Meeting to Save Cody’s on June 8

As reported in the Oakland Tribune and elsewhere, the Berkeley City Council has approved a plan to revitalize Telegraph Avenue. This action seems to be largely in response to the impending closure of Cody’s.

However, David Lazarus expresses skepticism about the City Council’s plan in the San Francisco Chronicle. Lazarus suggests that the City Council is only working on a short-term fix, and he proposes the more radical idea of transforming the four-block stretch of Telegraph near UC Berkeley into a pedestrian mall.

Andy Ross has been in talking with investors interested in saving the store. If you are a qualified potential investor, please email me.

On June 8 at 7pm, there will be a community meeting in Berkeley to discuss the prospects of saving Cody’s. The meeting location is still to be determined. We will post any updates as they become available. Andy Ross will attend, and I encourage everyone to do the same.

Do Bookstores Have a Future?

Paul Collins asks this question in his Village Voice article, which is essentially a review of Laura J. Miller’s new book, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption.

Collins writes,

Today’s field, though, may not be the future’s. Superstores live and die by generous zoning, massive inventory, co-op money, and deep discounts. Zoning laws may stiffen, return policies change, or price controls curtail loss-leader strategies. All these possibilities, however unlikely, have precedents; indeed, it was the owner of Nantucket Bookworks who last month spearheaded a chain store ban in that island’s downtown. Ultimately, though, the greatest vulnerability of chains may be their muscle-bound nature. If print-on-demand technology, though still poky and faintly disreputable, ever achieves the availability and quality of traditional books, the need for overstock returns, remainders, and huge retail spaces may evaporate.

Reviving Telegraph and Cody’s?

KGO reports on the city of Berkeley’s plan to improve conditions along Telegraph Avenue near campus.

And, in a footnote, serious investors interested in preserving the Telegraph location of Cody’s, please email me. (Sorry to be vague about it.)

The anti-independent argument

Tyler Cowen has an article in Slate that makes the case against independent bookstores. I, of course, disagree with him on multiple counts, but his argument is well worth reading. Cowen seems to write from the vantage point of someone who has little interest in small titles or publishing houses. I’m willing to bet that his assertion that “if you’re looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore” isn’t based on personal experience with a niche interest.

What’s disturbing about the essay, though, is that Cowen blindly accepts the decreasing attention span of Americans.

It was easy to finish Tolstoy’s War and Peace when there were few other books around and it was hard to find them. Today, finishing it means forgoing many other options at our fingertips. As a result, we tend to consume ideas in smaller bits, a proposition that (in another context) economists labeled the “Alchian and Allen theorem.” Long, serious novels are less culturally central than they were 100 years ago. Blogs are on the rise, and most readers prefer the ones with the shorter posts. Our greater access to books also means that each book has less time to prove itself. A small percentage of the books published account for a large share of the profits, thus setting off a race to track reader demand.

Somehow, people still read War and Peace and Anna Karenina and even some long books published in the last 50 years: The Recognitions, Infinite Jest, and Gravity’s Rainbow to name a few. Perhaps, Mr. Cohen isn’t aware of this. Cohen seems all too willing to accept current trends; perhaps, it’s because he isn’t actually a reader because readers, serious readers, are defined by their willingness to question what is normally accepted, to stand in opposition to the zeitgeist and say, “Everyone thinks this is good, but it’s kind of bad” or the inverse.

Of course, Cohen is correct in his implication that if independent bookstores are reacting to the cultural climate rather than creating it, they will most certainly be doomed.

There is the possibility that Cohen actually has read Tolstoy and Pynchon and Foster Wallace, and he’s just making big generalizations for the sake of being provocative. If so, it’s a shame because writing, as anyone who’s ever read those authors knows, can express deep moral ambiguities and raise difficult questions that go unresolved. In other words, it can do so much more than Cohen demonstrates in his essay.

Chances of saving Cody’s?

Many people have asked me about this subject over the past couple days because of my involvement in saving Kepler’s. However, there seem to me significant differences in the situations of each store. In the campaign to reopen Kepler’s, the major objectives were to a) raise capital b) renegotiate the store’s lease and c) implement a new business plan. The objective for Cody’s to reopen seems to be a complete revolution of the business climate on Telegraph Avenue where sales for many establishments have dropped off over the past 10 years and the city of Berkeley has done little to revive the area. For Andy Ross or supporters of Cody’s to bear that burden seems like an impossibility.

According to our sources, Ross is not open to the possibility of outside investment in Cody’s to keep the Telegraph store open. (The money raised by outside investors and Clark Kepler’s receptiveness to them allowed Kepler’s to reopen.) He is, however, willing to listen to offers on the space on the corner of Parker and Telegraph, as he has control of its lease.

Cody’s on Telegraph is Closing

Cody’s Books on Telegraph in Berkeley will be closing on July 10 after being open there for 43 years. According to owner Andy Ross, the Telegraph store has lost over $1 million and its sales have declined by two-thirds since 1990. Cody’s stores on Fourth Street in Berkeley and Stockton Street in San Francisco will remain open.

In the press today, the owner of a Great Good Place for Books in Montclair was quoted as saying, “I can’t believe it. It’s a real indication that the climate of independent bookselling is really changing in the Bay Area. The fact that something we considered a mainstay will no longer be there—to me it’s saying good-bye to a friend. It’s like a death.”

It all sounds rather similar to the reaction that Kepler’s closing produced last summer.

I went to Cody’s four or more times a week when I lived in Berkeley from 2001 until 2003, and the store will be missed. I can say that I really only went there because I lived within walking distance, not being a big fan of Telegraph, in general. I think many of the concerns raised by Andy Ross and then echoed in the Mercury News article are legitimate and not just a cop-out. Of course, I was an anomaly–a Berkeley student who bought two to five books almost every week.

Was the problem that students don’t buy books or that Cody’s was in a place that was frequented largely by students?

Press coverage of the Cody’s closure:

  • Contra Costa Times: Farewell Coming for Telgraph Landmark
  • San Francisco Chronicle: Famed Bookstore’s Last Chapter
  • Inside Bay Area: Sales Lagging, Cody’s Closing
  • The Mercury has followed up with an article about the closing and its relationship to a deteriorating Telegraph Avenue marketplace for businesses:

    The owner of iconic record store Amoeba Records said Wednesday he has no immediate plans to close his Telegraph store but didn’t rule out the possibility.

    “Our stores in Los Angeles and the Haight (in San Francisco) are doing well, despite what’s happening in the industry,” Mark Weinstein said. “But our Telegraph store is hurting. And given the political climate in this city, I don’t see that changing.”

    Likewise, the Chronicle also has an article about the decline of business on Telegraph:

    Telegraph’s image problem — the street between Parker Street and campus is often littered and dirty, and homeless youth often loiter outside businesses — is hardly new, and the city has over the years made various efforts to clean things up.

    ….

    But Telegraph Avenue is also not alone in its economic woes, with downtown businesses hurting almost as much…. The entire city has seen sales tax receipts stagnate or decline, with the notable exception of the trendy Fourth Street shopping district that has seen almost consistent growth since the 1980s, he said.

    From the blogosphere:

  • Liz Mann, who blogs in letters, writes one to Andy Ross.
  • A husband and wife lament the closure of Cody’s.