Thursday, May 11, 2006

When George Oppen & his wife returned from exile, they drove up from Mexico City with a young couple who were moving up to Berkeley to start a bookstore. Fred & Pat Cody opened up a small, crowded shop north west of the UC Campus on Grove. They named the store Cody’s. Three years later, Moe Moskowitz and some friends opened up a bookstore of their own at the corner of University & Shattuck right in the heart of town, calling it Shakespeare & Company. The site is now a MacDonalds.

The business strip that ran up Telegraph Avenue in those days – still a two-way street that led right through Sather Gate before curving right just past Dwinelle Hall, heading down to exit on Oxford at the West entrance to the campus – had no terrific book stores, indeed hardly any bookstores at all. There was one that specialized in texts for UC classes, and a small general bookstore at the corner of Durant and Telegraph. But the four corners of Telegraph and Haste included a Lucky’s Supermarket on the southeast corner, the Berkeley Hotel on the northeast corner, on the northwest a complex of shops that included a restaurant, a small market and the first movie multi-plex I ever saw, the tiny Studio Guild, two theaters, neither of which had more than 100 or so seats, owned by one Pauline Kael, a friend of Robert Duncan’s who turned her skill at writing blurbs for the films that were to show at the Guild into a long-running career as the film reviewer for the New Yorker. On the southwest corner was a gas station.

A couple of years later, I would start visiting Telegraph Avenue – at first to buy books for resale in the Albany High School library, one of my duties as president of the library club – then later to hang out and look cool at the Café Med, just down the street from Lucky’s. Which is where I would regularly see this blond fellow, a few years my senior, writing thoughtfully into a notebook, nursing a latte. He was, I was told, a poet named Ken Irby &, for a long time, that was my only “live sighting” of an actual writer of poems. What I knew about poets was that they spent their afternoons in cafés, writing in notebooks. But I was far too timid to go up and actually talk to the man – that would take me years.

Sometime around 1963 or so, Moe & company moved up to the corner of Telegraph and Dwight, opening a shop called The Rambam. Across the street, just down from the gas station, right where Moe’s currently is, moved Cody’s. At the same time, Lucky’s was in trouble with the community because it would not hire people of color to work as cashiers. After a lengthy series of political protests, the store actually shut down and was replaced by a second coffee house, this one called The Forum.

But the political protests of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 – really the first major on-campus rebellion of the 1960s – is what transformed the street. The gas station shut down business and by the fall of 1965, every kid who thought (or whose parents thought) that political protest in behalf of free speech was a dreadful idea had decided to attend college elsewhere. Every kid who thought that the political activity of Berkeley looked exciting had applied to UC. Suddenly there were dozens of young poet types hanging out on Telegraph Avenue. I met my first publisher, Richard Krech there, and the printer Wes Tanner of Arif Press (who was attending Laney College to learn how to set type at the time), and a senior at Skyline High by the name of Barrett Watten.

The Rambam started having open readings, which is where (with one exception) I first gave readings in public, learning how that felt, deciding, finally, to stop after a year or so largely because I didn’t want to fall into the trap of building jokes into poems just to get laughs, and it seemed to me that the venue rewarded poetry-as-standup comedy most of all. Some of the other regulars of that series included Pat Parker, Gerard Van der Luen, John Oliver Simon & his then wife Alta, Charlie Potts & Keith Abbott. One day in early 1966, they cancelled the open reading to hold a memorial “birthday” reading for a recently passed poet by the name of Jack Spicer. I’d never heard of him before, but the reading by his friend (of whom I’d also never heard, at that time), Robin Blaser, got me reading both of their work, something I still do 40 years later.

Cody’s flourished across the street from the Rambam and eventually bought the lot that housed the gas station in order to construct the two-story book emporium pictured above¹, at the time easily the best new book store I’d ever seen. Moe & his partners split, with Moe taking over the old Cody’s location, using his own name finally, while the Rambam reverted back to the Shakespeare & Co. moniker it had had before coming to Telegraph.

And, for over 40 years, that has been the nexus of the best book buying block in North America. Now Cody’s, which in recent years has opened up stores on trendy Fourth Street in the west part of Berkeley & on Stockton Street in San Francisco, has announced that it will be closing the Telegraph Avenue Store on July 10. According to owner Andy Ross – who took the business over from the Cody’s in 1977 after running a smaller store up in Cotati – the store is only doing half the business that it did in 1990, largely due to the internet.

The other factor, which I haven’t seen mentioned in either the Contra Costa Times or on the Shelf Awareness email letter that first apprised me of this sad circumstance, is the relationship of the University of California itself to the city of Berkeley. UC has grown dramatically since I was a kid, expanding south of the campus into the immediate neighborhood (most infamously setting off the People’s Park protests & riots in 1969, which resulted in Alameda County deputy sheriffs shooting and killing one bystander, blinding another²). By expanding, especially without building on-campus housing for its added student population, the University turned the middle-class neighborhood of the South Campus area – where my grandparents grew up – into a large swath of off-campus student ghetto housing. The North Campus area was distinguished only by having a larger percentage of graduate students living there, as residential homes were converted one after another to rental units. Without the economic base that had supported them, the shops on first Telegraph, and then later Shattuck and University transformed to support this newer, more transient population. Books are down, but T-shirt shops are booming.

Cody’s always had a large section of poetry, tho it tended to get one shipment of small press books by any given local author, picked almost randomly, & only consistently restock trade press editions. Moe’s, which has always had an excellent selection of used poetry – dating back to the days when Michael Malcom & Andrew Schelling worked there – has in recent years had a more well thought out selection of new books as well, which one suspects it may expand once Cody’s departs.

I recall how my grandfather used to resent the University – he was still very much on the town side of any given town/gown distinction – as it had rendered the city of his childhood virtually unrecognizable. But it’s been 35 years since he died & the city that was there in 1971 is itself morphing at an ever faster rate. The Cody’s on Fourth Street is undistinguishable from a Border’s in terms of its stock. Black Oak hasn’t changed much since the days when its founder declared that “language poetry is puke.” And SPD operates without a real retail outlet at all these days, tho you can get back into its warehouse & spend $200 awfully fast once you do. It’s certainly not the operation it was when it was just one aspect of Serendipity Books on Shattuck – tho there were far fewer publishers back then as well.

So here’s a tip of the rhetorical hat to the ghosts of the men, Fred Cody & Moe Moskowitz (& to Pat Cody, who is still going strong), who once made Berkeley the most book-centric city in America. Coming from a home in which books were largely absent, the idea of even a poorly organized used book shop like Shakespeare & Co. was more than I could have imagined.


¹ When, having sold my early archives to UC San Diego, I was finally able to buy a house in Berkeley, eight blocks from the one in which I’d grown up, the seller was the owner of the flower stand that has stood outside Cody’s now for decades.

² At one point during that event, I found myself in an English Department classroom in Wheeler Hall, watching the sheriffs, widely known in the 1960s as the Blue Meanies, firing shotguns into opaque windows of the Bancroft Library – there were no protesters at the library & anyone could have been standing behind those frosted glass windows.