The sad demise of Cody’s Books, the iconic independent bookstore in Berkeley that closed this week, is a loss for readers, authors, booksellers and publishers everywhere. The reasons for this unfortunate event are many and complex – Amazon, over-expansion, fiscal mismanagement, the negative impact of digital publishing, the usual suspects – but I’ll leave that discussion to others.
My reaction is personal
Fred Cody was a friend of mine. I loved him and I loved the bookstore he and his wonderful wife Pat had started in 1956. The Telegraph Avenue location that I first visited in 1967 was a big rambling light-filled space that smelled like fresh new books and old butts ground into the unfinished floorboards. It was always crowded with browsing readers of all ages from the diverse Berkeley community, and the broad walkway in front of the store reflected Fred’s generous spirit and idealism, with long-haired street people camped daily selling flowers and political posters.
Fred was a tall man with great craggy bones and crevices in his handsome face, resembling a happier version of Abe Lincoln. He described himself and his store in the early days as an anachronism even then, decades before the advent of the internet and all that has followed.
“I am a bookseller – the owner and operator of a personal bookstore. We are, I’m afraid, members of a fast-vanishing tribe. I agree with those who say that the small personal bookstore is a somewhat picturesque carryover from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet there are still people who are so badly adjusted to reality that they insist on either writing books or selling them.”
Fred Cody’s benign presence pervaded the store space at all times. He pioneered the in-store author reading and brought in such literary luminaries as C.P. Snow and Tom Robbins. Everyone knew Fred and Fred knew everyone. He became an inspiration and guiding spirit when we started Straight Arrow the books division of Rolling Stone in 1969. He told me we should “publish books that are not only informative and enlightening, but weapons in this struggle for social change”. Corny, huh? But he meant it, and so did we.
Later, during my stint as the editor of the Berkeley Monthly, Fred wrote our book column and recommended many young writers to me for our short story selections, including naturalist David Rains Wallace and an unpublished young woman named Alice Walker, his personal favorite. He had a finely tuned taste for literary excellence and innovation.
Why Cody’s failed
I spoke today to Bruce Harris, a master book sales guy who sold to Cody’s and other independent booksellers for 48 years, first as a rep for Crown, eventually as President for Sales at Random House and Publisher/COO of Workman, and he put it this way:
“To survive as an independent book seller these days, you have to be either independently wealthy and in it for love not money, or have a special niche. Now an independent store needs a distinct identity, like mysteries, computer books, children’s books, gardening, something… But even the big chains are in jeopardy now, trying to keep up with the Amazon juggernaut.”
I asked Bruce why Cody’s failed: “Well, I always thought Andy Ross [who bought the store from Fred Cody in 1977] was a smart guy but he could be stubborn, opinionated and inflexible. The neighborhood on Telegraph Avenue became a really big problem for him. People didn’t want to deal with the social problems on the street, and stopped going. Then he moved to Fourth Street neighborhood where he couldn’t afford the rent. Then to San Francisco where he had no connection, no base. It was a series of unfortunate events.”
What a pity. But such a bright side. I was always grateful to Cody’s as a place where over the years I led a total of 27 writer’s workshops — the perfect atmosphere for so many folks wanting to be better writers and get published.
What Fred would say today
I’m sure Fred would smile at the sad news today and say something like “Keep fighting the good fight. Don’t give up. There are still plenty of good writers, good books and readers around, and there always will be.”
And he’d be right.