'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, January 26, 2007

Black Oak Books Closing? 

The loss of independent bookstores, like the closing of the arthouse cinema, has always been something that strikes me keenly. In the 1960s, 1970s and even the 1980s, film, literature and engrossing non-fiction were forms of expression that resisted the general trend towards the commodification of culture. People could describe themselves, their experiences and their values free of the constraints of the marketplace, or, at least, carve a little place for themselves to do so within a world where commerce was relentlessly imposing a homogeneity under the guise of more and more illusory choices. Others could partake of these cultural creations relatively inexpensively.

Throughout much of America, that world no longer exists. The bookstore means Borders, Barnes and Noble and maybe some local used ones, although I concede that perhaps people use the Internet to gain access to materials that are otherwise unavailable, while movies mean the metroplex, although again, those with a feel for film, its history and its great achievements may still be keeping the flame alive through Netflix. Even so, the intimacy of engaging these art forms socially in our communities as a tangible, collective experience has been lost. There is a delight in looking through the stacks of an idiosyncratic bookstore in the presence of others, even if the encounters are non-verbal, just as there is a joy in watching a film in the theatre, and, similar to attending a baseball or basketball game, simultaneously creating and recognizing the emotional response of the audience.

Back in May, I touched upon some of these themes when I posted about the closing of the Cody's Books store on Telegraph Avenue near UC Berkeley (for some, the only authentic Cody's, despite the continued operation of other ones on Fourth Avenue in Berkeley and Union Square in San Francisco). For me, Berkeley is a touchstone for the survival of this sort of culture, because it has been at the center of its creation and so strongly resisted its destruction. By way of contrast, I had the opportunity to visit the commercial district around Harvard about 7 or 8 years ago, and it had already been redeveloped into something that reminded me of an upscale Santa Cruz shopping mall, with one retail establishment exhibiting a salmon colored, faux Spanish style storefront. The heyday of postmodern commercial architecture, I guess, but, at least, I found an excellent Joy Division CD.

So, if it disappears in Berkeley, where can it survive, except in a pallid virtual form? A sad question, rendered all the more poignant by the recently publicized prospect that Black Oaks Books may find itself having to close in the near future:

Don Pretari doesn't want to shut the doors of Black Oak Books. And not just because running the store has been his life's work.

When not attending to the details of the 23-year-old business, he spends every spare minute studying languages, including Quranic Arabic, classical Chinese, biblical Hebrew, Ethiopic and more.

"All the languages I study are dead," he says. "Who would hire me?"

But with profit margins down, a five-year lease coming due and a partner who wants to retire, Pretari, 49, may have to seek a vocation less perfectly suited to a Berkeley-educated polymath.

Last week, he sent up a trial balloon, inviting someone, anyone, to buy one or both Black Oaks stores -- the Berkeley location on Shattuck Avenue or the San Francisco store on Irving Street. (A short-lived third store in North Beach closed last year.)

"We'd like Black Oak to keep going," he says, adjusting his round glasses and settling into a chair in the back office, a warren of books. "We're exploring every possibility, even if that means someone else has to come in and own it."

Whether Pretari and his partners sell the store or find a way to keep it going themselves -- perhaps through renegotiation of the nearly $1 million Berkeley lease -- they don't want to see it change.

Now, I'll be honest, Black Oaks Books is not my first preference when it comes to buying books, I prefer Moe's on Telegraph or Modern Times in the City (how predictable, some of you must no doubt be saying to yourself), and I don't commonly frequent the North Berkeley district when it's Berkeley store is located, but I do shop there, and I have bought books there over the years, and will no doubt do so in the future -- if it is still there. I still remember seeing James Ellroy there several years ago, which was interesting, because, while he is personally right wing (he has written positively of former LAPD Chief Darryl Gates), his novels, as observed by Mike Davis, are readily susceptible to left, and even anarchist, interpretations.

Black Oaks Books is an alluring place because of the attitude that lead to its creation:

In 1975, Pretari came to UC Berkeley to study philosophy. But he dropped out just short of an advanced degree after his professors recommended that he transfer to the comparative literature department, so that he could pursue his study of Jacques Derrida, the French master of deconstruction.

A bookstore career began, dovetailing nicely with a lifetime of reading and book collecting. In 1980, he went to Moe's Books on Telegraph, the venerable used bookstore. "I told Moe, 'I know your inventory better than you do,' " Pretari recalls.

At Moe's, he met Brown and Bob Baldock, like-minded men 20 years his senior who invited him to help them start a new enterprise: Black Oak Books. (Brown is now considering retirement; Baldock has long since moved on.)

"We weren't businessmen, we were just book lovers," Pretari says. With "a few personal loans, very little money and our own personal libraries," they created the store they'd want to browse in. It opened in 1983 to near-instant success, situated in the Gourmet Ghetto, the stretch of Shattuck in North Berkeley near Chez Panisse.

"We put the kind of books we like out there -- and they sold," he says, still surprised. They furnished the front of the store with browser-friendly tables and displayed worthy, even obscure, books among better-known titles -- ideas they borrowed from Cody's Books on Telegraph.

"Fred Cody was my model," Pretari says. "It sounds highfalutin, but that store had a sensibility. It was like a person was choosing the books.

There is also a disarming lack of pretentiousness associated with this store. You can go into it, and look for books about uncommon subjects, like medieval, African or Japanese history, in the same kind of relaxed way that you would look for a ladder in a hardware store. For me, that's a positive, because it suggests a lack of a separation between pop and intellectual culture, even if I have to admit that it has never really existed. I hope it survives.

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