Berkeley’s Biggest Bookstore Bids Itself Goodbye, Bashes Wal-Mart: A Ringside-Seats Dispatch

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 7:27 pm, Sunday, July 9, 2006

Nostalgic Berkeleyans enter Cody’s for the last time.
Notice the “For Lease” sign.

Dibs! saw grown men cry during the farewell ceremony today at Cody’s, a big bookstore on Berkeley, California’s famous Telegraph Avenue whose impending closure was lamented recently in the New York Times. (The Times reminisced: “Cody’s, which was founded in 1956, was considered a business innovator for years, adding readings, talkbacks and kaffeeklatschen to the book-buying experience long before Barnes & Noble…. In the 1960’s, the Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio worked behind the counter at Cody’s, and tear gas was known to waft in occasionally when Vietnam War protesters clashed with police…. Cody’s was a must-see.”) Hundreds arrived on the store’s fiftieth anniversary — which is also the day before it closes — to sip punch and nibble cookies as speakers including


  Maxine Hong Kingston, Mistress of Ceremonies.

emcee Maxine Hong Kingston, owner Andy Ross, founding co-owner Pat Cody, feminist Susan Griffin and historian Leon Litwak mourned aloud. “How poignant and unbelievable we feel,” Kingston began, shakily. Ross hailed Berkeley as “America’s most unique and intellectual community.” (Sorry, Cambridge! Greenwich Village and Austin and Seattle, he seems to be saying that you suck!) “Sales have just plummeted,” Ross explained, noting that while the store pulled in about $10 million a year in the early ‘90s, it was down to $3.5 million these past few years “and going down and down and down.” Also during these past few years, as sales were plummeting, Ross opened not one but two additional Cody’s stores, which aren’t closing — on Berkeley’s chichi Fourth Street and in San Francisco, near several large established book emporia,


A screen displayed a nostalgic slideshow all afternoon,
including this picture of Andy Ross and Gilda Radner.

including fine old indie Stacey’s and a vast Borders. Even a toddler would call this overexpansion a monumental business blunder: arguably greedy, and a truly puzzling move when the book business in general isn’t exactly … well, it’s not whipped iced-coffee drinks. Yet as all of Berkeley buzzes about the Telegraph store’s demise — blaming (as did the Times) chain stores, the Internet, the lack of parking, and the war in Iraq — Dibs! has found that few want to hear Dibs!’s opinion, which is that Cody’s killed Cody’s. And if you’re going to spend fifty years as a radical counterculture hub on a radical counterculture street in a radical counterculture town, championing books about smashing the capitalist state, then should you be surprised when your clientele takes that advice and stops shopping? Speakers at the farewell ceremony lashed


 Former co-owner Pat Cody and current honcho Andy Ross.

out at familiar targets: George W. Bush, technology, the shrinking American mind. And did we mention chain stores? “Does the Internet teach us the meaning of life?” Ross queried. “American cities are becoming one big Walnut Creek, with the ubiquitous Bed, Bath and Beyond,” he mused, dissing a nearby middle-class suburb, then began to sob. Someone read aloud a farewell-to-Cody’s letter from Salman Rushdie, whose The Satanic Verses inspired someone to lob a firebomb through the store’s window in 1989. Ross described “the Rushdie affair” as “Cody’s great historical moment” and “our finest hour” because his store stocked the novel after “the chain stores had already pulled [it] from their shelves.”


Salman Rushdie hovered over the proceedings, while a
camera flash gave Andy Ross a saintly glow.

Reminiscences of that incident — its attendant shock and dread, Ross and his family going into hiding — went on and on although no one mentioned Islam, Muslims or who threw the bomb. But the audience burst into spontaneous, derisive laughter upon hearing the word “FBI.” In his letter, Rushdie wrote: “Thanks to that little firebomb … it became an important store to me.” Ross added, “Nothing sells better than a good banned book.” Kingston, who began visiting Cody’s as a UC Berkeley student in the ’50s, called the store “my haven and home” and said she dearly regretted not having been there on the night when Anaïs Nin did a reading and “was showered with flower petals.” Susan Griffin, author of Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge Against Nature and The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues, spoke darkly of McCarthyism,


  Susan Griffin.

decried Wal-Mart — which “acts as if there is no labor history and no rights for working people” — and lambasted chain stores because “they aren’t community places.” Richard Silberg read a poem he’d written about watching other poets reading at Cody’s. Snatches from the poem include: “Lipsticked, Bopeeped/he declaims/cranking the wings and pulleys of his surrealism … all sex all brainglow/these catwalks/threading the secret city.” Leon Litwak, author of Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery and Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, urged his listeners to browse at Barnes & Noble, to lounge in “their comfortable chairs” while handling the merchandise, but then to “come back” and buy the books at chairless indie stores. Litwak intoned a rhetorical question and answered it: “What has our country become?


Chain-store birthday cake.

An empty arsenal.” Behind the curtain that served as the speakers’ backdrop, a large white sheet cake emblazoned with the bookstore’s name awaited the ceremony’s end. It hadn’t been unpacked from its plastic box yet. Umm … did we mention chain stores? As its sticker revealed, the cake came from Safeway.



11 Responses to “Berkeley’s Biggest Bookstore Bids Itself Goodbye, Bashes Wal-Mart: A Ringside-Seats Dispatch

  1. Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup Says:


    Visit Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup

    [...] The Chronicle’s Simone Sebastian reports on the closing of Cody’s. Dibs, by contrast, calls bullshit. [...]

  2. renee Says:


    Visit renee

    Thank you for adding another point of view to this story. As the owner of an independent book business myself, I understand all too well the problems we booksellers face these days. I think this issue is always going to be more complicated than people on both sides wish it to be.

    But at the same time, we have to be realistic. You can’t blast Bed, Bath & Beyond then buy your cake at Safeway. You can’t call Barnes & Noble anti-community when every seat in the store is filled with neighborhood shoppers spending a Friday evening there. You also can’t lump all suburban areas like Walnut Creek, where I happen to live, into the enemy camp. After all, most independent bookstores across the country serve these same suburban areas (Walnut Creek has several independents as well as chains). Finally, you can’t put yourself on your own high horse of intellectualism (because I have also lived in Cambridge, and Berkeley: you’re no Cambridge).

    The bookselling industry is in trouble, there is no doubt. But it’s primarily a business problem, not a political one.

  3. phil bruno Says:


    Visit phil bruno

    Sadly the demise of Cody’s was due to many factors…large independent stores really hard to upkeep for one, except for Tattered Cover in Denver. But no matter what the reasons or the Safeway cake, it’s a sad situation in independent stores. There is a small chain, BooksINC, who’s taking over another icon in calif (clean well lighted bookstore), but when one looks at NYC and the “hub” of publishing, one sees very little in the independent spirit in bookstores. As a veteran of over 30 years in bookselling and publishing. i also see a turnaround with good business people owning bookshops-fewer but better. a “love for books” doesn’t cut it anymore. Obviously trying and critical times for brick and mortar, and for publishing industry in general.

  4. lauowolf Says:


    Visit lauowolf

    Last year they were targetting the Fourth Street store for closure, but I guess Telegraph was just an easier decision.
    All I know is that anytime I went to the Telegraph store, I had to wait in line.
    Go to the Fourth street store and it’s like a morgue in there — the staff always outnumbers the customers, even pre-holiday.
    Whole area down there rolls up the sidewalk about 6pm. Can’t sell books when you aren’t open.
    I think the two new stores were over-expansion, and I think they’ve closed the wrong one.
    Look for the the other two stores to fold soon.

  5. Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » East Bay Express Parrots Litblog for “Investigative” Piece? Says:


    Visit Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » East Bay Express Parrots Litblog for “Investigative” Piece?

    [...] This week’s East Bay Express includes a lengthy piece by Anneli Rufus about Cody’s. The literary blog Dibs, of course, all over this last month (and Flares Into Darkness’s post is quoted as “one blogger” in Rufus’s article). But Rufus’s article doesn’t add much to the conversation that hasn’t been said already. There are some insinuations as to Andy Ross’s motivations about opening the San Francisco store (along with some quotes from Ross himself), along with some memories of what Cody’s used to be (or what people believed it to be). But for a purportedly investigative article, there’s little here to dwell on beyond conjecture. No efforts to obtain documents, no tough questions directed at Ross about his net worth and why he expanded when the banks continually turned down his loan. It’s almost as if Rufus stole Dibs’s angle, spent an afternoon wandering around Berkeley interviewing people and then banged out this piece for an easy payday. And they call blogs the leeches. [...]

  6. Patty Cravitz Says:


    Visit Patty Cravitz

    It’s been a while but I’m guessing those two stores are still there? Big companies are driving out the little stores. It’s sickening.

  7. Anna M. Bond Says:


    Visit Anna M. Bond

    I am very sorry that the shop was closed. But in our lives, there is a law “strong devour the weak.” Please accept my condolences.

  8. Movie lover Says:


    Visit Movie lover

    Sad indeed.Anyway i think we have the power by our choises to keep what we want and what not..

  9. Btscene torrents Says:


    Visit Btscene torrents

    But at the same time, we have to be realistic. You can’t blast Bed, Bath & Beyond then buy your cake at Safeway. You can’t call Barnes & Noble anti-community when every seat in the store is filled with neighborhood shoppers spending a Friday evening there. You also can’t lump all suburban areas like Walnut Creek, where I happen to live, into the enemy camp. After all, most independent bookstores across the country serve these same suburban areas (Walnut Creek has several independents as well as chains). Finally, you can’t put yourself on your own high horse of intellectualism (because I have also lived in Cambridge, and Berkeley: you’re no Cambridge).

  10. Pillow Pets Promo Code Says:


    Visit Pillow Pets Promo Code

    This totally reminds me of the movie when FOX bookstore killed the local bookstore. It happens. Unfortunetely, in reality it is the local people who either kill or keep the little guys around by where they spend their money.

  11. british gas homecare Says:


    Visit british gas homecare

    Leon Litwak, “urged his listeners to browse at Barnes & Noble, to lounge in their comfortable chairs while handling the merchandise, but then to come back and buy the books at chairless indie stores.” Now that is cheeky, support your local bookstore but remember that you should be neutral as an author.


Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>