What Killed Cody's? 

Wherein protagonist Andy Ross accepts that his beloved Berkeley institution is not so beloved as to save it from penury, and at long last bids it adieu, thereby unleashing a prodigious spate of soul searching, finger pointing, and general lamentation

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 fifty-year-old 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 5 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; 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 eleventh 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.


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