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Preserving the pages: Why Berkeley's independent bookstores are thriving

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Weekender Staff Writer

SEPTEMBER 28, 2018

he year was 1995, and Amazon had just stepped into the book market. It was a move that completely revolutionized the book sales landscape: Books could be purchased from an expansive online marketplace that was cheap and convenient. This, along with the launch of the Amazon Kindle in 2007, presented a real threat to chain and independent bookstores alike.

With the continuing rise of the digital age, it’s a commonly held belief that print books are slowly dying. But the “independents,” as Hut Landon, a bookseller for Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts on College Avenue, refers to them, have instead taken Amazon’s emergence as a wake-up call.

“We became much less lazy,” Landon said.

Independent bookstores in the Berkeley area joined forces and began thinking about what made their stores worth preserving. Some stores went out of business, but others were forced to innovate. They drafted new marketing campaigns. They held education sessions on their values. They advised one another on how to optimize profits.

“This is a very activist group. … (We) have hung in there and made our way back,” Landon said. “…(This is) unique in the retail world, to have that real comradery and united vision.”

Now in 2018, decades after Amazon came into the picture, the independent bookstore scene is still very much alive in this community. There are several dozen in the Berkeley area, nine of which are concentrated within just six blocks of campus. Sleepy Cat Books, a new bookstore on Telegraph Avenue, popped up just this past August.

According to the American Booksellers Association, “the (national) peak for bookshops” was in 1989. But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that perhaps there’s a “rebound taking shape,” as CBS reported. In fact, there’s been a 25 percent increase nationally in the number of bookstores, largely independents, over the last nine years. Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Books and daughter of Moe himself, explained that Moe’s in particular has experienced a “renaissance” — or more specifically, a 5 percent increase in sales after a continuous decline over the past decade.

“This is a very activist group. … (We) have hung in there and made our way back” — Hut Landon

Amazon may be cheap, and chain stores may have an impressive inventory, but independents offer a different appeal. In speaking to store owners and customers at some of the indie gems dotting the Berkeley area, I’ve come to realize this uniqueness extends far beyond a mere personal touch.

Moe’s Books, founded in 1959, boasts a five-story, enormous selection (approximately 200,000 titles at any given time!) and a new poster and prints department. I thoroughly enjoyed my time perusing the selection as jazz played softly in the background.

Mrs. Dalloway’s is a charming space featuring a unique gardening arts niche — customers can find merchandise such as shovels and pots alongside their selection of books. The store also hosts various events throughout the month — ranging from authors reading their works to “wine walks.”

And should you prefer cats roaming the store as you browse, Sleepy Cat Books is the place to go.

But among their differences, however, I noticed a more prominent element of continuity: They all share the ability to contribute and play into the surrounding community in a very special way.  

Moskowitz appreciates the special intersection between “private” and “public” that’s made possible in the unique space of a bookstore. She feels bookstores open up a opportunity for mindfulness and offer a place where people can put their phones away to unite in an appreciation for literature.

“I think that’s what a community needs. A place to go where they feel safe and enjoy themselves and to be around other people,” she said. “But not having to talk to people if they don’t want to.”

Storegoers had a lot to say on the topic as well. Bre Montgomery from Pomona is grateful that books have instilled in her a “greater sense of wonder.” Derrek Fenner from Oakland appreciates how books, particularly ones he’s “not quite ready for” have taught him “to take the time to allow the learning to come.” And elementary school student Niko from Oakland recognizes that “without books, a town would not be as ‘socialin-ated.’ … And make choices that they might regret.”

Despite the rising influence of corporate businesses, Berkeley remains a vibrant place of rich culture and history — a place with character encapsulated by the still-flourishing independent bookstore scene.

The Berkeley community is a population in constant, beautiful flux, composed of professors, researchers, graduate students, undergraduates, families and international visitors, among others. And bookstores are a “third place” for all these individuals.

In several interviews, it surfaced that the people who frequent Berkeley’s bookstores are the type of people that booksellers such as Landon want to “run into” around town — people who foster and value an intellectual space. Bookstores allow people to better understand the world around them. To think for themselves. To indulge in a sense of culture.

“A lot of people (in Berkeley) are people that want to continue to grow,” Moskowitz said.

These bookstores serve as a unique chasm for thought. And this “soul space,” I came to realize, also has the dynamic ability to reflect and adapt to changing times. Despite the rising influence of corporate businesses, Berkeley remains a vibrant place of rich culture and history — a place with character encapsulated by the still-flourishing independent bookstore scene.

This isn’t to say Berkeley hasn’t had it share of losses — most notably Cody’s Books in 2008. In fact, the New York Times expressed concerns about what this closing meant for Berkeley, being that it’s a “city where bookstores are more common than banks.”

Prior to my bookstore venture, I’d had a chaotic day of office hours, a midterm and a club meeting. But the conversations and environment I became a part of in these bookstores seemed to immerse me in a safe haven of sorts, in stark contrast to the sphere of stress I’d been suspended in previously.

This got me thinking about Berkeley’s interesting cultural dynamic: an atmosphere of both high-strung, stifling intensity and intellectual, creative freedom.

And perhaps this duality is why Berkeley is a place where independent bookstores can thrive. There’s an off-beat culture about this city as well as an intense academic influence from the university — translating into a persistent desire to preserve these establishments.

“I can’t tell you how many people say they wish they could work at a bookstore and just read behind the counter,” Landon said, referring to a common misconception about what owning a bookstore entails.

And I understand Landon’s frustration. If there’s anything that’s become clear to me, it’s how bookstores, notably these independents, are far from passive elements of a community. It may have taken a big-name corporation to give them a run for their money, but they’ve surmounted the challenge. They’ve emerged stronger and remained an integral element of Berkeley, too.  


Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected]

SEPTEMBER 28, 2018