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Thinking Outside the Berk: When You Can't Get What You Want in Berkeley (First Person)

By Ted Friedman
Wednesday May 11, 2011 - 09:03:00 AM

On my way to not-so-near-by El Cerrito's Guitar Center on San Pablo Avenue to update my reporting gear, I stopped off at Barnes & Noble last week. 

The B&N visit was a pit (restroom) stop. I never felt that El Cerrito's B&N compared well as a bookstore to the B&N, Berkeley. Along with more books our B&N had Berkeley artifacts such as street people enjoying the wrought iron bench and in-store fountain, and, of course, its restroom. 

Anyone who has read my piece, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," (Planet: Apr. 16, 2009), may recall that I have written more than one piece lamenting the loss of many of Berkeley's book, magazine and video stores. 

El Cerrito's B&N magazine section aroused my deepest jealousy. Even if you patched together every meager magazine rack in Berkeley, such as Pegasus, or ASUC bookstore's, you could not match the mag-cornucopia I found in El Cerrito. Lamentably-lost-Cody's offered a major mag stash next to a panoramic view of Telegraph. 

El Cerritohas never been more than a bedroom community, but attracts Berkeley musicologists with Arhoolie Records and the Guitar Center. Even so, there is no there in El Cerrito. Unlike Albany, which has a great shopping street (Solano), El Cerrito must gather at its fancy strip mall. But not many had gathered there. 

As I emerged from the El Cerrito B&N, and crossed the mall access street to a CVS drugstore for a toothbrush, I noticed the forlorn look of the setting. 

Faux-fancy stores seemed misplaced beneath a hazy view of distant hillside homes, but offer refuge from busy San Pablo Avenue and nearby BART station. 

As I emerged, smiling, from the gargantuan drugstore, I reflected on my conversation with the checkout clerk, an affable senior. I had told him I was finding my time in E.C. a pleasant diversion from my Southside Berkeley crime scene. 

"Next time, you need to relax," he said, "come back to El Cerrito." Is the Chamber of Commerce paying this guy? 

I emailed my brain. Ted to brain: return to El Cerrito. 

I was in E.C. for more than a tooth brush. The digital field recorder I thought I needed seemed—at least on-line—unavailable in Berkeley. 

Berkeley, with its beguiling allure—head shops, tattoo parlors, and colorful poseurs—was on my mind even as I posed in E.C. as a tourist. 

The Guitar Center, my destination, occupies a big chunk of a long block not far from B&N. The El Cerrito music supplies store, part of a national chain, attracts local musicians whom I overheard discussing their gigs and their equipment problems. The outside of the store displays images of famous recording artists, some of whom frequent the store. 

You can get what you want in separate Berkeley music stores, although each one might fit in a small section of this music-blaring aircraft hangar.  

Although I was there for a recorder, I envied an electronic keyboard which offered to show you Beethoven's keyboard strokes on a tiny screen. 

And oh yes, I did buy the recorder. The next time I shove it in the face of a source, he will think, "what a pro." But then, he'll clam up. I'll use it for sit-down interviews. 

To be fair, I later called around to Berkeley music stores for a field recorder in Berkeley. If had been willing to pay three times more, I could choose from four. But, as I wrote for the Planet two years ago about the lack of goods in the wake of the loss of many of Berkeley's key businesses: 

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try real hard, you might get what you need." 

I got what I needed in El Cerrito. Now why do I feel guilty?  

Ted Friedman is safely back in the hood.