change of Hobbit's a landmark by any bookstore—any retail—standard. But times have changed. "In 1977, Berkeley had the heaviest density of booksellers in the world—except maybe London! In those days—within three miles of campus. We've watched it all disappear." Nee's featuring a new special accounts service; for a sum in advance, all titles are 20% off, with open special ordering for members.  

But "I know people's budgets are tight. I feel something's happening here. How long to hang on is the big question. If each person who buys a book bought a second one—or sent in a friend—we'd be fine." 


Other Change of Hobbit 3264 Adeline Street , 843-0413 /hours: noon to 7, Monday-Friday; Saturday, 10-6; Sunday, 11-5.