The Next Chapter for Bookstores

Stephen Temple bookstoreOnly a few years ago, bookstores helped define neighborhoods. They were physical and cultural markers on the landscape – showcases of what mattered, there and then.

“It’s an antiquarian business model in a changing world,” admits Melissa Mytinger, manager of Cody’s Books in Berkeley. That Mytinger still has her job is cause for celebration of a sort: Cody’s is a storied institution in more ways than one, but the saga of late has turned bleak.

In the past two years its 10,000 square-foot Telegraph Avenue flagship on boutique-lined Fourth Street has closed, and the business has moved to a 7,000-square-foot outpost one block from UC Berkeley.

But survival beats the alternative: locked doors that mean there’s no chance you’ll stumble across some unexpected volume of insight or delight. It’s a fate known to anyone who loves bookstores, who visits a familiar shopping street and remembers what was.

Mytinger and the 18-person staff are doing the right thing by tailoring the selection to Berkeley’s distinctive academic clientele. They’re even scheduling afternoon appearances by authors who might appeal to readers from nearby Berkeley High School. The shelves are filling up, and more books are on the way.

“We’ve had to give up on the idea that we can stock every book that we love,” says Mytinger, 60, who joined the staff of Cody’s in 1982. “That model doesn’t work anymore. It isn’t viable.”

The hope is that this year’s model – lean but not mean – will evolve into something that attracts people willing to buy books in person rather than simply adding to their online shopping carts.

Cody’s might also help downtown Berkeley emerge as a cultural and artistic destination. At the end of the block, construction crews are pouring concrete for the future home of the David Brower Center, conceived as a four-story clubhouse for environmental advocacy groups. Work also has started on a new home for the Freight & Salvage folk venue. On the drawing boards are more ambitious projects, including a home for the Pacific Film Archive and Berkeley Art Museum.

Why should we care? After all, who needs a building stuffed with paper in the age of clicks and mortar?

Because a good bookstore is like a good city block: varied and rich, with layers that bear evidence of imagination and pride. There’s a tactile connection to the ephemeral world of ideas. This is merchandise, but it’s not something to be worn for a season or hung up on a wall; it’s something to be discussed and shared, maybe even something that will shape your thoughts and actions. There’s more going on than the creation of a scene. It’s the slow formation of identities, of thoughts and passions and who knows what else.

In the grand scheme of things, bookstores’ long retreat isn’t a crisis on par with climate change or the war in Iraq. Some stores will survive at least for another generation, Cody’s among them, I hope.

But the landscape has changed irrevocably. Ultimately, we’re all the losers – in ways we don’t even yet know.

Excerpted from SF Gate

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