Postmortem on Cody’s Books

Okay, so they really called it an Autopsy. Whatever, it’s the same thing. Business Week has an article chronicling the rise and fall of Cody’s Books in Berkeley. I loved this store when I was in college and thought it was the best new bookstore in the Bay Area. Their selection of literary journals was unmatched, except, perhaps, by Gotham Bookmart in New York. Oh yeah, Gotham is now out of business too. When Cody’s owner Andy Ross opened his San Francisco store on Stockton, I sort of knew intuitively that it was a huge risk and a bad idea, but I remember wanting to see it as a triumph of Cody’s. In this article, Ross calls the opening of the San Francisco store his “fatal mistake.”

Cody’s did many things right. They kept an excellent stock, made new and unheralded books discoverable and desirable to their customers, and held great author events. I believe that they happened to be in a bad location on Telegraph and in a business that, with such slim margins, doesn’t do a particularly good job of weathering long downturns. When business and the weekend tourists abandoned Telegraph Avenue during the late 1990s and into this decade, so went the fate of Cody’s. I only spent a couple years living in Berkeley, but I went to Cody’s almost every day that I did live there, and I miss it terribly. In the BusinessWeek article Ross cites the figure that 10% of all copies of Walter Banjamin’s Illuminations sold in the United States were sold at Cody’s. This isn’t evidence of Benjamin’s obscurity, but rather the display of Cody’s brilliance in attracting its customers to a certain type of highbrow criticism. It’s that sort of intellectual rigor or forcefulness that you’ll never find at a store like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Sure, they both carry Illuminations, but neither cares or pretends to care if you buy it or the latest Stephanie Meyer novel. And, in case you’re wondering, my copy of Illuminations came from Cody’s on Telegraph in 2002—Where else?

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