One day in May, 1977 I drove down to Santa Cruz to visit my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned the remarkable, Bookshop Santa Cruz. It was a big store for its time, about 10,000 square feet. It was in a lovely brick building on the pedestrian mall downtown. It had a little cobblestone terrace in back where there was a flower stand and a cappuccino counter. The store was a kind of bigger version of Eeyore’s. Well, except that it had a water bed in the middle of the store. I met Neal at a booksellers school that year. We cut up a lot and made fun of the stuffy teachers. He’s still my best friend in bookselling, and his family still owns Bookshop Santa Cruz. The water bed is gone, though.
I was crashing on Neal’s living room couch that night. Just before going to bed, Neal asked me if I was aware that Cody’s in Berkeley was for sale. I told him that I had heard the rumor. Cody’s was, even then, a famous store, legendary really. I knew about it even when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Boston. Neal said, “why don’t you buy it?” That seemed unimaginable to me. I was only thirty, and in my mind I felt like I was still 20. When he told me what the asking price was (it was $150,000), I realized I could probably scrape up the money to buy it. It was hard to think of myself as the owner of Cody’s. Cody’s was a national icon and an enormously important force in bookselling. Things were smaller then. Owning Cody’s at that time was, to the book business, a little like owning Facebook today.
I woke up the next morning and walked out to my car accompanied by Neal. He asked, “So are you going to buy Cody’s?” I shook my head and drove away. I thought about it again while driving home. It was a big decision and one that would change the course of my entire adult life. So I tried to give it more thought than the capricious decision that I made to quit graduate school. So I must have thought about it for at least an hour. As soon as I got back to my house, I called up Pat and Fred Cody and asked if we could meet. What happened next is a pretty short story. They liked me. I liked them. A month later on July 9, 1977 I was the new owner of Cody’s.
That date, July 9, had a certain inexorable destiny in the history of Cody’s. It was the date that the store was founded in 1956, and the date that I bought the store 21 years later. It was the date that Fred Cody died in 1983. We also originally planned on closing the Telegraph store forever on that date in 2006. When we realized that would be the 50th anniversary of the store’s founding, we made the decent decision to postpone the closing till the following day.
The Codys were larger than life. Fred Cody was one of the most charismatic men I ever knew. He was about 6’2″, had wavy grey hair and looked a little like Moses without the beard. He was a true intellectual. He also got into the business because he had a passion for books. He had an advanced degree in history, just like me. And he also was just the sweetest guy you could ever imagine. I loved him. Everybody loved him. Pat Cody was great and had a passion for books too. But she brought to Cody’s complementary strengths. Where Fred was a dreamer, Pat was practical and a hardnosed business person.
Everybody thinks of Berkeley as the most radical city in America. It certainly isn’t any more, but probably was back then. But just like every other community, Berkeley people were resistant to change and wary of outsiders. And they were particularly concerned about the unknown 30 year old who was taking over their beloved bookstore. I learned that one local bookseller, after meeting me, commented disparagingly that he hoped I had good help. Everybody came up to me and admonished me not to change anything at Cody’s. I promised I wouldn’t. The Codys knew better. They told me that the store needed new blood and a lot change. And they were confident that I could do it.
During the month of negotiations I had with them, they wouldn’t let me come into the store and meet the staff. Finally the day before the store was to change hands, I was allowed to come in. Pat and Fred stayed around for a few days to clean up their office. Then Fred came up to me and said, “I’m going home. Call me if you need anything.” I was too young and inexperienced to realize that I was too young and inexperienced. So I just started working. For the next 30 years anybody who disagreed with me for any reason would tell me that Fred Cody would have done things differently. They usually said that they were “close personal friends with Bill Cody”. This was always a tipoff that they that they had no idea what they were talking about. Some of those people hadn’t even been born when Fred owned the store. People called me “the new owner of Cody’s” for about 20 years.
When I bought Cody’s in 1977, it was considered a “paperback bookstore.” That was when paperback books were beginning to come out of the closet. “Trade” paperbacks weren’t all that common in bookstores until the 1950s. Bookstores mostly catered to the carriage trade and thought that paperbacks were for riff-raff and beneath their dignity. But bookstores started cropping up that had more egalitarian sensibilities and started specializing in the new format. The conventional wisdom is that the first 3 stores that blazed the way for the paperback revolution were in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were Kepler’s in Palo Alto, City Lights in San Francisco, and Cody’s in Berkeley, all started in the mid 1950s; and all catering to a clientele that was long on brains and short on cash. Each of the founders were intellectual dissenters of a sort. Roy Kepler was a pacifist and peace activist. Fred Cody had a Ph.D but couldn’t get a job in academics because he refused to take a loyalty oath. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who started City Lights, was a prominent poet and deeply involved in the Beat culture of San Francisco.
In the 1960s all of these stores became central players in the political unrest of the times. Fred was an early supporter of the Free Speech Movement that galvanized radical dissent at UC in 1964. Later Fred was an outspoken peace activist. And Cody’s became an intellectual center for left wing politics, a tradition that continued after I took over the store. FSM leader, Mario Savio, briefly worked at Cody’s. In the sixties, there was a lot of turbulence going on right outside the doors of the store associated with the Viet Nam War. In 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan responded to the civil unrest in Berkeley by sending in the National Guard. In justifying this exercise of excessive force, he famously said, “If the bloodbath must come, then let’s get on with it.”
Reagan was no Abraham Lincoln, and Telegraph Avenue was no Fort Sumter. But peace activists kept marching up and down Telegraph Avenue, and the cops were tossing tear gas canisters around to disperse the crowds. Cody’s would always open the doors to let in the activists fleeing from the cops. Fred and Pat Cody loved to tell the story of the time that the police threw a tear gas grenade into the store. The employees tossed it back out the door. The cops tossed it in again and then it blew up releasing the tear gas throughout the store. Not good. Months later you could open some of the books and out wafted a little of the residual gas.
There is a wonderful documentary film about the history of Cody’s and Kepler’s . It tells the story of the stores during the sixties emphasizing how they mirrored the political activism of the times and juxtaposes that story against the struggles that the two stores went through during the last 10 years as we addressed the challenges we faced with the growth of corporate and Internet bookselling. The filmmaker, Alex Beckstead, came to me in 2005 and asked if he could follow me around in order to make this film. I said it was ok. He had hoped to make an uplifting film about how these two famous bookstores triumphed over the mass merchants. It didn’t turn out that way at all. He ended up with a poignant documentary of Cody’s collapse. It is called Paperback Dreams. I hate watching that movie. In my mind, it is a narrative of all the mistakes that I made during the last years of the store. Leslie, my wife, suffered through it as well; and says I am being too hard on myself. And others see it differently as well, more like a classic tragedy, a struggle against an inexorable fate. It has been shown on PBS in most of the major markets. The DVD is available online and at bookstores.
Tags: andy ross, andy ross agency, ask the agent, berkeley, books, bookshop santa cruz, CITY LIGHTS, cody's books, fred cody, free speech movement, Keplers, mario savio, neal coonerty, Paperback Dreams, pat cody, telegraph avenue