Posts Tagged ‘CODY’S’

Author Mary Mackey Interviews a Celebrity Agent (That Would Be Me)

April 25, 2014

Mary Mackey, AuthorToday I am reprinting an interview by myself and Mary Mackey originally published in her fabulous writer’s blog: “The Writer’s Journey.” Mary  is a bestselling author who has written six volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of thirteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages including Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Her poems have been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Marge Piercy, and Dennis Nurkse for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. ”     Her newest book,  a collection of her poetry entitled Travelers With No Ticket Home was published this spring by Marsh Hawk Press.

***

Mary: Andy, you’re a famous, successful agent. Given this, I suspect the most common question people ask you is: “How do I get an agent?” Let’s answer that one first. Could you please tell us in two sentences or less what writers need to do to get an agent? Also, I’m sure people will want to know if you are currently accepting clients.

Andy: You get an agent the old fashion way,  by having a fantastic, original idea for a book  and a brilliant writing style.  I have a blog that explains the steps you need to take to find an agent.  Check out my Eleven Steps To Finding An Agent. And yes, I am actively seeking new clients. I want query letters by email. You can send them to:  andyrossagency@hotmail.com.

Mary: Before you became an agent, you owned several bookstores including Eeyore’s in Cotati, California, and Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  Tell us about your early experiences as a bookseller. How did you get into the business? What did you love about it?

Andy: I got into it for all the wrong reasons. I was a graduate student in European history. I liked to hang out at bookstores.

Mary: How did you come to buy Cody’s Books?

Andy: Like most of my important decisions in life, it was pretty impetuous. I was visiting my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned  Bookshop Santa Cruz. He told me that Cody’s was for sale and that I should consider buying it. I told him probably not. It was daunting.  I was only 29 at the time, and Cody’s was already a legendary bookstore. I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge or confidence. The next morning he asked me again if I would consider it. Again I said, “no”.  But as I was driving home, I decided I would do it.  A month later, I owned the store.

Mary: What were the best things and the worst things about being a bookseller?

Andy: Well, everybody I know has the fantasy of owning a bookstore. Being surrounded by books.  Wow! But when I think back on my 30 years at Cody’s, I realize that a lot of my time was spent on pretty mundane stuff. The bad plumbing on Telegraph Avenue comes to mind. And I was never very good at supervising employees. I was always trying to make people happy, and I never seemed to be able to.

Mary: When you owned bookstores, what was your best-selling book?

Andy: Probably my best seller was Bill Clinton’s memoir.  It helped that he came to the store to sign it.

Mary: How did you make the transition from bookstore owner to literary agent?

Andy: It was another impetuous decision, but one I never regretted. I had been a bookseller all my adult life.  When I left Cody’s in 2007, I thought that I was probably cut out for sacking groceries at Safeway.  I woke up one morning and decided I’d make a good  literary agent. At first I was worried that I didn’t know anything about it. But then I realized that I’d been learning the job for 35 years. Being a bookseller all that time was pretty good experience for being an agent. Most agents come out of publishing. I have the advantage of having spoken to book buyers all my life.

Mary: How is your relationship to authors different at present than it was when you were selling their books?

Andy:  Now I’m working at the other end of the literary food chain. I’m involved much more in creative work. I like that a lot.  The process of writing, particularly writing fiction, is a mystery to me and really quite miraculous. When I first decided to become an agent, I thought that my main job would be making deals. But I spend much more time working with authors and helping them polish their book. It’s tough getting published. You can’t submit a project unless it’s perfect.

Mary: What are the major problems you see in the work of clients you decline to represent? In other words, what do writers need to do to make their books better and more saleable?

Andy: That’s really the $64,000 question. Publishing has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. I saw that happening at Cody’s, and I’m seeing it now as an agent. Most of the commercial publishers have been bought up by multimedia conglomerates. The pressure to produce huge profits is intense.  The word that keeps coming up in publishing is “platform,”  which means you have a recognized national or international  authority  in the subject you are writing about or you have the kind of celebrity that gives you the  ability to garner media attention. I like to tell people that platform means  you either have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. Platform is less important with fiction.  But the hurdles are even more challenging. The writing has to be exceptional. But that is only the beginning. Almost all the novels that are submitted to fiction editors have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good. Publishing decisions tend to get made based on marketing rather than aesthetic considerations. A literary fiction editor might look at 300 novels a year. They will probably decide to publish 10.

Mary: What is your favorite book of all time?

Andy: Probably War and Peace.

Mary: What are you reading right now?

Andy: Something trashy. I’m too embarrassed to say.

Mary:  What books by your clients are coming out in the near future?

Andy: Sometimes its better to be lucky than smart in this business. But it’s  even better to be both. The most recent book I represent is Water 4.0 by David Sedlak published by Yale University Press. It’s the most important book yet published on the challenges of drinking water. The book was released the week Governor Brown declared a drought emergency in California.  Bloomsbury Press has just released Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It’s a profound and important book, one that will have a huge impact on the way we think about animals.  Also Sourcebooks has just released Shooting Stars: My Life as a Paparazzi by Jennifer Buhl. Definitely the most fun book I have ever worked on. Also one of the funniest. She was recently interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. I have three magnificent novels being published this fall. I can’t wait.

Advertisements

Bookselling in the Eighties 2

May 18, 2011

Cody's at night 1986In 1980  most books were still being sold in independent stores. The big chains were B. Dalton Booksellers  (later purchased by Barnes and Noble) and Waldenbooks (now owned by Borders and facing extinction). Almost all of these stores were in malls. They were small, about 2-3000 square feet. They sold commercial bestsellers by the bucket load. In the late 80s the big chains changed their strategy and started building 40,000 square feet megastores. And the little  mall stores have been declining in number and languishing  in sales since then.

These  chain stores were a lot different from  independents, and I don’t think they really were formidable competitors. They focused on highly commercial books, hardback and paperback bestsellers, genre fiction, how-to and self-help books, and  coffee table scrap books of Hollywood celebrities.  . Unlike many independents, the stores  were extremely well lit (in a sort of cold fluorescent sort of way) and they put a premium on dramatic displays of  a limited range of titles. Typical independent stores of the time were more crowded, darker, and less glitzy. Displays were pretty modest. Independents  were more concerned with their dignity and seriousness of purpose. (Although my dignity could be tested, when struggling to deal with the overused public restrooms on Telegraph Avenue).  I think that the chains had a better sense of the trends in modern design than we did. They really focused on being inviting to the average consumer. But it wasn’t clear whether they served the function of bringing culture to the masses  or  debasing culture  to the lowest common denominator.  The debate continues to this day.

 The chains pioneered the use of “dumps” (I love that word), large cardboard displays provided by publishers with 4 to 8 pockets of a single title placed face out, usually in the front of the store. When Simon and Schuster published their book on the  transcripts of the Nixon Tapes in 1997, I suggested that they create a dump with a life size cutout of Nixon looking jowly and with five o’clock shadow, pointing down to the books and saying in his inimitable style: “Buy this book, you cock shucker!” Simon and Schuster was neither impressed nor amused.

 People’s opinions of these stores varied. Some media pundits saw them as a democratizing force bringing books to a wider audience. Others saw them as an ominous sign that the barbarians were at the gates and foreshadowed  the end of civilization as we knew it. These stores were never popular in intellectually snooty Berkeley.

A lot of books were also sold in department stores and through book clubs, but these channels  were already in decline. They had always been the venues of choice for  certain types of rich old ladies with blue hair.  The giant big box retailers: Costco, Wal-mart, and Target, all of which are huge sellers of  books today, were not even on the futurists’ radars.

But big changes were afoot that would dramatically transform bookselling in the decade ahead.  In 1971 Leonard Riggio, a young recent graduate of NYU, purchased  Barnes and Noble, a  moribund New York retail book store, that had been around since the late nineteenth century.  At the time Barnes and Noble had what was probably the largest bookstore in America on Nineteenth Street in New York.  Riggio went about expanding the company regionally. He focused on opening smaller stores around Manhattan. He also began what was then a very novel marketing strategy of heavily discounting best sellers, as much as 40%. The discounted books were placed in the back of the store, a little like milk in supermarkets. In order to get to the cheap titles, the customer had to snake his way through long aisles. During the trek, one hoped,  he would be seduced by the full price titles along the way.

Further down the eastern seaboard, in Washington D. C., Robert Haft, another brash and aggressive young man with some family money behind him, was inspired by the Barnes and Noble discounting strategy and started opening his own discount stores called Crown Books. Haft’s family had built up a huge regional discount drug chain called Dart Drugs and had some experience in aggressive price cutting. The typical Crown store was a pretty shabby affair, smaller even than the mall-based chains.  Haft  liked to say that every book in the store was discounted every day. He filled the store with a very limited amount of discounted hardback and paperback bestsellers along with lots of off-price remainders. In 1979  Crown started opening stores in other cities, first in Chicago, then San Francisco and LA, and expanded from there. He never opened in New York to avoid going head to head with the only other discounter of the time, Barnes and Noble.

Haft,  developed extremely annoying ads that saturated the media to announce his openings in new markets. He would stand around stacks of best sellers and say in a grating voice that sounded like the Godfather, only two octaves higher: “Books cost too much in [name of city], so I started Crown Books. Now you’ll never have to pay full price again.”

A Crown opened less than a block from Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue. It never did very well and closed a few years later. There was also  a Waldenbooks a block north of Cody’s. It didn’t do so well either and closed in the early 90s.

Bookselling in the Eighties 1

May 8, 2011

me mid-1980sMost independent booksellers who have been in business for awhile will tell you that the 1980s was the golden age for the independent store. And it  most certainly was for the large independents that came to dominate the book business for a short period of time. There weren’t very many of us, and we came in many shapes and sizes. But the stores  had an immense influence on book publishing and  literary culture.  Along with Cody’s,  there was Powell’s Books in Portland and Tattered Cover in Denver. Both were huge stores even by today’s standards, each over 60,000 square feet. Closer to home, there was our sister store, Kepler’s in Silicon Valley, Bookshop Santa Cruz down the coast, and Book Passage in Marin.   

There were some smaller stores as well. Book Soup on the Sunset Strip in LA., Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City., Left Bank Books in St. Louis, City Lights in San Francisco, The Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, and Schwartz’s in Milwaukee (of all places).   It was difficult to pinpoint the qualities that made these stores so beloved and so important to our culture. They were all very different kinds of stores serving very different kinds of communities. That was, after all, what made independent stores so fascinating.  I suppose the only unifying principle that made these stores so important and such a pleasure to shop in was that they were all characterized by a kind of charismatic leadership by the  owners who had a passion for books. Somehow you just knew it when you walked in.

Book publishers like to classify their titles into “frontlist” and “backlist”. The frontlist is the expression used for new titles,  usually but not always in hardback, that have just been released. The backlist is what we call the  books that have been published for some time.  It is a little bit of a fuzzy line that determines when front list becomes backlist, but at some point, and certainly when it goes into paperback after a year,  the book becomes backlist.  Publishers love the backlist. Why shouldn’t they? Backlist books sell year after year with almost no cost to the publisher  for publicity and promotion. The editorial and acquisition costs have been fully amortized. The publisher need do no more than project sales into the future and schedule additional print runs. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is backlist. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is backlist. Mastering The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child is backlist. But when Knopf issued a new edition of the classic cookbook to coincide with the release of the movie, Julie and Julia, it became frontlist.

In 1980 the vast number of books that we sold were from the backlist. Not just the classics and the scholarly titles, but popular fiction, books by authors like:, Frank Herbert, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins,  and Isabel Allende were  evergreen titles that sold year after year.

Let’s look at the bestselling titles of 1980.

FICTION 

1. The Covenant, James A. Michener

2. The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum

3. Rage of Angels, Sidney Sheldon

4. Princess Daisy, Judith Krantz

5. Firestarter, Stephen King

6. The Key to Rebecca, Ken Follett

7. Random Winds, Belva Plain

8. The Devil’s Alternative, Frederick Forsyth

9. The Fifth Horseman, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

10. The Spike, Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss

N O N F I C T I O N

1. Crisis Investing, Douglas Casey

2. Cosmos, Carl Sagan

3. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, Milton and Rose Friedman

4. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins

5. Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese

6. The Sky’s the Limit, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

7. The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler

8. Craig Claiborne’s Gourmet Diet, Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey

9. Nothing Down, Robert Allen

10. Shelley: Also Known as Shirley, Shelley Winters

Compare this list to the one from 1972 [see my previous post. “How I Became a Bookseller.”]  It seems to me that the titles on this list are a lot more commercial than they were back then. This coincides with new trends in publishing. Publishers were changing from cottage industries to big business.  Big publishers were buying up smaller publishers, and big  integrated media conglomerates were buying up big publishers. And books were increasingly being marketed by mass merchants to mass audiences.

 When I bought the store in 1977, there was  a small press table at the very front of store. The titles on the table were poetry and some literary broadsides  by lesser known or local writers.   Most of them  weren’t all that good or interesting and didn’t sell very well either. But Fred Cody had a sort of sentimental attachment to the idea.  In 1980 I  moved the display of the small presses  to the middle of the store closer to the poetry section. I thought of it as a practical decision. The table was pretty prominent real estate. And it just might make sense to display books that customers actually wanted to buy.  The local poets thought otherwise. They saw it as the opening salvo of the coming kulturkämpf, a kind of Manichean battle between the forces of culture vs. the forces of Mammon. (I guess I was Mammon.) It was argued that Fred Cody would have never eliminated the small press table. Whenever I did something at the store that some group didn’t like, I always accused of betraying the memory of Fred Cody.

I countered with my own broadside. I brought up   the words of T. S. Eliot to  attempt to shame the poets for using language like a sledge-hammer. I reminded them that “between the motion and the act, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow.”  This tempest in a teapot finally resolved itself in a meeting over some cappuccinos across the street at the Café Med. I’m not sure how it all sorted out, but I think there was some kind of compromise where I promised some displays in other areas.

The biggest book for us that year and one of the biggest books ever at the store was Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Sagan had hosted an incredibly successful PBS series on astronomy.  He was also easy to parody. People went around all year imitating him by blowing up their cheeks and then exhaling histrionically while saying : “BILLIONS of stars”. We knew that this spinoff was going to be a very big book.

I decided to take a few cues from the chains and make a huge pile of  Cosmos right at the front entrance. The chains loved these mountainous displays of a single title that seemed to mesmerize  customers as they  entered the stores. They called the merchandising principle: “pile ’em high and watch  ’em fly.”  The  Cody’s staff was  generally appalled by  the Cosmos  display and started bludgeoning me with Fred Cody again. (Fred saw the display and didn’t seem particularly concerned.)   Maybe the staff was right  though. The first day the display was up, a customer came in with his dog who promptly lifted up his leg and peed on the stack. When I tried to get the customer, a disabled man and a Cody’s regular, to tie the dog up outside, he cited chapter and verse of the legal code that gave disabled people the right to be accompanied by their dog. I lost the battle but won the war. We sold over 1000 copies of  Cosmos.

How the Computer Came to Cody’s

February 26, 2011

 All bookstores need inventory control.  Inventory control is how you manage your stock. We need to know which books are selling and how fast, which books we have run out of, which books need to get reordered and in what quantity,  which have stopped selling and need to be returned, which categories are hot and which ones are not, how many copies of each book we have on hand, how many on order, when that order will arrive, and where is it shelved. Before the computer, we were not really able to get that information very easily.  

 In 1977,  the way most bookstores managed their inventory was by  a  periodic physical book count done by publishers’ sales representatives. A sales rep would make an appointment 3 or 4 times a year to come in, crawl around the floor for a couple of days counting all of the books from his  own  company, and give us a huge list of his titles with the quantities that he counted  and  recommendations for reorders. He’d  also pull from the shelves  a few books that had stopped selling and tell us we could return them.  As you can imagine, this wasn’t very efficient. A lot of bookstores raised this system to an apotheosis by organizing their stores by publisher rather than by subject. It was certainly a convenience for the sales reps, but it didn’t make much sense for the customers. Most of them didn’t come up to the information desk and ask if a bookstore had any nice Random House books they could browse. The system had the effect of insuring that orders were placed as infrequently as possible, sometimes only every 3 or 4 months. The publishers reinforced this system  by giving very generous special deals seasonally to coincide with these big stock orders. Sometimes they even offered delayed billing so that we didn’t have to pay for months.   It was an additional incentive for the bookseller to wait even longer before making reorders of hot selling titles.  All of this tended to insure that we had vast amounts of overstock in the backroom that wasn’t selling and that we were  frequently out of stock on the books that were selling. 

 In the 60s, Cody’s developed what was then a rather sophisticated alternative to this – for its time, at least. We stuffed  2″ x 3″ cardboard inventory cards in every book with the name of the book and the publisher  on the card. We could also stamp the date that we received it to determine what had been on the shelf for too long.  When the book was sold, we pulled out the card  at the register and put it in a box. Periodically we sorted the cards  by publisher in order to determine reorders based on past sales. Each card represented a sale for a particular book. We would  shuffle through them and replace stock by ordering one copy for every card. For a clunky low-tech system, it worked pretty  well and was definitely more efficient than  waiting for the sales reps to crawl around on the floor.

When I bought the store in 1977,  one of the more memorable Cody’s employees was a young graduate student in Computer Science at Cal named John Gage. He was brilliant, articulate, and had a passion for technology, but also a passion for books. Computers were not the all-consuming artifact of   the culture as they are today. For starters, there were no personal computers. Most computers were still big banks of machinery in air conditioned rooms. Obviously  there was no World Wide Web, not even in the exuberant dreams of the futurists of the time. The previous year John convinced Pat and Fred Cody that they should allow him to create a computer section for the store; also a graduate level mathematics section and a collection of similarly high level titles in physics and quantitative economics. As a result, during the 70s and 80s, Cody’s was the preeminent store in the country in these areas. Probably the bestselling book in the entire store for, hmmm, maybe ten years was The C Programming Language by John Kernighan. We must have sold 5000 copies of that book . Most of the computer books were  written for a high level technical audience. The personal computer was barely on anyone’s radar. The Apple 2, which was the real beginning of the personal computer revolution, was introduced in 1977, the same year that I took over the store. The graduate students hovering around the computer section condescendingly referred to the people with Apple 2s as “hobbyists”.

John had a novel idea for the store  that he thought was pretty nifty. —   He liked to use the word, “nifty”.  He figured out a way to control inventory and place orders using a   computer. It was an improvisation, not very sophisticated. But almost all computerized inventory systems today  are highly embellished variations of John’s concept.

John realized that  our clunky card-in-the-book inventory system was easily adoptable to  the  rather primitive (and expensive) computer technology of the time. He developed a scheme  to replace the inventory cards with IBM punch cards. Remember those?  He would collect them every week and take them to the computer center at UC. There, late at night when no one was around to stop him, he would run the punch cards through the giant card sorters and punchers and would generate orders to be printed and new cards corresponding to those orders that would be stuffed in the books when they were received..  We were one of the first bookstores, if not the first, with a computerized inventory control system, thanks to John.  All of a sudden we were able to place orders every week instead of every 3 months. And we had alphabetical lists of every book in the store and in what section they were shelved.  The computer revolution had begun!

What happened to John Gage? One day he was standing in the mathematics section of the store, no doubt browsing an advanced Springer-Verlag book with a yellow cover on a subject like  stochastic processes or applied regression analysis. He got into a conversation with a Computer Science professor from UC, Bill Joy. They went across the street to Café Med and started making drawings on napkins. Ultimately this led to an idea, which developed into a concept, that emerged into a design,  that became a plan for a new type of computer and a company to manufacture and market it.  John and five other people took this plan and went off to Silicon Valley to create a modest sized technology startup called Sun Microsystems. Ultimately John became the head of science at Sun and a major figure in the history of Silicon Valley.  It all began at Cody’s.

Cody’s As it Was in 1977

February 10, 2011

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.

Pat Cody — Rest in Peace

October 1, 2010

I just learned that Pat Cody died peacefully in her sleep  on September 30.

Pat was a remarkable woman who inspired me during my 30 years at Cody’s.  Pat and Fred Cody founded the store in 1956. Fred was an incredibly charismatic man and a visionary. But it was Pat who conducted most of the hard business at the store.

Pat always thought of herself as a tough minded business person. She used to say that she learned it from studying at the London School of Economics. But I think she would have been pretty shrewd even without that advanced degree.

When I bought the store from the Cody’s in 1977, I was 30 years old and didn’t know all that much. Pat was always available for advice, but was extremely sensitive about imposing her ideas  on me. She usually said that it was my store now, and I should run it my way. But she was always there for Cody’s milestone events.

I made the decision to close the Telegraph store in the spring of 2006. (The last day of business for the store was July 10 of that year, a day after Cody’s 50th birthday). Everything happening  at that time was hard for me, but the hardest thing was having to tell Pat  that the store would be closing. I’d been in the book business  long enough  not to have to seek Pat’s approval. After all, I had owned the store many years longer than the Cody’s had owned it. I was older than Pat was at the time that she left Cody’s. But when I called her, I felt like a kid who had just cracked up the family car. When I told her  we were closing, Pat was silent for about  two seconds. (It felt like an hour.). And then she said:  “It’s remarkable  you were able to keep it going as long as you did.”  Typical of Pat, this was not a ponderous pronouncement about Cody’s place in history. It was a very commonplace observation. But it was the one thing that I needed to hear at that time.  And it gave me a feeling of consolation. That was a very important moment for me. And characteristic of Pat’s decency.
 
After Cody’s closed in June, 2008 Pat had a party at her house for Cody’s employees. About 30 of us showed up. We sat around in Pat’s back yard. We told a few stories about old times, but mostly we just hung out drinking beer  like old friends who had once shared something important in our lives. I remember that it was a nice afternoon. 

Leslie and I will think good thoughts about Pat. We offer  condolences to her children: Anthony, Nora, Celia, and Martha.

There will be a memorial service for Pat at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley on October 30 at 2:00.

Here are some photographs of Pat.

This is a picture of Pat and Fred at the store. It appears to be from the early 70s.

Pat and Fred with me at the time I became the owner in 1977.

Pat at Cody’s Fiftieth Birthday celebration in 2006. It was a bitter-sweet event. Cody’s on Telegraph was closing the following day.

Fighting Against History Part 1

January 2, 2010

Nobody is going to want to hear this, but we might as well face up. One of these days, not too far off, bookstores will be a thing of the past. Books are going digital just like music has gone digital. Right now e-book purchases constitute less than 2% of  all book sales. But while  sales of trade books are down this year, sales of e-books are up almost 300%. You don’t need to be a statistician or an industry sage  to see which way the wind is blowing.

I don’t feel  very comfortable about this. I don’t even feel comfortable  writing about this. Certainly when I was in retail, I didn’t even feel comfortable thinking about this.  And most of the time I didn’t. But reality is beginning to impinge even  on my own immeasurable capacity for avoidance.  

About 12 years ago, I was on a panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco  with a bunch of high tech gurus. To give you an idea of how much the world has changed, one of the gurus was talking about this new internet company that he had just discovered. He called it “one of my favorite new bookstores.” The company was Amazon.com. I’d never heard of it.

The subject of the panel was the future of the book in the internet age. The gurus all said that the book was going digital. It was just a question of how long it would take for the technology to develop enough to create a good medium for reading text. They predicted it would be in about five years. They were wrong on the timing but right on everything else. I became argumentative and even slightly insulting. I also shamelessly played to the house, which was mostly made up of little old ladies. I said  that the other members of the panel were technology obsessed and that the world of literature and culture was much too important to be left in the hands of engineers (I believe I raised my upper lip with just a hint of a sneer when I said this). The audience applauded.

 The gurus treated me with contempt, or maybe with benign condescension. They knew that they were masters of the universe. They knew that that this arrogant little shopkeeper would be swept up in the dustbin of history. I decided to go epistemological on them. I spoke of the overweening arrogance of believing that they owned the future. I might have mentioned David Hume’s critique of the concept of causality.  But my skills were merely rhetorical. That day I won the battle. But today it is manifest that I lost the war.

One of the mistakes I made that day was to confuse two  different issues. Was technology going to bring about the death of the book or would it bring about the death of the paper book? I attempted to formulate  the question as one of  technology vs. culture. I think I understood the distinction all along. But I kept treating the two issues interchangeably, probably for opportunistic and rhetorical reasons.

Clearly the book isn’t dead. E-book sales are growing exponentially. People still want to read a good novel. A three hundred page non-fiction book on a subject that has been well thought out and  well edited is a lot different from a blog. The people who are designing e-book readers talk about the necessity of sustaining the “trance-like” state of reading when using the electronic medium. That is the right question to ask. And they are coming very close to succeeding.

I have never read a book on an e-book reader. But I’ve seen them, and they are pretty good. And  they are getting better fast. They have wireless delivery systems, so you can get any of 1,000,000 titles in seconds. And, of course, the books are cheap. The internet seems to have an unfortunate tendency of devaluing intellectual work as reflected in the price of the product. Amazon and BN.com are in price wars. Amazon is selling best seller e-books for $9.95. That is below cost, by the way. And classics and public domain titles are usually free.

When I say that the internet hasn’t destroyed the book, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had an incalculable impact. And it has eliminated entire categories of books. During the heyday of Cody’s in the 1980’s, dictionaries, almanacs, and encyclopedias were huge sellers at the store. We could expect to sell 20 copies of the Webster’s Third International Dictionary during the holiday season. Even the $300 Complete Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes with magnifying reader included sold fifty copies a year. And that is when $300 was real money. Similarly, a new edition of The Columbia Desk Encyclopedia was a major publishing event. – And a major scholarly achievement. During the Eighties, our largest section in the store was computers, mostly books telling us how to use software. Those sales disappeared after 2000.

These books are all gone. These activities have moved on-line. It is just too convenient. But something is missing. We have already spoken of the tyranny of Wikipedia (see blog entry: “Wikipedia and Me.”) There was something else that has been lost, though. The serendipitous pleasure of thumbing through these books and discovering a new word or a new piece of information. That just doesn’t happen now.

The same is true of browsing in a bookstore. A bookstore gives you the pleasure of wandering around and maybe finding something unexpected. Amazon and BN.com have tried to duplicate this with clever software solutions. But they all seem pretty artificial. It doesn’t replace the joy of browsing a bookstore. A number of people have come up to me to tell me how important Cody’s was in their lives. Some of them said they met their spouses for the first time at Cody’s. You can’t do that at Amazon.com.

Next week I’ll talk some more about some of my quixotic struggles  against the Brave New World of the internet.

More Recommended Books from Cody’s Archive

August 2, 2009

The Dream of Scipio. Iain Pears. This is a brilliantly conceived and magnificently executed novel, both an historical novel and a ethical and philosophical puzzle.  It is also a gripping story.  The action takes place in 3 historical periods, all of which are times of cultural dissolution: the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the Fifth Century, the time of the great plague in the Fourteenth Century, and Vichy France.  Each story is interrelated by characters who, as scholars, have studied the other characters in the novel.  Each character must face parallel ethical dilemmas. The book asks whether action in the world that is imbued with ethical wisdom makes a difference. 

The Seven Ages of Paris. Alistair Horne.  Alistair Horne is one of the great historians of France writing in the English language. For the past 25 years he has devoted himself to writing this book, a history of everyone’s favorite city, Paris,  from the 12th century to its liberation in 1945. As in all of Horne’s books  this work is imbued with a masterful narrative sweep.

Master of the Senate. Robert Caro. Caro’s Johnson is epic, larger than life,  great in his flaws, endlessly fascinating.  Just as the other great Johnson in literature was defined by the genius of his biographer, Boswell; so Lyndon Johnson will be remembered through the ages by this masterpiece of biography. This, the third volume in his story, takes us through the years in the Senate. It is as much a history of that great institution as it is of Johnson’s life. It is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History for 2002. Also read the equally spellbinding first two volumesThe Path to Power and Means of Ascent.

 Hotel Honolulu.  Paul Theroux. This is a funny, mesmerizing and touching collection of related stories about Hawaii.  The author has  created a character, a composite of himself and his imagination.  The stories all center around a somewhat long at the tooth hotel off Waikiki Beach.  Guests come and go. All  seek a kind of paradise, but inevitably bring their own flawed existences with them.  

 War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy.  This is arguably (unarguably) the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy’s epic of Russia during the Napoleanic Wars contains both grand historical sweep and minute psychological detail. The characters are so real and so compelling that they practically walk off the pages. It is both profound and accessible. When you have finished, read Tolstoy’s no less magnificent novel, Anna Karenina.

 The Name of the Rose.  Umberto Eco. The English friar, William of Baskerville (his name, a pun on the Conan Doyle tale), is called to a monastery to employ his mastery of Aristotelian logic to solve a number of perplexing murders.  The brothers in the monastery represent the entire range of medieval thought. This book is a brilliant novel of ideas, a profound recreation of an historical epoch,  and a superb who-dunnit.

 Death Comes for the Archbishop. Willa Cather.  This enduring masterpiece is Willa Cather’s greatest achievement. It is the story of the French cleric Father Latour, who is sent to convert the American Southwest to Catholicism. He eventually becomes Archbishop of Santa Fe. With elegant simplicity of prose, we follow the life of Father Latour for 40 years, during which time he struggles with derelict priests, a beautiful but forbidding land, and his own loneliness.

 .A History of Warfare. John Keegan.  In this time of war, we all seek to comprehend how the activity of war, which is at once so horrifying, can yet be so embedded in the human condition.  The world’s preeminent military historian has written a masterpiece.  There are no long and boring descriptions of battle tactics and no indecipherable maps with black and white squares.  Instead, Keegan examines the role of warfare in all cultures from stone age to atomic age.  He shows that the history of warfare is really the history of human nature’s darkest side. This book is an eloquent and absorbing work of cultural history.

 A Thousand Acres. Jane Smiley. This book, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature of 1992, is Jane Smiley’s greatest work. It is the retelling of the King Lear legend transposed to a contemporary American family farm and told from the point of view of one of the older sisters. Smiley interweaves mythic themes with issues of family dysfunction. Throughout we are dazzled by the work of a master literary realist.

 Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte.  Is this literatures greatest love story? I think so. It is the tragic tale of timeless love between Cathy and the magnificent and mysterious Heathcliff.  It is written with beautiful descriptive language of the moors on which the action takes place.   The story builds slowly in momentum and volume of emotion until it reaches the climactic doom  of Heathcliff. Be sure to keep some hankies at your side.

 Gone to Soldier., Marge Percy.  Marge Piercy has written a sweeping epic of the Second World War. It is not a blood and guts battle saga, but more a tale of the other war, the men and women who were not on the front lines but on the assembly lines, the food lines, and behind enemy lines.The Second World War gave birth to our own age. No book has demonstrated this so well as Gone To Soldiers.

Interview with Alex Beckstead — Director of “Paperback Dreams”

July 12, 2009

 

Alex Beckstead is the filmmaker who produced and directed the documentary, Paperback Dreams. The film is a powerful story of the rise and decline of 2 iconic independent bookstores, Cody’s in Berkeley and Kepler’s in Palo Alto. Alex filmed myself and Clark Kepler for  over 2 years. The film was shown on national PBS in the Fall, 2008. It was broadcast in most major  TV markets, screened at independent bookstores across the country, and was probably viewed by over 1 million people in its initial broadcast run. You can purchase the DVD of the film for $19.95 at: http://www.filmbaby.com/films/3389

Here is the trailer:

  Andy. Alex, when and why did you decide to make this film?

Alex. I’ve been a fan of bookstores for about as long as I can remember, and it’s kind of sad that I’ve been able to mark time by the closing of stores near where I lived at various times – Waking Owl in Salt Lake City in the mid-1990s, Printers Inc. in Mountain View after the dot com bubble, Black Oak Books this past year in the Inner Sunset where I live now – but in spite of all this, I thought there must be a certain class of bookstore that would always survive, that the right combination of location, population and character could keep a bookstore afloat in spite of the conventional wisdom.  Kepler’s and Cody’s both seemed like this kind of store to me.  When Kepler’s closed in 2005, I was one of the people who stood dumbfounded outside the door.  Here was one of the last independent bookstores on the Peninsula, 10 minutes from Stanford, in one of the best-educated, wealthiest zip codes in the country, and located in the closest thing Menlo Park had to a town square.  And it couldn’t survive.  That was a real wake up call to me, and that’s really what planted the seed of the idea for the film.  I got in touch with Clark Kepler, and learned that Kepler’s might be reopening, and a few days later I met you and heard what you were doing with Cody’s San Francisco, and those two stories started the ball rolling.

Andy.  So tell us some more about why you chose Cody’s and Kepler’s for Paperback Dreams?

Alex. It became clear pretty early on that these stores were going to be the main focus.  Kepler’s because I thought it was interesting that this town that had made a lot of money in technology was aghast at the idea of not having an independent bookstore.  In fact, at least one of the investors who helped rescue Kepler’s was also on the board of Amazon.com at one point.  I was interested in Cody’s because of the risk you were taking.  I know that a lot of people have said with folded arms and some sense of arm-chair safety that you should have known that Cody’s San Francisco shouldn’t have worked.  But I never thought it was doomed to fail, and obviously you didn’t either.  It was clear to me that it was either going to be a huge win, or a terrible loss, and I wanted to see what would happen.

Andy. But your movie turned into a lot more than just a documentary about the travails of 2  independent bookstores.

Alex. Once I had those two contemporary stories in mind, I started looking for historical context, and I found that most of what I think of as the rise and fall of the “independent bookstore” is the story of Cody’s and Kepler’s. Both were founded by intellectual strivers who were part of a new post-war middle class that was wealthier and better educated than ever before.  Both seized a business opportunity from the upheaval of paperback publishing (which was having an effect not unlike blogging and electronic media are today).  Both became places that lead to new ways of thinking in the 1960s and 70s.  And both were struggling in this modern digital world of ours.  It also didn’t hurt that the Cody’s and the Kepler’s knew each other and were inspired by each other.

Andy. Did you know at the beginning that the overarching theme of the film would be about the rise and decline of the Independent Book Store?

Alex. I think that was always going to be the arc, but the end wasn’t exactly clear.  And it still isn’t clear to me that “decline” will be the final modifier for the independent bookstore.  There’s a lot of reinvention going on, and I’m pretty confident that bookstores and book culture will be around in 100 years, in some form. 

The more I learn, and the more time I spend around bookstores and book people, the more I realize that what Malcolm Margolin says in the film may be the most prescient take on the beleaguered book business.  He’s more eloquent about it, but basically he says that the last 50 years or so have been a bit of a bubble.  Books have always been important, and for a while, in the heyday of stores like Cody’s and Kepler’s, they seemed like they might even achieve a kind of cultural dominance.  But the book didn’t quite pull it off, and is now sliding back to something more like its historical significance. But books aren’t going away, and neither are bookstores. 

Andy. As you were putting it all together, were you surprised that the film actually addressed itself to wider social issues? The struggle  of small business, the growth of the Internet, the  decline of literary values, books and freedom of speech? Have other people recognized the grand vision that you intentionally or inadvertently captured?

Alex. This was my hope for sure.  It’s the kind of thing that tends to happen in the kinds of nonfiction stories that I like, and I’m glad that you see it in Paperback Dreams.. I really felt from the beginning that this was much bigger than the story of a couple small local businesses, but it might be a bit much to try and say I was the architect of these themes. 

As far as people recognizing these themes, I did a series of screenings at independent bookstores around the country.  At each of these screenings, I did a Q&A with a local bookseller (or in some cases a panel of booksellers) and very quickly the questions shifted from the film to what was going on with the local stores.  More than one bookseller felt the struggle on the screen acutely enough to tear up, and the questions from the audience really suggested that people were starting to see how what in the moment in an incidental and minor shopping decision starts to rend the fabric of community if repeated too often.  I think that’s a pretty common take away from the film.  One of the most common comments I get from people is that the film made them rethink how and where they spend their money, which makes me feel good.  I really think those small choices can make a big difference. 

Andy. For everyone in the book business who saw this movie, it was an incredibly emotional experience. What kind of feelings does the film engender in you?

 Alex. I really can’t understate how important books and reading have been to me personally.  My dad gave me a book for Christmas every year when I was a kid – that was the one present that I knew was directly from him.  And I remember getting in trouble in the third grade for reading books during class. The official curriculum wasn’t engaging me, so I escaped into books.   I thought my mom would punish me mercilessly, but instead she went down to the school and read them the riot act.  It was the first time I ever got into trouble for doing the right thing, which was a pretty sophisticated ethics lesson for a 9 year old.

Anyone who makes books accessible has my respect, but I hold a special place in my heart for booksellers. They take greater risks than libraries, without the potential returns of a publisher or the possible fame and admiration some writers achieve.  I think good booksellers really believe in the value of books, and quite provocatively put that belief to the test by jumping into the bloody fray of capitalism.  In her books about their years running Cody’s, Pat Cody quotes Fred on this subject, and the idea has stuck with me all through the process of making and screening the film:

“In America today we usually measure the success of things by whether or not they are earning their way.  And the point about a bookstore as distinct from a library is that in the bookstore the books are there to be bought.  They are out there in the thick of it competing with all the other goods on sale in an enormously productive and competitive economy. ‘There,’ says the student as he buys the book, ‘goes my lunch money.’

“All of this perhaps sounds rather exaggerated.  Yet I think that most owners of small bookstores have something of this far back in their minds as they take care of the daily mass of detail.  Most of them have a belief in books, some faint idea that books are still a vital force in people’s lives, and that bludgeoning people into buying them amounts to something more than a crass commercial transaction.”

Andy. I have to tell you, Alex, that to this day I cannot watch this film. It seems as though it documented every mistake that I made in the last 5 years. My wife, Leslie, tells me that most people don’t see it that way. Do you agree with Leslie or with me?

Alex. The short answer is that you’re not likely to go wrong listening to Leslie.  She’s very smart.

But the long answer is that you’re both right.  One of your traits that I came to admire making the film was your honesty and willingness to let us in at what were some pretty fragile moments.  In the last interview we shot with you, I was floored when you said that the San Francisco store was an act of hubris.  That’s some pretty naked truth, and I give you a lot of credit for owning up to it.  I think that takes character. 

I also think that hubris and courage aren’t that different, the final distinction between the two often can’t be made until the outcome of one’s actions is revealed It seems to me that you had a choice between watching the company atrophy (and I can’t help but think that had you not expanded, the current economic decline may have done Cody’s in anyway) or making an aggressive attempt to get growing again.  Had your gamble paid off, opening the San Francisco store would have looked like an act of brave genius.  But the truth is that would have been the same decision for the same reasons that you made it.

For what it’s worth, I think Leslie is right about the way most people see you in the film.  Based on what they say to me, people are sympathetic more than judgmental. And when they are judgmental, I don’t think that they’re particularly fair.  Everyone has a theory – Telegraph became seedy, the street level part of the San Francisco was deceptively small, Union Square was not a bookstore friendly neighborhood, new books are too expensive, etc.  And there’s an element of truth to all those theories.  But I don’t think you can pin the end of Cody’s on any of them.  Large independent bookstores simply are not a viable model right now, and that’s not because of any mistake you made in the last 5 years.  I think most people get that.

The failings of Andy Ross are part of the story of Cody’s, but so are your victories and your positive traits.  As I told you when Cody’s closed for good, I think that we tend to look at the end of a story and extract the meaning from the resolution, but a wiser storyteller than I once said that the end of a thing is not the meaning of a thing, and the aggregate joy and good that came from Cody’s ultimately outweighs the sadness of its demise.  In fact, the sadness is only so strong because it’s cast into relief by what we all loved about Cody’s, and you and Pat and Fred and Leslie made Cody’s what it was.  People who knew they store get that, and people who only know the store from the film seem to get that, too.

Andy. Alex, it has been really hard for me to think about Cody’s during the past year. Even harder to watch your movie. But I’m beginning to be able to think about it again. Somebody interviewed me the other day. And asked what it all meant to me. And I remembered the last unforgettable line by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. He said “the struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart”. I think that is sort of what you are saying and what I am feeling.

Have you spoken to anyone from the big chains or the Internet booksellers about this film? How do they react?

Alex. I requested interviews with representatives from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.  They all declined or didn’t respond.  None of them have responded to the finished film.  Not to be snarky, but I don’t really think they’re in the business of responding to human beings who are concerned about the cultural implications of their operations.  It just dignifies our concerns and that’s not good for them.

Andy. What about people in publishing? Do they have the same feelings as the booksellers? Or do they just believe that the decline of the small businesses are just a fact of history; and your movie, an exercise in nostalgia?

Alex. I think publishers know that they need good independent bookstores.  There’s still no better way to cut through the clutter and make the market for a book than word of mouth, and the most passionate readers who are likely to try something new and then champion it are working or shopping at independents.  But publishers need the chains, too.  And to be fair, as Morgan Entrekin says in the film, the chains don’t make perfect villains.  They sell a lot of good books, and in some communities, the arrival of a Barnes and Noble or Borders was a leap forward for book culture. 

We also interviewed a few other publishers and writers (Jonathan Galassi, Peter Mayer, George Saunders) who were cut from the film for time reasons, not because they lacked insight, and on the DVD there’s a 15-minute piece featuring some of those outtakes that is probably the best answer to this question.

Andy.  Alex, it was an amazing experience working with you over the years. I really admire the tenacity you showed throughout. But I also want to thank you for your incredible sensitivity. You were around during some pretty tough times. And I never felt that you ever exploited the situations. I guess they were dramatic enough without your help. And the movie turned into something much larger than the sum of the parts.

You can buy the DVD of Paperback Dreams for $19.95 at: http://www.filmbaby.com/films/3389

More Photographs from the Cody’s Authors Collection

June 28, 2009
Philip Whalen

Philip Whalen

This is another of my very old photographs. It was probably taken in the late 1970’s. Philip Whalen was one of the great Beat Poets. I believe that at the time this reading occurred, he had become a monk at the San Franciso Zen Center

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder

Photograph from the mid 1980’s. A much younger and very handsome image of one of our great poets.

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

This photograph from the early 80’s.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

From the Early 80’s. This picture of Studs captures his earthy charisma.  He was in the back room smoking a cigar. That was before smoking became illegal in California. After he left, we found the cigar butt in the ash tray. Somebody nailed it up to the wall with a sign saying “Studs Terkel’s Cigar”. The cigar remained on the wall for another 10 years.