Friday, June 20, 2008

This Time for Good: Cody's Books Shuts Its Doors I have spent parts of the last few days happily checking out some of London’s bookstores. Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street has an amazing library-like feeling with dark wood, numerous skylights and racks and racks of books stacked on oak bookshelves. (see photo) It’s located on one of London’s snazziest shopping streets, an avenue where hip women are so loaded up with shopping bags from Selfridges and other stores that they have to dodge other pedestrians.

Foyer Books, on the other hand, is on busy Charing Cross Road in an area dotted with other bookstores and music shops. There was street construction everywhere and a hurried, urban feel. When I walked in to Foyer, it had a modern in feel with light maple shelves and bold colors. At first, I didn’t think it was that big. I was deceived. It has small rooms but many of them. It also has the largest fiction collection I have ever seen.

All my excitement finding new stores was completely crushed this morning when I woke up to find an e-mail from Meg Waite Clayton (her new novel, The Wednesday Sisters has just been released) that Cody’s Books in Berkeley has closed. Permanently.

I am surprised. And devastated. I went to my first reading there one week ago today and the place was packed. It was for Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, edited by Ellen Sussman. The book is a collection of essays that explore different words relating to sex, most of which I shall not name here. Some of the contributors read their pieces, including Meredith Maran, Thaisa Frank, and Cornelia Read. They were at turns heartbreaking and hilarious.

The store was packed for the reading. There were about 35 people there and many bought books. I asked a clerk how the place was doing and she said the foot traffic was good. (It is just a block from the UC campus)

I did my bit. I must have purchased more than $100 in books from Cody’s on Shattuck since it opened in March.

Cody’s has tried so many different ways and locations to stay afloat. I naively assumed that this latest, smaller store would be the magic bullet.

Hiroshi Kagawa, who owns bookstores in Japan, bought Cody’s about a year ago. Here is what he said in a press release:

"The Board of Directors of Cody's Books made this difficult decision after years of financial distress and declining sales.

"According to Cody's president, Hiroshi Kagawa, '[It] is a heartbreaking moment…in the spring of 2005 when I learned about the financial crisis facing Cody's, I was excited to save the store from bankruptcy. Unfortunately, my current business is not strong enough or rich enough to support Cody's. Of course, the store has been suffering from low sales and the deficit exceeds our ability to service it.'

"'When I met Cody's 25 years ago, I was a freelance journalist, enraptured by its books and atmosphere. It means so much to me and I apologize to the people who have supported Cody's for not being able to keep this landmark independent bookstore open. Cody's is my treasure and more than that, Cody's is a real friend of Berkeley community and will be missed.'

"Cody's would like to thank all of our loyal customers for their years of patronage."

This is the store that has hosted many of the world's most beloved authors, who continued to sell the Satanic Verses even after it had been firebombed, who patched up protesters who had been beaten by police in the protests at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, and much more.

Sitting in London, 5,000 miles away from Cody’s, I will observe my own minute of silence for this bookstore that has played such an important role in the literary world.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The London Literary Scene OK. I’ve been in London less than 72 hours and I can already see how much more literate this country is than the United States.

I don’t mean literate in the sense that every person on the street is carrying around a copy of Salman Rushdie's new book.

I mean literate in the sense that book news is everywhere, on a par with the amount of movie news in the United States.

The Sunday Times culture section is a mini-magazine. This week it had a two-page spread on the “Richard and Judy” Summer Picks, which number 8 books. (more on them later)

The section also had 12 major reviews of hardbacks, 12 mini reviews of paperbacks or audio books, and one feature on what it was like to be selected as one of Richard and Judy’s picks. Gosh, on a good day the Sunday Chronicle Book Section has review of 5 books.

This must mean that people are reading. And consider books to be worthy cocktail party conversation. Otherwise, why would London papers waste the ink`?

Speaking of newspapers, the scene here reminds me of the good old days of American journalism. When you go to a newsstand, there are five or six daily papers to choose from. Granted, London has a population of 7 million, so a lot of views are needed, but still, there’s no monopoly here.

I have been reading about Richard and Judy in literary blogs for years but I never had any idea who they were or why they were so influential.

They have a daily talk show, sort of like Regis and Kelley Ripa. One incredible difference is that the Brits don’t seem to emphasize looks over talent. Judy must be in her 50s with plenty of laugh lines and flesh, yet she is incredibly popular. She would never make an appearance on American television.

Richard and Judy are like Oprah’s Book Club, only on a larger scale. They have selected a bevy of books for this summer, but there is no secrecy. They announced the selection a few days ago and will discuss the books on the air in the next 8 weeks.

I have never heard of any of the books. Rebecca Miller, the director and the daughter of Arthur Miller and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis and the author of Personal Velocity, has a book on the list called The Secret Life of Pippa Lee. The others are all British authors I have never heard of. Oh, goody. Isn’t that the fun of traveling?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What Happens When the Trees Die? Susan Freinkel wrote an amazing book on the “death” of the American chestnut tree. Since chestnuts populate the Eastern seaboard, Susan’s book didn’t get a lot of press in San Francisco. That’s a shame since the book is written like a thriller, with teams of scientists and iconoclastic chestnut lovers looking for a cure for the blight that has killed millions of trees. They are in a race against time as the tree, which once flourished from Georgia to Maine, is now almost extinct.

Well, West Coast tree lovers, environmentalists, and narrative nonfiction lovers can hear Susan on June 11 at the Green Ink series at Fort Mason. She will be talking at 6:30 at Building C, room 165. Her book is called America Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree.

The Green Ink series is pretty interesting, too. It is organized by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Bay Bookstore. The series has brought in some remarkable authors, including Wendy Johnson, the gardener extraordinaire from Green Gulch.

The series describes itself as: “From recycled books to innovative ideas, Green Ink is a reading and discussion series highlighting the principles of green living, conservation and sustainable living with an emphasis on sharing solutions for everyday life.”

I also want to point out the, the fabulous on-line/email notification of author readings, has a redesigned website. It now has an interactive map. You can browse by author, by category, or by area.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Paperback Dreams and Local Bookstores

Left to Right: Alex Beckstead, the director of Paperback Dreams, Leslie Berkler of Cody's Books, Clark Kepler of Kepler's Books, and Andy Ross of Cody's Books.

BEA is one big blur of conversation, interspersed with long walks carrying extremely heavy bags bulging with books.

Of course there are lots of wonderful moments. I enjoyed meeting the book bloggers Ron Hogan from Galley Cat and Carolyn Kellog from Pinky’s Paperhaus and hearing The Elegant Variation’s Mark Sarvas talk. I hung out with Kemble Scott, the author of the best-selling novel Soma and the editor of one of my

I was also delighted to finally meet Daniel Olivas, who is both Jewish and Latino. Although he is an attorney, he is a prolific fiction writer and book reviewer and just edited a wonderful collection of southern California stories called Latinos in Lotusland. His booth was next to the booth of Angel City Press, which publishes delightful local histories of Los Angeles. I have used their books in my research, particularly Kevin Roderick’s Wilshire Boulevard, a book chock full of pictures and musings about the famous boulevard. I was intrigued to hear about a biography of the Los Angeles pioneer Benjamin Wilson by Nat B. Read.

Of course, I was elated to discover the true identity of Miss Snark, who pines for her blog a year after it folded (mums the word.) The gin hadn't made her love George Clooney any less.

But there was only one moment I cried at BEA. (and it wasn’t when I rubbed my aching feet.)

I attended a screening of Paperback Dreams, a documentary by Alex Beckstead, on the recent struggles of Cody’s Books in Berkeley and Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. Andy Ross and Lesley Berkler, the former owners of Cody’s were there, as was Clark Kepler, the owner of Kepler's.

The screening turned into a time for those who own independent bookstores and those who love them to talk about their strengths and challenges. The film will be shown on public television stations in November and Beckstead is hoping store owners will show it to their customers and use it as a way to strike up dialogue about the future of independents.

The film is quite good as it traces the history of these two iconic West Coast bookstores. It also establishes the importance of independents in the struggle for free speech. I had forgotten that the chain bookstores pulled Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses after Iran declared a fatwah against the writer. Andy Ross of Cody’s kept the book on the store’s shelves even after someone threw a Molotov cocktail inside the store. The Grateful Dead often played at Kepler's in the 1960s, where they stole ashtrays and played the same songs over and over.

The film also shows Kepler’s engaging in a direct dialogue with its customers to make the store more appealing. In response to customer requests to make the story more light and airy, Clark Kepler lowered the height of many of the bookshelves. He also reorganized the various sections and started to carry more non-book items. Kepler’s now is also a major sponsor of events in the community.

Both stores are still around, but the struggles continue. Ross and Berkler sold their store to Hiroshi Kagawa, a Japanese bookstore owner and distributor; Ross now operates a literary agency. Kepler is still involved with his store, but sees very slim profit margins.

The new owner of the Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco, Praveen Madan, attended the screening and talked optimistically about the future of independents, Madan has seen sales go up by double digits in the past year. Before he acquired the store, sales had dropped the previous five years.

Madan believes that a bookstore has to work extra hard to build a relationship with its customers and that survival depends on that special relationship. In the last few months he has taped all the author events at his store and put them on You Tube. He hopes that his videos build brand awareness and make people think Booksmith is a cool place to hang out. The push to put things on the Internet is also an acknowledgement that customers don’t always have the time to come in for a store reading, even though they want to hear what authors have to say, said Madan.

Paperback Dreams ends on a melancholy note, although Beckstead, the director, said he tried to make the ending upbeat. While many communities say they want their independent bookstores to remain viable, many people still look for the bargain, buying books at Costco and Barnes and Noble.

(One thing that makes BEA so interesting is the juxtaposition of different parts of the publishing industry. After seeing this film and telling myself I should never buy a book at Costco, I met the women from the company BTMS, or Baker & Taylor Marketing Services, which holds the contract to do all the book buying for Costco and Sam’s Clubs. They were great, and I really enjoyed talking to them at the Harlequin Party.)

Sunday, June 01, 2008


This is the cavernous hallway of the LA Convention Center where more tha 25,000 publishers, editors, sales reps, publicity people, authors, publicists and aspiring writers gathered.
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Glimpses of BEA

James Patterson signs books

Alec Baldwin greets fans

Arianna Huffington talks to her fans
Ethan Canin signing at BEA

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