Who Killed the People’s Bookstore?

Laura J. Miller. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago. May 2006.

In the summer of 1968, after running for State Senate, and then from the Secret Service; after a brief stint at San Francisco’s Pier 9 loading and unloading for the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, Mario Savio, once the most famous leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, got a job as a clerk at Cody’s Books.

Fred Cody had already become known as a man who supported young radicals. He was an active member of the Better Berkeley Committee: a group of plain-clothed and plain-spoken volunteers who patrolled the streets because the city police, they felt, were too brutal. Cody was also known as a man who tolerated noise. Illegal block parties flourished on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. The band Loading Zone blocked poor Cody’s loading zone. The store had even been tear-gassed, which kept Fred and his workers out for days.

Before that, Haj Razavi of the Persian Fuckers, a Berkeley hippie commune, stood on a box outside the store to heckle passers-by. Undercover cops, dressed up like people from the neighborhood, threatened Razavi with brass knuckles pulled from their jeans pockets. By the end of the summer, he had disappeared. The last time he was seen, he was heard saying, “Well, capitalist Cody, this is a summer you won’t forget, eh?” Berkeley’s endless springtime weather once made of its streets an urban festival of the will and mind of the young. That summer of 1968, perhaps unfairly, the radicals slung their fruit at Cody. He had to take it. The students were his customers. He made a living off what they read.

The fifty-year summer of Cody’s ended forever at 8 pm on July 10, 2006. Two other Cody’s stores, one on Fourth Street in Berkeley and one in San Francisco, were acquired by a Tokyo-based corporation called Yohan, Inc. On April 20, 2007, Yohan closed the San Francisco shop—which Cody’s had been criticized for opening while the Telegraph store was not doing well. Only the Fourth Street store remains.

Andy Ross, who bought the store from Fred and his wife Pat in 1977, said the decision to close Telegraph and sell the other two stores was difficult. On Ross’s final day as owner, a crowd of friends and neighbors, some of whom had been frequenting Cody’s since they were students at the university, plus members of the press, packed into the store, which was dressed up with balloons for its fiftieth birthday. Ross addressed his audience of more than a hundred with tears in his eyes and a hand on his heart.

When asked why—why Cody’s, precious Cody’s, Cody’s of the Berkeley baby boomers’ youth, Cody’s that in the ’60s defended student roadblocks even if the road blocked was its own, and in the ’90s, Rushdie—Cody’s that had rescued counterculture icons when their fame was up, why, why—Andy Ross had an answer: Kant. Students weren’t reading The Critique of Pure Reason like they used to. Just the week before he’d had to return an edition of it to the publisher because of poor sales.

Others fingered other culprits. “As usual, the real truth goes unreported,” wrote Steve Ongerth on anarkismo.net. “Capitalism killed Cody’s.” He pointed to the capitalist internet, corporate chains, Bush’s capitalism, the rising price of gas, and Andy Ross’s personal greed (hadn’t the owner invested in the San Francisco store, opening it in 2005, just one year before the Telegraph store shut its doors?). Gene Barone, the longtime manager of Moe’s, a used-books store still open in Berkeley, on the contrary blamed People’s Park for Cody’s death. Moe’s, at Haste and Telegraph, is a couple of blocks south of where Cody’s used to be. It is right across the street from the famous plot of land that students rallied on in 1969, attempting to take it back from the university and declare it for the public, only to be met by the National Guard. Telegraph had declined as a business district in recent years, and Barone blamed this on the park, calling it “a magnet for every lowlife, drug dealer, crack-head, junkie and lunatic in the East Bay.” Students don’t like that sort of thing anymore. Barone half-jokingly called for a more enticing street—with an “H&M clothing shop and an Apple store and a Starbucks.”

The spring before Cody’s closed I had the chance to visit for the first time. Having always imagined something similar to the dusty, cramped City Lights, instead I found that Cody’s was flooded with sun. It sold art books and calendars and guides to the Berkeley Hills. It had an expansive Moleskine collection and tables full of exactly the same new releases that were displayed at the Borders in San Francisco’s Union Square. In the magazine section—an annex that, with all its sunlight, looked more like a greenhouse than a reading room—there was volume after volume of McSweeney’s, and neat rows of thousands of glossy magazines I’d never seen before. This was where the young people liked to hang out. I could see them, sitting in chairs, with stacks of these things at their brightly sneakered feet. This was Cody’s in its last days, this what the Berkeley students read on their own time. In the philosophy corner, which still had enough translations of the Critique to keep you going for thirty years, one or two older-looking people were browsing quietly.

In last year’s Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, sociologist Laura J. Miller asked how smaller bookstores are dealing with the onslaught of Amazon and the chains. Her book consists of interviews with bookstore owners and employees done in the late ’90s, all of the subjects well aware of the threats to their existence. There is even an interview with an unsentimental Cody’s employee. “Why should customers buy Updike’s new book from me when they can go to Crown and get it for five dollars cheaper?” he asks. “It’s the same book. Does it matter that I might be nicer and know more about Updike?”

Reluctant Capitalists tries to answer that question. Miller is not so much concerned with why bookstores like Cody’s close, even if it does take occasional note of acquisitions, mergers, and obituaries. She wants rather to know what successful bookstores are doing to stay open, and how understanding these business practices contributes to a picture of the contemporary American consumer. Following the book trade from the gilded age and the huge expansion of the book-as-commodity in the early 20th century, to the even greater democratizing explosion of the postwar pocket paperback, Miller’s story doesn’t end with the expected contraction of bookselling in the age of big box stores and online discounts. Instead she sees a country “blanketed by bookstores”—not only the chains but hundreds of independents.

What makes this retail landscape possible, Miller finds, is a profound shift taking place in bookselling ideology. The act of selling books itself, in a world of chains, has come to seem radical. Earlier, there had been “pillars of their communities” bookstores, which kept their heads down and just sold books, and then rebels like Cody’s—which sold particular kinds of books, to particular kinds of people. Now, according to Miller, “The latter-day independent seeks to be a savior of community life by standing up to those powerful organizations that appear to threaten local autonomy.” Mall chains like Waldenbooks began expanding in the 1970s, but it was only in the 1990s, when Barnes & Noble really started to conquer, that the “radicalization” of independent booksellers took place. “By the end of the twentieth century,” Miller writes, “large numbers of booksellers were engaged in rhetoric and action they recognized as explicitly political and oriented toward exposing the conflicts of interest within their industry.” Cross-independent promotions, lobbying for antitrust legislation (including, in Andy Ross’s case before he had to give Cody’s up, agitation for an internet sales tax), and various educational programs—these are the tools the new generation of bookseller “activists” use to fight the increasing power of the chains.

The significance of this change could be immense. In Miller’s sympathetic description, booksellers give up their traditional role as cultural authorities—“handsellers” who tell customers which books are good, which bad, pushing the contents inside hard covers—and instead put their faith in the tools of cultural guilds and local people power. Here’s Miller on the new age of bookselling: “A prior assumption that booksellers should steer the public toward ‘quality’ reading material has been eclipsed by a vision of the consumer as having the right to freely choose cultural goods without interference from cultural elites”—elites that may include the bookstores’ owners, buyers, and cashiers themselves. The duty for the bookseller is not to dictate to the community the books it ought to read, but to steer tastes shaped by other sources toward a moral choice to “buy local,” whatever people happen to be buying. On Miller’s model, every consumer is a moral agent, making a morally correct choice simply by stepping to the cash register. It is moral to buy the last Harry Potter book at a neighborhood bookshop, rather than from Borders. The morally relevant question is not which book you buy (and what you make of it), but where you buy it.

Book Sense, a program launched by the American Booksellers Association in 2000, is probably the best-known of the cross-independent promotional tools mentioned in Reluctant Capitalists; it is certainly the most durable and dynamic. Paying-member bookstores get a website provided by the Booksense.com network. They are able to accept Book Sense gift certificates, which means that someone who votes “indie” can help a faraway friend make a purchase at the far-away friend’s local shop. In member stores, there are tables, shelves, or racks at the front displaying some of each month’s twenty Book Sense Picks, books which are also blurbed by participating independent booksellers in a free monthly newsletter and featured on the central website. The program has allowed the smallest new bookstores to open with an appearance of old-style handselling whether or not they have the inclination (or staff) to pick their favorites from their shelves. Major, established independents mix the Book Sense picks in with clerks’ favorites. Some tiny places let the Book Sense books stand alone.

What is strange about these “political” practices is that may actually neutralize the uniqueness and independence of independents. Book Sense bookstores fight the good fight; but if you go to enough of the affiliates nationwide, you begin to see that the Book Sense aspect of them (except where it is downplayed, hidden, or mixed in with local choices) also creates a certain national homogeneity of taste, just the way the bigger corporations try to. It pursues economic localism rather than the encouragement of a local or decentralized taste in books.

Miller would likely approve of the activism embodied in the Book Sense statement from the newsletter in the month I am writing, August 2007:

It matters that you spend money in your local independent bookstore. Why?
Local businesses support each other. Booksellers typically purchase goods from other local businesses, services from a local accountant, and hire residents.
Sales taxes come home to work. The taxes collected by a local independent bookstore support your schools, social services, and public agencies.
Did you know that for every $100 spent by a consumer, a local business would give back $68 while a chain will only give back $43?
Shopping at an independent bookstore helps to sustain a healthy and vibrant community for all.
Shop local. Buy local.

When the “moral consumer” buys tomatoes locally, it is for a whole range of reasons: because she wants to support a local economy, save the environment (less shipping and waste of fuel), get fresher and tastier tomatoes. However, the product of the local bookshop is not, for the most part, local literature. There is exactly one title in two months of newsletters (July and August) classifiable as “local interest”: Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration from University of New Mexico Press—tucked into the “Notables” section, given one line without benefit of picture, blurb, or name of bookstore recommender. The aggregate personality of Book Sense likes unsurprising, slightly literary novels and memoirs with a “universal” hook, and thrillers and sci-fi with better than average prose. It skews in its choices toward titles from the big conglomerate New York publishers, while devoting significant room to occasional independent publishers. This is how it differentiates itself from a Barnes & Noble that markets pretty covers. But though its offerings are somewhat different, it offers the same products to all—there is no book counterpart to the heirloom tomato. And maybe it couldn’t be any other way, after all, when the best of novels are not the juiciest merely because they come from down the street. Book Sense seems to be a celebration of localism-in-itself, the small business practice of selling to people you know, while sticking to a slightly revised status-quo of content.

There’s nothing wrong with this, exactly. When his own store opened in 1956, Fred Cody knew that he had to cater to the middle tastes of the middle class. His story, rather poignant, is well documented in The Life and Times of Cody’s Books, Fred’s journal entries published by his wife Pat after his death. Cody opened his store amid what was then called a “paperback revolution,” and since he was a populist, he wanted to join the good fight and give the people the books that democracy deserved—a 25-cent Moby-Dick, yes, but also every book by Mickey Spillaine. He stayed up late into the night scouring catalogues of calendars. This is what his people wanted then, just as it is Moleskines that students like now. The truth is, Kant never really sold at Cody’s; it was Marcuse that flew off the tables as sit-ins became as commonplace an act as sitting in class. One-Dimensional Man was a best seller for Cody in 1964.

In a sense, Andy Ross, idealist, came to American bookselling too late. A calm had set in over Berkeley; the revolution was over. And even so, in early 1989, Islamists following the fatwa of the Ayatollah Khoemeini threw two pipe bombs into Cody’s. It was carrying Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. Ross, too, had his moment of decision: he proudly kept Rushdie’s novel in the window display—just as Fred Cody had done with “Howl” even after he learned of the arrest of a bookseller at City Lights.

Localism can reflect a politics of identity for bookstores as a group rather than a debate about specific political issues relating to specific books. The most successful bookstores in Miller’s book are those that listen most carefully to a very complicated authority: the taste of their patrons. This cultural authority may continue to demand unique and even dangerous books (when it knows of their existence). Or it can demand of the local store more of what it already knows it wants from advertising, TV, Facebook, and the New York Times. And it is an open question, if the most important aspect of bookselling is staying local and locally owned, just what Miller’s ideal owner would do, if faced with a choice like Ross’s or Cody’s, which may actually alienate or upset that local community.

Because there’s a point at which the bookstore owner’s commitment to the community he serves is no longer a question of doing the right thing. Fighting Barnes & Noble is a matter of survival. Heroism lies elsewhere. The truly renegade bookstore owner, as he got older in the ’90s, and unlike his bookstore-activist friends, was the one who turned back into a moral figure: the handseller who listened to the people in his community in order to understand how best to guide them. If it’s Kant that Ross was really lamenting, then he was fed up with students altogether, and no longer fit to be listening to them. But he was fit and he was listening—because he knew what to stock in the greenhouse and in the stationery section. He must have just gotten tired of doing the smart thing. He wanted to be a cultural authority, but to the American consumer, cultural authorities, like Cody’s, may be dead.

My first day working at a New York City independent bookstore, I vowed never to take a desk job again. The dusty cement floors, the young, forlorn staff, the studded leather chairs—I loved it. I would never again enter the world of industrial-carpet-and-water-cooler, no matter the salary and prestige. To be fair, the bookstore where I worked, let’s call it Highbrow Books, also had a water cooler, but it was not the center for desperate socializing, nor was it consistently full.

Though officially unaffiliated with a university, Highbrow Books specialized in course books and scholarly publications. Otherwise it had a diverse selection of theory and literature, and carried no genre fiction, children’s, or self-help books, except for those on the carts that sat outside all day long in the sun, rain, and stray cigarette smoke.

Most of the staff had at least university degrees; a few had MFAs or were Ph.D. candidates. I was hired along with a woman from Seattle, who was taking a year off from her doctoral program in German intellectual history. She’d had many bookstore gigs—one, even, in a Barnes & Noble and another at the Portland Powell’s, where there had been so much competition for a job that she’d had to work there as a temp.

For many, bookselling was their only job, while some also worked at publishing houses or magazines. For the last group as well as the first, the bookstore provided not just supplemental, but all income. In New York, many jobs involving writing that used to be paying jobs, say, ten or twenty years ago, are now called “internships.” The bookstore option provides nighttime and weekend hours that allow an employee to work for free during the day. Bookselling also grants reprieve from working with food; a variable but occasional degree of respect from the community; and a chance for the lover of reading to get paid for her passion.

Highbrow Books was a union shop, which meant very little except that I paid $25 a month in exchange for job security. Both of the shop stewards proudly told me that, unless I stole half the cultural studies section, or came to work nude, it would be nearly impossible for management to fire me. If you had a complaint to make about management, or the owner, the short Jewish steward, who was more approachable than the tall black steward, led you into his office, which was also our rickety elevator, where you rode up and down until you’d had your say. After a forty-five-day probationary period, I was paying dues to Local 169, Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees. The little I knew of unions was from French TV and Marxism class. I wanted a T-shirt! I liked unions, even if, by the time I’d gotten there, the health insurance for full-time employees was in danger, and there was talk that, with the new contract, bonuses would be nixed. My starting wage was a dollar more than I’d made in high school working at the mall. After two months it went up to $8.40 and plateaued for a year until the day I asked for another sixty cents. After taxes—two deductions!—I made $190 a week for thirty-two hours. All people working at this shop had to be, I thought, reluctant capitalists—though maybe the owner was not as reluctant as I would have liked.

But I did learn that, of the few places in the world in which you can still be a young idealist, a bookstore is one. Since I mostly worked on the nights and weekends, my hours rarely overlapped with those staffers who worked corporate hours in the back office—the buyer, the course books and special-orders guys, the bookkeeper, the events-planner, and the owner. This meant that I spent much of my time feeling autonomous, except for benign obligations to my floor manager’s orders, like, “you stand here,” or, “tonight, shelve poetry.” I had time, therefore, for guerrilla marketing. When no one was looking, I improved the status of my favorite journals by placing them near the register, usurping space from, say, On Bullshit. Or I pulled best sellers off the new-release tables and sneaked in books I respected from small presses. When someone bought the journal or the small-press novel, I felt good. I was doing little with my guerrilla actions, I knew, compared with what our store’s buyer was capable of. He could disappear things by not ordering them at all or ignore a patron’s suggestion because it just wouldn’t sell. Still, I rearranged books sometimes out of anger, and more often than not, for fun.

In the most glorious way, I’d become invisible. Professors whom I’d met before didn’t recognize me. Working professionals talked to me about their favorite novels, from deep within their hearts. I was at odds with the Ivy League undergrads, telling them off when they blamed me for the climbing prices of their course books. With the shy comp lit graduate students, however, who reminded me of my other possible self, I shared stories of corporate conspiracy in publishing. My parents stopped talking about me to their friends. I was reading more than ever before. “Achievement” now just meant paying my rent on time, self-educating, keeping up with the news—and I was finally free! I was free in the strangest way, free to do nothing and free to be poor and free of my expensive education at Northwestern. There was no place for me out there, I thought, on the lawns of the university, where for years I used to lie, thinking my back was touching the true earth of the world.

I quickly got used to older customers looking past me. It was not that I didn’t smile brightly, because I did. But on the wall behind the register hung a portrait of Edward Said, a handsome and dignified profile shot: you could have mistaken him for a movie star. Sometimes undergraduates did. The customers with the deepest roots in the neighborhood, who’d felt his importance when he was alive and shopping at their Associated Market, folded their hands across their hearts and closed their eyes in mourning.

Once the small eyes of a woman, sixty-ish, became hysterical as she looked behind me. “I want a word with your manager,” she said, and I thought I’d overcharged her. I sent her upstairs and when she came down again she asked for a full refund. Later I called the information desk to find out what I’d done wrong. “Oh that was nothing,” he said. “Just Said. She was a Zionist.”

I stayed on for a year, through the end of a summer, during which the water cooler was consistently empty despite a failing air conditioner and the city’s stuffy heat. I might have stayed there forever. But, in only a year, I felt myself getting older—not too old for minimum wage, but for complacency. Highbrow Books had given me my freedom; now it was time to seize it. The conditions for the rest of my life, you could say, had changed. Refuge was not yet as necessary for me as it was for Savio, who had once been one of the students coughing up his last three bucks for Marcuse, and who, later, bleary-eyed but nevertheless always articulate, interviewed for a job at the same store hit with a gas bomb that could have been traced to his rhetoric. “Mario Savio,” wrote Fred Cody in his journal in 1968, “has applied for a part-time job, and we think we want to have him and that he will be fine for the store. . . . Savio has a great deal of what can only be called charm and a kind of openness about him that is very impressive.”

When I left the bookstore, it was fall, the season for course books: piles and piles of Kant. Students in New York were still reading him. I walked out without saying good-bye. The summer was gone.

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