Bookstores, Berkeley, and My Where by Dev Petty
A childhood in Berkeley was an extraordinary experience that is hard to explain in just a few words or even in entire books. Berkeley is often a place that ends up as caricature- hippies running around in Birkenstocks, wearing tie-dyed Berzerkeley shirts and drinking wheatgrass juice. While there are elements of that, it’s not its essence and never really was. THAT Berkeley is usually relegated to tourists and people who really like wheatgrass juice. Berkeley was, and is, a strange amalgam of people and things. It has a cause. It cares. And it’s not always sure about what.
I begin with this quote from Wendell Berry who was an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer:
“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
If I could, I would take you back to my WHERE. My 1970s Berkeley, and share with you the sites and smells and emblems of its history- of my history. I’d walk you up Telegraph and we’d grab some Blondie’s pizza and sit at Sproul and watch…But I can’t do that. What I can do, is tell you about Berkeley and its bookstores and how they were intertwined in Berkeley history, Berkeley life and my own life. For me, they were a part of a strange rhythm of the city and a reminder, always, that I belonged somewhere. Maybe that everyone belongs somewhere.
In essence, bookstores in Berkeley served a different purpose, or at least occupied a different place, than simply selling books. They had a separate, intrinsic, cultural role in day to day life. The Telegraph Avenue bookstores were the backdrop to the turbulent times and upheaval that surrounded them. But they were part of that upheaval too. By the time I could remember anything, people went to these bookstores, not just to buy books. It’s hard to explain, but if you were near one of these shops, you just went in, everyone did.
Cody’s, Moe’s and Shakespeare Books all sat right in the middle of The Free Speech Movement in ’64. As the city erupted, these stores decorated their windows and opened their doors to all. Mario Savio, who would later find himself speaking from the top of a police car through a bullhorn to a packed Sproul Plaza (including my parents) started out as a clerk at Cody’s years before. The original owners treated street people and protesters with kindness and hospitality. And at Cody’s, years later, the shop would serve as a hospital for those protesters injured and gassed as the anti-war effort took hold.
There was Moe’s- Four stories of new and used books of every variety. Moe stood behind the counter, with that cigar in his mouth, and knew whether he had and the exact location of every, single book in the place. Where else could you find a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra with a philosophy student’s notes scrawled in the margins…”Free will is an illusion” and the requisite, deep question mark penned with a Pilot pen at the end. There were beautiful rare books, and unenviable pocket fiction. Moe is often credited with changing the used book industry by recognizing that he needed to pay a fair price for used books to create a used bookstore with quality used titles and to compete with the new stores.
There were others. Pellucidar Fine Books on Shattuck and Pendragon on College Avenue. There was Dark Castle on Telegraph, stacked high with Bradbury and horror books and sci-fi paperpacks with neato robots and saucy women holding mechanical spears on the covers. There was a metaphysical bookstore on Ashby, complete with a couple of fat cats who sat in the sun in the window.
As for me? The seventies brought a complicated time and I found solace and belonging in those stores. I would go to Cody’s every other Friday with my dad, after winding our way down the colorful Telegraph Avenue, through Whelan’s Smoke Shop replete with Marxist Magazines and banned fiction and find ourselves at Cody’s. There- they had something so amazing I couldn’t stand it. An INFORMATION DESK with a desk of eager helpers waiting for you to ask them for a recommendation or a location. I would shelve my dad in Political Science, as is his wont, and go there and hang out with the fine people tasked with matchmaking people and books. And they KNEW me! We were such regulars, that they would see me coming and they’d ask what I was looking for “that fine evening” and I belonged. I did.
Some of it was them- lovers of books, lovers of words. Some of it was me, who had grown up around a strange mix of people. Whatever it was, my parents and the lovely folk at the info desk never once doubted that I was ready for Lewis Carroll or Campbell or Hawthorne. They didn’t care that I would not understand the words inside for years to come- that I came there and chose that book and had a willing parent was enough.
I don’t know what role bookstores play now in these complicated times. Sometimes, for me, it’s just a simple venture to Moe’s to rummage through the shelves and that reminds me, enough, of how the offering of books is a sacred task. It is a WHERE. And as much as it’s hard to see Shakespeare Books with its incomparable selection of French poetry and Cody’s with its chalkboards in the bathrooms where anyone, even me, could express their joy or anger or frustration…go away…close…end…I am reminded that those bookshops were ideas, not just booksellers. They helped people. They changed people. They gave a young kid with a frenetic family life a shot at having a place to just be, to read, to express an opinion in the books they stacked on their forearms. I was allowed to just explore and to care and maybe that’s what they allowed everyone else to do too.
Thanks for reading folks. If you’d like to read more about these places, there are some good resources:
Dev Petty is the author of I Don’t Want to be a Frog, I Don’t Want to be Big, and Claymates (L,B & Co. ’17). She is a former film visual effects artist who loves writing picture books because they’re like tiny, paper movies. Dev is a Berkeley native, devout Californian, and she’s super good at word jumbles. She’s represented by Jen Rofé of ABLA. www.devpetty.com