Posts Tagged ‘Paperback Dreams’

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:

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 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: