News & Politics

Why Booksellers Are Going Belly Up

Cody's, Berkeley's flagship bookstore, was beloved in the community -- but not beloved enough to save it from closing.
Balloons, sky-blue and gold and arterial red, bobbed against Cody's glass facade the afternoon before the store closed. July sunshine basted the hordes jostling inside, plucking strawberries from trays, eyes darting as if to say, "I'm making history." News cameras swiveled. A fat man with a sheathed knife at his waist, leather hat strung with small animal skulls, perused the horror-fiction section. A combo played Parisian bistro tunes: accordion and fiddle, happy-sad. The shelves upstairs were bare.

One could be picky and say this was Cody's Telegraph to differentiate the 50-year-old Berkeley, Calif. flagship from the two other Cody's stores, one of which opened on Berkeley's Fourth Street in 1997, the other in San Francisco last fall. Neither of them appears doomed, but the July 10 closure of Cody's Telegraph Avenue store garnered extraordinary attention. Local and national media -- The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, MSNBC, to name a few -- have proved generous with their time and ink since owner Andy Ross announced his intentions in early May. His revelation spurred fierce debates, like an endless grown-up game of Clue: What killed Cody's? Chain stores, some said. Changing times, others surmised. Cultural illiteracy. Greed. The Internet. Panhandlers. That missing parking lot. George W. Bush.

The fingers have continued to jab left and right, zeroing in on this or that obvious culprit. But it appears more likely that, rather than falling under the lead pipe of some dastardly lone slayer, Cody's died the death of a thousand cuts, from a thousand blades: disparate and even largely inadvertent but ineluctable. Telegraph Avenue ... slash. Parking ... slash. Chain stores ... slash slash. The remaining perps have thus far eluded detection: transformations in Cal's student body, for instance, and the ebbing of radical chic. Perhaps the hardest cut to endure is that books as we know them are fading, bit by bit, from ubiquity. We can no longer presume they'll always be here. Actual books, with covers and pages and bindings and type, are increasingly artifacts, relics -- old school, silverfish food, without hyperlinks. How long before that $24.95 best-seller, bought on Amazon yesterday, is displayed in a museum alongside rotary phones, cyclamates, and bustles? That's why the death of Cody's hurts: For all those who used to sneak-read as children under the covers with flashlights and books, it presages our own obsolescence.

And thus those to whom such matters matter mourned. Some spoke of an apocalypse. Some nursed a spark of schadenfreude. They asked hair-tearing, dear-God-what-have-we-done questions that no one would ask were this moribund business, say, a locksmith or a Laundromat. After all, family-owned Radstons office supply in downtown Berkeley closed in July after 98 years with barely a whisper and no trace of hagiography.

But Cody's was different. Cody's was a bookstore. In Berkeley. On Telegraph Avenue. In the midst of that five-block span that was, as Andy Ross would tell the crowd that day, "the heart and soul of '60s counterculture."

The crowd ate it up. When Berkeley looks in the mirror, it perceives a book town, a lit-cred Lourdes linked with so many bards and rebels and laureates alive and dead that reciting their bibliographies would take all day. Not just uninflected authors but, to a large part, activist authors with a cause. Rare is any city so spellbound by its own legacy. For better or worse, Berkeley is a living theme park, forever conjuring a heyday that Cody's crystallized.

"Tie-dyed Tears," one blogger proclaimed.

Yet even as the closing of a popular store after fifty years is history in the making, it's also business as usual. And while Cody's closure might tempt some to conclude the retail book trade is dead, that's simply not the case -- at least not yet.

It is true that we have an astounding illiteracy rate: 14 percent of American adults fall below basic reading comprehension, according to a 2003 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. But economic data suggest there's more at play in this case. Bookstore sales -- which include general, college, and specialty stores -- have increased slowly but steadily for most of the past dozen years, rising from $8.3 billion in 1992 to $16.3 billion in 2005, according to US Census Bureau figures. And while these numbers reflect flat bookstore revenues since 2004, they don't include online sales, which have grown enormously. What's more, even as bookstores in general face a slowdown, independents and small chains have fared relatively well: Publishing-industry analyst Ipsos BookTrends reported last year that indies and small chains were actually increasing their market shares, and that these stores had both sold more books and brought in more money in each of the preceding three years. In the meantime, publishers report significant 2004-2005 sales increases in just about every category, with continued gains projected this year, according to Book Industry Trends 2006, a recent report by the Book Industry Study Group. For instance, sales in the "trade" category, which includes general fiction and nonfiction, jumped five percent in 2005.

Yet all the favorable stats in the world can't save a sinking ship. As apocalypse-spotters point out, Cody's Telegraph was only the latest in a sad parade of local independents going dark over the past several years: Shambhala and the Book Zoo, also on Telegraph; Black Oak in North Beach in San Francisco; and A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, whose Larkspur and Cupertino branches have long since closed and whose San Francisco Opera Plaza site closed in July.

These closures don't signal a trend, though, argues Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Yes, only 50 percent of Americans buy at least one book a year," he says. "We know this. So the bad news is that only one out of every two people is buying books. The good news is that that number isn't going down."

Some East Bay indies, Landon notes -- Lafayette Book Store, for instance, and Danville's Rakestraw Books -- "are doing gangbusters. Stores are closing, but other stores are opening." In San Francisco, he adds, Books Inc. is opening its 11th branch in the space abandoned by A Clean Well-Lighted Place, and Neal Sofman, the latter's owner, has launched a brand-new San Francisco store called Bookshop West Portal, where a recent reading by Martina Navratilova drew 175 people.

The Cody's shindig was both an anniversary and a wake. Exactly fifty years earlier to the day, having borrowed $5,000 in startup funds, transplanted East Coast couple Fred and Pat Cody opened a tiny bookshop on North Berkeley's Euclid Avenue. In 1960, they relocated to Telegraph. Pat was an anti-Vietnam War activist with a master's degree in economics who, among other accomplishments, helped establish the Berkeley Free Clinic. Fred, who died in 1983, was a Columbia-educated bibliophile whose name now adorns an annual literary award. Andy Ross, who cut his teeth on a Cotati bookshop, bought Cody's from the couple in 1977 and enlarged it the following year.

And the band played on. Shiny Mylar balloons shaped like a five and a zero hovered over a monitor displaying a slideshow of authors who have read at the store: Allen Ginsberg. Gilda Radner. Salman Rushdie wearing shades. When Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses spurred Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to call for Rushdie's execution in 1989, many American stores refused to carry the book. Cody's stocked it even after someone hurled a firebomb through its window.

Those were the salad days.

A cannonade of applause followed Maxine Hong Kingston to the podium. She was the farewell ceremony's emcee: tiny, fragile, fey, wearing a huge turquoise bracelet like a studded ruff. As a Cal student in the '50s, she used to shop at Cody's Euclid Avenue store, she told the crowd. Most of those assembled remembered those times -- silver heads nodded, bifocals flashed. "How strange it feels," Kingston mused. "How poignant and unbelievable we feel."

Cody's, she continued in that reedy, dreamy voice, always "felt eternal ... as if it would always be here." She introduced Ross as "a literary hero."

Hero isn't the only thing Ross has been called these past few months. As a man in the unenviable position of pulling the plug on a legend, he has received more kindness and sympathy than he expected, and for that he is grateful. But he also has been dubbed a villain, a dreamer, a daredevil for opening the $3.5 million San Francisco store last September in a 22,000-square-foot, mostly-basement-level Stockton Street space formerly occupied by Planet Hollywood, a stone's throw from Borders and Stacey's and flanked by other high-foot-traffic chain stores: Virgin, Apple, Fossil, Benetton, with Union Square and Macy's down the street.

The new store is beautiful, with honey-colored benches, edgy inventory, and an airy elegance, but it was another money drain at a time when Cody's Telegraph had been code blue for years. Despite Ross' open loathing of chains, some B-town wags wondered whether he was trying to turn Cody's into one: an intelligent chain but a chain nevertheless, after the fashion of Peet's and Noah's, both Berkeley-born and spreading fast. Then again, a less sentimental businessman might have closed Cody's Telegraph years ago. Keeping it open this long -- because he loved books and loved his customers, Ross says -- cost him a cool million.

Trim and silver-templed himself, Ross looked about to break into tears as he approached the podium. His cashflow has been the object of countless cafe-table conversations, and he has a family to support. He sighed into the mic: "Sales have just plummeted," he said. Indeed, they sank from some $10 million annually during the store's early-'90s peak to around $3 million in the past year, Ross explained. "It just kept going down and down and down.

"Our customers," he added, "were a band of brothers."

And that was why people cried. If Berkeley is guilty of a certain clubbishness -- a No-Idiotz-Allowd, you're-either-in-or-out insularity -- then Cody's was its Kingdom Hall. Ross loved owning a store, he told the crowd, "in the heart of America's most unique and intellectual community."

The crowd liked that.

And voila, the word of the day. Later in the ceremony, poet Susan Griffin would lacerate chain stores because "they're not community places," and Mayor Tom Bates warned that whoever patronizes chain stores is "hurting this community." That was the panic keening in the air: that once there was something called the community, in which unique people did unique things. But somehow communities came under attack. Sucked dry. Sold out. Switched for air-conditioned, logoed landscapes that Ross calls "Potemkin Villages."

Haunting that day's rhetoric, and many of those cafe-table conversations, was this grave-new-world scenario in which faceless drones drift through synthetic atmospheres whose parts are as interchangeable as Lego blocks, all human hopes and dreams reduced to Frappuccino. Far away, sinister fat corporate cats laugh as they tally up their stock options. It's never quite clear whether the post-community drones, those listeners-to-iPods and eaters-of-Whoppers, are to be pitied as victims or mocked as knuckle-dragging dolts or loathed and feared as myrmidons. In any case, among those to whom such matters matter, "Wal-Mart" is now synonymous with a lot of words, including "stupid."

"Cody's was offering something a little deeper," Ross declared. "People want a different kind of information now. But where's the knowledge we have lost? Can we say we are wiser now, or even smarter? Does the Internet teach us the meaning of life? Do we have time to consider the truths of Aeschylus' Oresteia? American cities are becoming one big Walnut Creek, with the ubiquitous Bed, Bath and Beyond, the crushing Wal-Mart."

He paused. "We've come to the end of our 41-year journey on Telegraph Avenue," he said. And then he did break down.

Ross wept the next day too. That final day, a Monday, checkout lines twined backward from the counter thirty deep. The day's receipts totaled $45,000. On a typical Saturday in the late '80s, the Telegraph store did $25,000 in sales, Ross points out a few weeks later. "And that was when the dollar was worth more," he notes. "On a good Saturday last year, I did $12,000. On a good Saturday.

"I wish they'd been coming all along," he says of the customers. "They all said, 'We've been patronizing your store.' But somebody hadn't been."

On that final day, shoppers asked him to autograph their purchases. "What they were really doing was paying their respects," he says. "I thought people would be giving me a hard time, but everyone's been amazing. The people of Berkeley have been so understanding. I have nothing but good feelings for the people of this town. I cried for nine hours. How do I feel? I feel miserable."

At day's end, as well-wishers and a documentary film crew poised to watch a grand exit, Ross spotted a familiar antagonist -- a local who had been banned from Cody's years ago -- outside the front door. So he slipped out through the back. And then it was over. All that remained was the packing. Oh, and finding tenants to take over his lease, on which eight years remain.

So when did Ross first realize the jig was up?

"There'd been a long decline," the owner says. "The start of it was when the chains started opening these superstores all over the place and we were surrounded."

The number of patrons dropped, as did the profits. "That's called quote-unquote 'different traffic patterns,'" Ross says. "Nothing was helping that store. It just kept losing steam. Why? It isn't a simple answer. I don't blame it on Telegraph, though Telegraph deserves a little blame. The store didn't not survive because we just blew it; it didn't survive because people weren't reading those books."

Ross says he'll never forget the day in January when he printed out the latest list of titles that hadn't sold and would have to be returned to their publishers. "On the list was Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason." He pauses, swallowing. "A basic, fundamental book of Western civilization. One of the greatest works of Western philosophy. It hadn't sold. I didn't return it. I said to myself: 'I can't. What's left, The Devil Wears Prada?'

"That's when I knew something was very, very wrong," he continues. "But I couldn't face the fact that we were losing money -- that it was true. I could not face the thought of actually closing the store until this year. A lot of pressure was coming in from the San Francisco store and I had to make a decision quickly."

The Telegraph store actually had higher sales than Fourth Street, which Ross says "is doing very well," but the Fourth Street store had much lower overhead. Launching in San Francisco, meanwhile, was tougher than Ross had envisioned. "Our numbers there were lower than we thought they'd be," he says. "We'd opened the San Francisco store because we thought it was what we had to do to save the company."

It was like this: After efforts to stem his flagship's red ink failed, Ross took a spend-money-to-make-money approach. With so many big popular stores nearby, the Stockton Street location seemed a magnet for foot traffic. Several banks rejected his loan request before Oakland's Summit Bank put up $1.9 million. He even refinanced his North Berkeley house. "We've risked everything," Ross told Time two months after opening.

"I love that store," he now says of his San Francisco outlet. "But it hasn't saved the company -- yet."

Ross insists he would have had to close the Telegraph store even if he hadn't launched in San Francisco: "On that last day when we did $45,000 and there were lines for eleven hours, I thought, Was there another way? It means so much to so many people. Why am I doing this? But truthfully it was the only decision I could make." His voice catches. "I just regret it so much."

In fact, there probably was another way, but it wasn't an option anyone wanted to touch. When sales fall below overhead, the solution is to cut overhead, which means firing workers, cutting hours and inventory, or shrinking the store -- perhaps by subleasing its upper floor. Cutting costs hurts. But what's better: a smaller, sparser operation, or a dead one?

The factors underlying the store's demise are complex, Ross acknowledges. "When I first announced the closure, the media said, 'Telegraph, Telegraph, Telegraph,'" he says. "But there were other factors that someone smarter than me is going to have to figure out. If an academic bookstore -- the number-one academic bookstore in America -- can't survive three blocks from the University of California, then it says something bad about something."

Telegraph, Telegraph, Telegraph. It means a million things to a million people. Ask any soul who's hung out there within the past four decades and you'll get a different answer.

From the end of WWII to 1964, those five blocks of Telegraph nearest campus were a quiet crewcut bohemia with two-way traffic and a supermarket. The founding of the Free Speech Movement that year by Cal student and future Cody's clerk Mario Savio turned it into the radical world capital of peace and love and sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll and manifestos and tear gas. Casualties mounted. By the mid-'70s, burnout-haunted Telegraph had been dubbed "the open ward." Avenue merchants remade themselves in the '80s, spawning a retail renaissance. But in the late '80s and early '90s, a rash of violent crime gave those five blocks a lasting reputation. Back then it seemed everyone knew someone who had been ratpacked -- where an underage mob surrounds its victim, closing in, plucking off valuables with a dozen darting hands.

Friction between police and the homeless grew too. The new millennium saw a wave of mass lootings, which targeted Tower Records, Athlete's Foot, the Foot Locker, and the Gap. Not surprisingly, all four chains have since departed the avenue. As other Berkeley neighborhoods primp to tempt shoppers, a double-digit vacancy rate now gives Telegraph's storefronts a soporific look. In May of this year, 23 area stores were vacant. And many others are in freefall.

Better now than before? Or worse? That's up for grabs. Personal memory mixes with history -- revisionist and real -- and with how-it-should-be. Still thronged with tourists on summer weekends, tattoo studios and snack shops flanking the empty storefronts, Telegraph now and Telegraph then and Telegraph-the-dream and Telegraph-where-Allen-Ginsberg-wrote-Howl-at-Caffe-Mediterraneum all tilt behind whatever lens you hold.

Harvey Siegel loved the avenue so much in 1961 that he gave up a full Stanford scholarship to transfer to Berkeley. "I was a bibliophile, an addict," he now says. "For a person like me, bookstores were a great place to meet girls, to have casual conversations, talk about books." He became a sociology professor at Sonoma State, but was still drawn on weekends back to Telegraph, where he loved buying and selling books at Moe's.

Moe and Barbara Moskowitz were transplanted East Coasters who opened the Shakespeare & Company bookshop with some partners in downtown Berkeley in 1959. Four years later, Barbara and Moe -- who'd made a name for himself in anarchist theater and the WWII pacifist scene -- moved their business to Telegraph, where they eventually bought the building in which Moe's Books now operates and established buyback rates for secondhand volumes that Siegel says were the nation's highest.

The attraction finally grew too strong for Siegel, who gave up his professorship in 1970. "I couldn't take it anymore," he says. "I left academia. I left tenure and job security and seniority." He worked at Shakespeare & Company for two years and learned the trade. Then he bought the store, which is now at Telegraph at Dwight. Last year he sold it to a longtime employee.

John Wong, a Moe's employee for more than thirty years, remembers when life and commerce on the avenue were all about the individuality, the personality. An art-history student in 1974, he'd been trying unsuccessfully to land a job at the store. Then one day while waiting on the checkout line, he watched the boisterous, cigar-wielding Moe singing a number from The Music Man. "Trouble ... that starts with T, which rhymes with P, which stands for ..."

"Pool!" Wong piped up from his place in line. He loved pool. So did Moe, who invited him home to play. Then hired him. Wong remembers countless front-counter high-jinks, all the laughter and shouting: "Everyone was always asking Moe for money. Moe was the softest touch in the world. Once, he gave someone his jacket."

Those were the years when just having a copy of a certain book could mark you as hip. Howl, say, or Das Kapital or Steppenwolf or The Rubyfruit Jungle or The Monkey Wrench Gang -- carried face-out, of course, or read at a cafe table, it could get you kissed. Buying such a book in Berkeley infused it, and its buyer, with cachet.

But books don't mean what they once did. For those who write and read and publish and sell them, that's sad. But it's reality. When street mayhem broke out on Telegraph in the first years of the new millennium, the thieves stole shoes, scooters, CDs. No one looted the bookshops.

Did Telegraph kill Cody's? Hut Landon of the Independent Booksellers' Association certainly thinks so: "I wouldn't walk that street at night." He lived on Channing and Telegraph as a student in the 1970s. "Yes, there were wackos then but they weren't aggressive," he says sadly. "They weren't all hustling me for stuff. Cody's didn't do anything wrong. Cody's was a victim of its surroundings."

Less willing to blame the neighborhood, Andy Ross speaks darkly of something subtler but more devastating: a cultural shift. They're both right, of course. It's all part of that death by a thousand cuts.

First, America's book-buying demographic changed. Yes, people still buy books, but who are they? In fact, today's customers are the same as yesteryear's -- the exact same customers. They're the Rubyfruiters and Monkey Wrenchers of yore; they simply grew up. They're now parents, homeowners, above-average earners. The typical American bookbuyer is a woman 30 to 60 years old. To her, and her male counterpart, books still mean what they always did. The right book can still be a status symbol, a social signifier. But things are different now for the young, including today's Telegraph habitués. The shattering of a monoculture into myriad microcultures has made it impossible for any single book to broadcast: Behold: This is me.

What books once did, tattoos now do.

Then there's this: Turning pages takes time. Berkeley is the choosiest school in the UC system and one of the choosiest nationwide. The average first-year student accepted for enrollment in 2005 had a weighted GPA of 4.33. Such standards, acrophobically steeper now than in the Howl or even Maus days, mandate a student body that is academic and competitive beyond precedent. There's no spare time for rioting or extracurricular reading when you're striving to crank out A-pluses, particularly in the non-liberal-arts fields.

Nor do politics mean what they once did on the avenue. Radical chic was invented here and outlasted its lifetime in other parts by many years. But fashion is fickle. To be cool, a student no longer need be politically committed, or even pretend to be. Sure, Cal still has its activist core, but activists aren't the uncontested stylemakers their counterparts once were. Cody's Telegraph long thrived on that young-rebel monoculture, which is now slipping into a Dylan-soundtracked past. Launched where it was, when it was, by those who launched it, Cody's couldn't help but be a political store.

Sure, it sold all kinds of books, but even so, its events calendar was packed with hall-of-famers who made their careers skewering corporations, conservatives, Christianity, capitalism, colonialism, racism, the prison system, war. In 2006 alone: Sarah Vowell, George McGovern, Judith Butler, Tom Tomorrow, Chris Hedges, Tony Kushner, Jane Fonda, Karen Finley, Greg Palast, Sister Helen Prejean, Glenn Greenwald. On March 23, Sharon Smith and Phil Gasper, a philosophy professor who nominated executed killer Stanley "Tookie" Williams for the Nobel Prize, discussed Smith's book Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the US. On February 4, Chesa Boudin -- the activist son of two Weather Undergrounders -- introduced The Venezuelan Revolution, celebrating a new Bolivarian world. At the July 9 farewell ceremony, former Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock praised Fred and Pat Cody for being "so wonderful back in the '60s, when a bunch of us in this room were rabble-rousers."

Yet in a series of articles then making the rounds at Infoshop.org, Indybay.org, Anarkismo.net, and IWW.org, an angry writer blamed "Andy Ross' greed" and the "class war" for the store's demise, seething: "Capitalism killed Cody's."

Proving you just can't win in this town, conservative radio talk-show host Michael Savage was reading the latest headlines on-air the day Cody's closed. When he came to the news, he crowed with delight. Another irrelevant liberal bookstore is closing, he chortled. Good riddance.

Andy Ross finds this funny, if puzzling. "We carried right-wing books!" he says. "We didn't sell many of them, but we carried them. We weren't Revolution Books" -- the radical emporium nearby on Channing Way -- "but sure, we were a liberal bookstore because Berkeley was liberal, and I was liberal."

Human beings, beasts that we are, gravitate toward comfort. Give us a chance to take a load off our feet, and we will. That's why a key rule of economic ecology is that what makes consumers feel good, they'll choose. And they do choose, as Ross found. They vote with their feet. From this perspective, the minds behind Borders and Barnes & Noble aren't so much evil as simply aware they're selling more than books: They're selling climate-controlled environments -- in effect, book-lined spas, much as McDonald's is really selling salt to make its patrons thirsty and buy drinks, which is where the real fast-food profit margins lie.

At Cody's farewell ceremony, historian Leon Litwak described how he used to advise his students to browse for books at chain stores. He told them to leaf through the merchandise while lounging for hours in the stores' cushy chairs. Then, as he told the Cody's crowd, which applauded, he would warn his students: "Don't buy the books down there. Come back and buy them here."

Not enough of them did, apparently, and maybe that's because they liked those cushy chairs. Or the ample free parking. Or the absence of spare-changers. Or maybe they preferred that ultimate comfort, more evolved even than chain stores: buying discounted books from home. For a certain kind of hands-on customer it's anathema, but for many the convenience is irresistible. Forty percent of popular fiction is now purchased online, according to Ipsos. Online booksellers got 48.6 million visitors in June 2005, up 15 percent from the previous June, reports Internet tracking service comScore Media Metrix. The world's largest indie bookstore -- Portland, Oregon-based Powell's Books -- also does about 40 percent of its sales online, according to a store representative.

Capitalism is competition, after all, and that's all too easy to forget when debating the purveyance of something as ethereal as what books provide, in a town whose tradition is to put principles and precepts before practicalities. But a business can't afford not to be practical in a reality where the survivor is he who sells best to most. At the ceremony, Pat Cody described her devotion to the store as "almost a religion. ... We tried to make a better world by making a better bookstore." Hancock beamed at Cody and at Ross: "You ran an ethical business."

"A day will come," said Ross' wife, Leslie Berkler, "when the world will change again," when today's retail trends will be revealed as "a sad, impoverishing myth."

Now that would be a revolution. Because as Hut Landon points out, even those who still seek out indie stores choose the ones with extra goodies. He cites "these 2,000-square-foot stores in thriving, well-designed neighborhoods -- Pegasus on Solano, say, or Diesel in Rockridge." He might just as easily add Cody's Fourth Street. "A store like that is part of a whole retail community. You go to Solano or Rockridge for the whole experience, not just for that one store. But to go to Cody's Telegraph, you had to really want to go to Cody's Telegraph, and in the last few years that became such an ordeal."

He calls the city's failure to make visitors feel safe or comfortable on the avenue "almost criminal. Not only did they ignore Cody's pleas, but they also didn't think about what would happen to nearby businesses if a store like Cody's was to fold. They didn't think of the traffic that Cody's brought to the street and what a bite this will take out of nearby stores. I guarantee you, because of this, some other stores are going to go under."

At the Barnes & Noble in Walnut Creek, meanwhile, clerk Sarah Blumhorst looks affronted when told that Ross' doomsday vision entails a whole nation of Walnut Creeks. As her mouth drops open with incredulity, her tongue-stud glints. On this hot summer midday, the two-story store is popular. More than forty patrons browse the ground floor while others read and sip Starbucks at the cafe upstairs. On display tables are beach reading, discounted titles, new arrivals, local dining guides, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amazing Sex. A mother and daughter choose wedding books. A tanned man steps onto the escalator wearing a T-shirt that reads "Mako My Day" above a picture of a shark. A boy spins a manga rack. Legs outstretched as if he were in his own living room, a man snuggles into an overstuffed striped chair with a copy of John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience. The new-arrivals table takes no sides. Dean and Lakoff and Suskind sit alongside a book praising the Minutemen. The store is open until 11 p.m.

"We get people who are absolutely obsessed with books," Blumhorst says, gesturing around. "I mean obsessed. And we get a lot of foot traffic from the movie theater across the street."

The automatic doors glide open and shut. At the first burst of cool conditioned air, patrons shiver with relief. Through the windows, a blister-white sun sears the nearby Crate & Barrel, California Pizza Kitchen, Sleep Train, Gap, and yet another Starbucks. Inside, amid the clink of coffee cups and the soft thrum of pages flipping, heat is abstract. "This time of year," Blumhorst says, "a lot of people come in to get out of the heat. In the winter it's to get out of the cold."

She shrugs. At first, this grates. It seems a sin after so long in Berkeley, where morality is applied to matters such as air-conditioning and what sort of coffee you serve, and where one learns to mistrust the reflex that says: This feels good.

"They like coming to a place," Blumhorst concludes, "where they don't have to do anything, or even look like they're doing anything."

Is this doomsday?

This article is reprinted with permission from the author and The East Bay Express.
Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, including "Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto."
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