Saturday, June 21, 2008

CODY'S BOOKSTORE CLOSES

BERKELEY PLANET After 52 years, Cody's Books will shut its doors effective June 20. The Berkeley bookstore has been a beacon to readers and writers throughout the nation and across the world. Founded by Fred and Pat Cody in 1956, Cody's has been a Berkeley institution and a pioneer in the book business, helping to establish such innovations as quality paperbacks and in-store author readings. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Cody's was a landmark of the Free Speech movement and was a home away from home for innumerable authors, poets and readers. . .

ANDY ROSS, 2006, ON LEAVING TELEGAPH AVENUE I was 30 years old. I believed at that time that Cody's was the greatest bookstore in the United States, although I couldn't exactly tell you why. I loved the wide range of literary paperbacks. I loved being on Telegraph Avenue, which was the heart and soul of the 60s counterculture and radical political currents. I loved the smell. I loved the informality and the democratic spirit of Cody's. This was no carriage trade bookstore. Our customers were a band of brothers involved in the world of ideas.. . .

Over the years we built on that tradition. The inventory grew from 35,000 to 150,000 titles. We brought in writers and poets on a daily basis. The great writers of the world visited us and read here. We even hosted presidents. . .

The media have properly focused on Cody's great historic moment during the Rushdie Affair, when Cody's continued to sell The Satanic Verses after being bombed, even as the chains had pulled it from their shelves nationwide. I think the importance of this story is to acknowledge the true heroism of Cody's workers who agreed to risk their lives in support of the principle of freedom of speech. . .

In the early 1980s it was becoming clear to me that we were entering into a period in which retail values were changing, that diversity and greatness of mind were being subordinated to mass marketing concerns. Increasingly independent bookstores, which thrived on uniqueness and quirkiness, found themselves at risk. Increasingly customers were becoming seduced by the allure of chain booksellers and, later, the Internet.

Cody's resisted these trends, although, as business people, we had to make compromises to stay in business. In the 90s the world was becoming an information society and retailing came increasingly under the spell of the mass . . .

Cody's was offering something that was a little deeper, a little slower, and increasingly less valued. . .

Today in our Internet-based culture, can we say that we are wiser or even smarter? Does the Internet teach us the meaning of life? We have instantaneous information, but is it better information? Is it information with a cultural context? With all the emphasis on computers in schools, are our children better educated? Do they understand the world better? Are they better equipped to cope with the future? Are they better citizens? Do they have a stronger sense of virtue?

Information can be retrieved faster, but do any of us have more time? Do we have time to savor a great work, such as War and Peace? Do we have time to push ourselves through something as complex as Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain? Do we have time to consider the timeless truths of Aeschylus' Oresteia?

We also know that American consumers have come to value uniformity and predictability over diversity. The transformation of communities and market places into formulaic Potemkin villages has ruined the cultural landscape of cities. The marketplace has been the center of community life since the time of the Greek Agora. It is being systematically undermined by chain stores and Internet commerce, which feed on communities without offering a vibrant communal life. It is so sad to see that cities throughout the country are losing their unique sense of place, that American cities are becoming one large Walnut Creek, filled with the predictable Bed & Bath, Barnes & Nobles, and the ubiquitous, soulless, main street-crushing Walmarts. . . At Cody's we resisted these trends. But in spite of this, we found that increasingly we were selling more media-driven best sellers and less of our wonderful wide ranging back list.

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