Cody’s As it Was in 1977

When I became the owner of Cody’s in 1977, it was primarily stocked paperbacks. Although the idea of a paperback bookstore was novel, paperbacks had been around for a long time, at least since the mid 19th century. The first strictly paperback  publisher was Pocket Books, founded in 1939. Its famous logo of  Gertrude the kangaroo is still on the spines of Pocket Book titles.  The company is now an imprint of Simon and Schuster.  The first title they published was Lost Horizons by James Hilton.

New paperback publishers started popping up in the 1940’s. Penguin Books, Bantam, New American Library,   and  Ballantine Books still live on today as imprints of larger houses. The  books they published were called “mass market” paperbacks. They were and continue to be rack sized books and were primarily sold outside of the traditional book channels. Mostly you found them in magazine outlets and drug stores. In the 1950s publishers started producing “trade paperback” books. These were of a larger format and were usually sold in the new paperback oriented bookstores like Cody’s and Keplers.

Before the mid-1970’s, booksellers couldn’t buy mass market books direct. They were forced to buy them from local magazine distributors with unfavorable trade terms and limited selection. A lot of these distributors were run by the mob, who kept both the bookseller and the publisher in a state of terror. Gradually publishers started showing some uncharacteristic backbone and began selling direct to booksellers. There were a number of reports of “representatives” from the magazine distributors, goons really, making personal visits to booksellers in order to discourage them from dealing directly with the publishers. But the booksellers (who were mostly small shopkeepers back then) showed their  characteristic courage and independence that continues to be their hallmark to this day. Fred Cody told the story of a visit from one of these representatives who threatened to break his knees.

Although the mass market publishers sold reprints of hardback bestsellers, they really excelled at genre fiction. That still is their long  suit today. Genre fiction is a publishing term of art for mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, thrillers and romance. A lot of the stuff was pretty cheesy. The covers in those days were wonderful —  full of babes in suggestive poses, their bodacious bodies pouring out of their skimpy clothes. Titles like Flesh Pots of Malibu. Some nice lesbian action too, mostly taking place in ladies’  prison blocks.

My favorite genre back in the 70s were the romances which we called “bodice rippers” referring to the formulaic schlock-o covers  of shirtless muscle men and swashbucklers ripping the bodices off  the swooning, usually excessively endowed, heroine. I remember every year at the booksellers convention, the romance publishers would hire big hunks, usually dressed up as pirates to promote the titles. There were also women at the booths who all looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Daisy Mae Yokum. The most popular and probably the most tasteless title in this genre was one called: Mandingo. It had a a larger than life slave with bulging muscles popping out of his tattered clothes along with the daughter of the slave master, ripped bodice and all, swooning at his feet. 

 In 1977 Cody’s was a large store for its time. It was about 8900 square feet. That’s not impressive compared to the giant superstores around the country now that are sometimes as large as 60,000 square feet. It always seemed a lot larger though. The Codys had built this structure themselves in 1963. The main room was 35 feet high with floor to ceiling windows giving it a cathedral-like feeling of space. It was filled up with funky homemade pine bookshelves sagging with spine out paperbacks. It was pretty impressive when you walked into the store. It looked like it had every book ever published.

  When I bought the store, there were only 17 employees. But that was an enormous change for me. I had previously only managed one or two people at any given time. The staff were paid $3.25 per hour. Pat Cody always said that the employees  had to settle for the psychic compensation of being surrounded by books. It was true that most of the employees were hired because they, too, had a passion for books. I was fortunate to have two managers who were experienced, competent and gifted booksellers. The general manager was Nick Setka. He was 27 years old then and did most of the buying for the store, which was perfect for his wonderful, intuitive understanding of books. Ed Manegold, then in his early 30’s, was the assistant manager. He was smart, committed,  and much more tough minded than either Nick or me.   Outside of finding the right book for a customer, buying was the only fun job in bookselling. So I tried to join in on that. Usually Nick and I would sit down together with the salesmen. Back then the sales reps were known with the rather quaint name of: “travelers.”  Nick is still in the book business. He is a manager at Book Passage in Marin County and works there with my wife, Leslie Berkler.

In 1977,  the store was organized and stocked in a way that reflected the passions of the owners, Pat and Fred.  The front table, the most prominent real estate in the store, was filled with self-published and small press  books. Fred believed in small presses with a passion. It was a kind of political position. He once made a public statement that he would stock one copy of any small press book that was offered to him.  That statement came back to haunt him, but it tells a lot about Fred’s passion as a bookseller.  I was less thrilled with the small presses. A lot of  those books seemed to be  solipsistic exercises. But still  times were different then and there really were some phenomenal small presses, many of which were located in the Bay  Area. Some of them still exist today. City Lights Books in San Francisco started its publishing arm in 1955. It most famously published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl  the following year. Over in Berkeley Phil Wood gave up his sales rep job at Penguin and decided to start publishing. His first book, Anybody’s Bike Book, inspired the name for his new publishing company, Ten Speed Press. The book went on to sell a million copies, and Ten Speed Press still exists today. In 2009  it was bought by Random House and continues to be an imprint there. Phil died in 2010 after a long bout with cancer. He was a legend and a reminder of a time when publishing was  a more personal endeavor  driven by people with a passion for books.  I admired Phil tremendously throughout his career and will miss him. I miss him a lot.

Here is a list of the bestselling titles of 1977, the year I bought Cody’s.

Fiction

1. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien; Christopher Tolkien

2. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach

4. The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carré

5. Oliver’s Story, Erich Segal

6. Dreams Die First, Harold Robbins

7. Beggarman, Thief, Irwin Shaw

8. How To Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong

9. Delta of Venus: Erotica, Anaïs Nin

10. Daniel Martin, John Fowles

Non-fiction 

1. Roots, Alex Haley

2. Looking Out for #1, Robert Ringer

3. All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot

4. Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

5. The Book of Lists, David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace

6. The Possible Dream: A Candid Look at Amway, Charles Paul Conn

7. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan

8. The Second Ring of Power, Carlos Castaneda

9. The Grass ls Always Greener over the Septic Tank, Erma Bombeck

10. The Amityville Horror, Jay Anson

Not such a bad list of titles, all things considered. The really hot books at Cody’s were quite a bit different though. Yes, we sold bunches of Carlos Castaneda, Tolkien, and Alex Haley’s Roots. And even a few of the less memorable titles on the list like James Herriot, Erma Bombeck and The Thorn Birds

But Cody’s was really marching to the beat of a different drummer. We would sell hundreds, even thousands, of books like Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault,  Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Ecrits by Jacques Lacan.  (And almost anything else by French philosophers and considered “post modern”). These books were all written with such opaque jargon that they could only be understood, if at all, by those initiated into mysteries of the cult of deconstruction.   To the cognoscenti, these books were nothing less than a redefinition of philosophy and literary theory. For the rest of us, it seemed like fashionable nonsense.

 Radical politics was still a passion in those days and  was reflected in the books available in the store. Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man had inspired a generation of radical students since its publication   in 1964. Cody’s had two cases of books on “Marxism”. Aside from the collected works of the master and his major disciples, Lenin, Mao,  and Gramschi, we sold a lot of the contemporary Marxist thinkers. Perhaps the most popular of the new Marxists was Louis Althusser, another French scholar. He was considered a “structuralist” which I guess gave him a license to write the obligatory impenetrable prose. In 1980 he strangled his wife to death. But  this did not seem to have harmed his reputation as a brilliant intellectual.  His fans spent a lot of time spinning out strained arguments about why we should distinguish between the profundity of his ideas and the fact that in life he was a homicidal psychopath.  They should have just accepted it as an embarrassment and left it at that.

 Scholars and philosophers  like Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, Fernand Braudel, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean Piaget, and Walter Benjamin sold well at Cody’s over the years. At one point, Cody’s was selling 10% of the national sales of Walter Benjamin’s classic work of literary criticism, Illuminations.

In contrast to the two cases of books on Marxism, the six cases on philosophy and the ten cases on criticism and literary theory, we only had one shelf of books on business, half of which was taken up by a single title, What Color is your Parachute?

The world changes and bookstores reflect those changes. As we moved into the 21st century, the business section had increased to about 20 cases including subsections on management, sales, real estate, and investing. Marxism became a kind of an intellectual footnote, of importance only to the history of ideas. Most of the titles in the Marxism section quietly went out of print or stopped selling. And we folded up the section and incorporated the few remaining titles into politics, history, and philosophy.

Cody’s maintained its reputation as a great venue for scholarly titles until the very end. One of the saddest moments in my career was in early 2006. Unlike most retailers who put excess inventory on sale, bookstores can return books that are no longer selling to publishers. We did this almost daily based on lists that were kicked out by the computer of titles with no sales for the previous nine months. I was pulling returns that day and noticed that on the returns  list was our last copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was stunned to think that I was taking the most important work of modern philosophy out of the store, but it hadn’t sold in over a year. I left it on the shelf anyway. But that was when  I realized that our time was up. Six months later we closed the Telegraph Avenue store.

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