Posts Tagged ‘Keplers’

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.

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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.

How I Came to Own Cody’s Part 1

January 26, 2011

Pat and Fred Cody and Me 1977

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.

National Guard Outside Cody's -1969

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.

Thinking About Cody’s

September 27, 2009

I suppose it is time to say something about Cody’s. I haven’t said very much about it, except to my wife, Leslie. And it seems to make her uneasy when I do.

Cody’s closed its doors on June 20, 2008. I wasn’t there that day. I hadn’t been working there since December of the previous year. I had sold Cody’s to Hiroshi Kagawa of Tokyo in 2006. Hiroshi was head of  Yohan, Inc. It was the largest distributor of English language books in Japan. We wouldn’t have been able to stay open otherwise. We had run out of money. Anyway, I liked Hiroshi. And he made a pretty good stab at  putting Cody’s back on its feet again.

I kept running the store for another year. But financial concerns crept back  to plague the company. The store was unraveling. And I just couldn’t put it back together again. So I left  and with relief. I didn’t know exactly what I would do next. Given my experience of being a bookseller my whole adult life, I believed my future lay in something like sacking groceries at Safeway.

One night in January, I woke up and realized that I might be good  literary agent. You know, try my hand at the other end of the publishing food chain. I jumped into it. I managed not to think of how audacious that decision was and how little I knew about what I intended to do. It’s hard starting out again when you are 60. Particularly if you had done the same work at the same company for 30 years.  I know a lot more now, and I think I might even be good at this job. I certainly enjoy doing it every day. I only wish I had started my agency sooner. And I still have a lot to learn. I’m very grateful to the other agents who have been so generous with their time and wisdom.

About the time Cody’s closed, Alex Beckstead began showing his documentary: Paperback Dreams  .   The movie was  aired last fall in multiple national markets on PBS television.  Alex spent 2 years filming Paperback Dreams. It was about the struggles of Cody’s and Kepler’s to stay alive in hard times. He wasn’t expecting to document the demise of my store. But that was exactly what he did. It was hard for me to watch this movie. Alex kept dragging me out to public showings. Once I cried. Then I stopped going. I felt that the movie managed to document every mistake I made for several years. Leslie told me that I was being hard on myself and  that no one else saw it that way. Alex agreed. But it didn’t make it easier to watch the movie.

Even though I wasn’t working at the store when Cody’s closed, I really went into a tail spin after it happened. I developed classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The weirdest thing that happened is that I began to feel like the last 30 years of my life didn’t really happen. It wasn’t quite amnesia. It was more like it had been a dream. No, actually,  more like a dream of a dream.

I found  that when I drove to Berkeley, I always tried to avoid  going up Telegraph Avenue. And to this day, I can’t go to Union Square.

But recently, I have found that I’m okay  thinking  about all those years again. After all, here I am writing about it.  There were a lot of things that caused the store to close. Things that probably had very little to do with me.  But more than that, I’m starting to realize that we did some pretty good things over the years. And I have a lot to be proud of. And so does everyone who worked there.

People stop me on the street all the time and tell me how much Cody’s meant to them and how important it was in their lives or even how it changed their lives. That makes me feel pretty good.

When Cody’s closed its doors for the last time, they put up a sign that said: “Cody’s is closed. Thank you”. It wasn’t a very eloquent farewell. But to be fair to the folks who worked there, I doubt there was much  time to think about being eloquent. These closings are usually pretty messy affairs.

I wanted to say something though. I wanted to say what Cody’s really meant to me and  what it meant to so many other people. I wanted to summarize 50 years in just a few words. So I wrote this:

On June 20 Cody’s Books  closed its doors forever. People will argue the causes of Cody’s closing. But I have no doubts on this matter. Cody’s was the victim of history.

 

But it is less significant how one dies than how one lives. In this respect, Cody’s acquitted itself with honor and dignity.  At the end of the day,  when the record is written; it will be remembered that Cody’s added immeasurably to the life of the mind; that it  profoundly enriched people’s lives; that it gave back more than it took; and that it was obedient to its own ideals.

 

The doors close. The lights go out. The steadfast and courageous employees move on to new lives. Other book  stores will come to serve Cody’s customers. But there will always be a place in our hearts for Cody’s. And it will  serve as an inspiration for those who seek a better world.

 

Good bye, Cody’s and good night. You have earned your rest.

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