Cody's Books nears last chapter in Calif.


BERKELEY, Calif. -- Depending on whom you ask, the reason Cody's Books is going out of business is because of the city of Berkeley, the homeless, the University of California, the war in Iraq, Ronald Reagan, the Internet or the lack of short-term parking.

Or all of the above.

What is certain is that come next month, Cody's - the famed independent bookseller where Allen Ginsberg once howled, Mario Savio once clerked and Salman Rushdie defied a fatwa - will close its doors after a half-century. The store's owner, Andy Ross, said his decision was painfully simple.

"We've been losing money for a number of years," said Ross, who bought the store from Fred and Pat Cody in 1977. "We just didn't have any other choice."

In recent years, independent bookstores nationwide have struggled in the battle against superstores like Barnes & Noble and Web outlets like, and Ross said that type of competition played a large part in the decline of Cody's. But this being Berkeley, home of the free-speech movement and countless doctoral candidates, almost everyone in town has a thesis about what really happened to Cody's and what it means for a city where bookstores are more common than banks.

In particular, Berkeley city officials are worried about Telegraph Avenue, which has long been the city's main commercial drag, a stretch of quirky shops and cheap restaurants and bars that has drawn generations of students, tourists and tie-dye aficionados. Nearly $100 million is spent every year along Telegraph, a figure that Mayor Tom Bates said "most places in the United States would be delighted with."

Over the past decade, however, sales have slipped and several small businesses have closed, a development that has alarmed city officials also distressed over deteriorating conditions. That concern blossomed into panic with the news of Cody's closing.

"There's fear and horror at the thought of Cody's not being there," said Kriss Worthington, a city councilman who called a "Save Telegraph" town hall meeting June 8 to address concerns about safety and sales along the avenue. "And unless the city reverses course, you can expect a deluge of other small stores leaving."

Just days after Cody's announced that it would close on July 10, the city hurriedly put together a supplementary budget package to pay for more police, a mental health worker and a general cleanup campaign for the strip.

"I think it was a shock that an institution like Cody's was closing," Bates said. "But as terrible and horrible as it is, I think it gives us the impetus to make these changes."

Part of Telegraph's appeal has always been its mix of freedom and unpredictable grit, and much of that spirit is still in evidence, with the homeless with worn eyes and dingy bedrolls regularly begging for change.

But even in this famously liberal enclave, locals say that sort of behavior gets tired fast.

"You've got the homeless, derelicts and drunks and other behavior that wouldn't be permitted anywhere else," said Gene Barone, a manager at Moe's Books, a store next door to Cody's that has also seen its sales dip.

Other merchants say there has also been a demographic shift as baby boomers and free-lovers abandon the 1960s and head into their 60s.

"There's all kinds of factors, including the extent to which the entire community has changed over the last 10 years," said Marc Weinstein, a co-owner of Amoeba Music, a store across the street from Cody's that has lost a third of its business in recent years. "I mean, you can't buy a house for less than $1 million near the university. And if you're rich, you don't want to be on Telegraph."

Still, the rich and the poor are not the only ones getting blamed. Weinstein said the attitudes of the university and its students had also changed.

"We have a completely different kind of student body than used to go to Berkeley," he said. "What used to be a much more kind of social and politically orientated and active group is now much more business-oriented. There really isn't a passion for art and music the way there used to be."

University officials agree that as college admissions - and the waiting job market - have gotten more competitive, so have the students. But they also say that nostalgia has its limits.

"Students have changed over the years, and some of the shops haven't kept up," said Irene Hegarty, the university's director of community relations. "I mean, how many tattoo shops can one street have?"

Ross acknowledges that students' tastes may have changed. "If people are not interested in reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, I can't make them do it," he said, adding that two smaller branches of Cody's Books - one in Berkeley and another in San Francisco - have adapted their catalogs to make them more reader-friendly.

The original Cody's, which was founded in 1956, was considered a business innovator for years, adding readings, talkbacks and kaffeeklatschen to the book-buying experience long before Barnes & Noble supersized the concept. In the 1960s, the Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio worked behind the counter at Cody's, and tear gas was known to waft in occasionally when Vietnam War protesters clashed with police. With a mix of obscure and scholarly texts and superstar writers - Rushdie dropped in unannounced in the mid-1990s, as did Ginsberg - Cody's was a must-see stop on college tours.

That symbiotic relationship between the university and the street, however, is showing signs of strain. At the town hall meeting called by Worthington, there seemed to be palpable anger at the university for diverting business away from local merchants to large companies like OfficeMax, which recently secured a contract to supply the school with paper. Students were also not especially popular at the meeting, particularly after Worthington invited all of the school's student senators to speak, and only one - 19-year-old Van Nguyen - showed up. (In their defense, school's out for summer.)

Nguyen said students did care. "I think that there's something to be done to revitalize the economic vitality of Telegraph," he said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad