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

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Black Oak Books Closes 

Black Oak Books on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley has closed, a possibility that I mentioned back in January 2007. Outside investors were uanble to keep it open at its most recent location:

With nary a goodbye to the Gourmet Ghetto community that supported it for years," reports Bob Zagone, Black Oak Books in Berkeley closed May 31.

Gary Cornell, one of a group of investors that bought it a year ago, paid off the IRS and attempted to keep it open in hard times, said attempts to renegotiate a lower rent failed. "We couldn't afford the rent, and the landlord wasn't going to raise it, but wasn't going lower." The investors "didn't care about making a profit, but we couldn't keep losing money."

"Bookstores can't afford to pay prime retail rent anymore. Amazon is just too strong. When the state of California passed a bill - about a month ago - not to charge tax on Amazon purchases, that was the final straw." For a bookstore to survive in this era, said Cornell, it's pretty much necessary for it to own its real estate.

He said the investors are hoping "to buy a building on San Pablo and reopen in a few months. ... There are no villains in this story except for the state Legislature, who didn't want to tax Amazon sales." Three staff members (of about seven full-time) will keep their jobs, maintaining "a small retail presence out of our warehouse. ... We're going to try to buy a building, we love books. We have other businesses, too, we don't need this to make money. We just don't want to lose any money."

Black Oak Books joins Cody's Books as two of the most prominent casualties among lost Bay Area bookstores. Cody's, a fixture on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley since the 1960s, closed in 2007.

There is something especially troubling about the closures of Black Oak and Cody's in Berkeley. Berkeley is, of course, a university town, and one could go there and engage in the delightful pasttime of going through various stores in the commercial districts near campus, searching for things impossible to find elsewhere. To find something strange, fascinating and thought provoking, and go through the pages while deciding whether it was important enough to purchase and take back home was a priceless experience. It was a place that valued literacy and the effort involved in intepreting the world around us in print or creating new ones.

A few sanctuaries for such activity still remain, places like Moe's Books, Pendragon Books and Revolution Books. If one goes across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, Modern Times, Green Apple Books, Dog Eared Books and Bound Together Books remain. But the trend is clear, one that has been remorselessly consistent since the 1990s. The independent bookstore is under siege, even in places where it has socially thrived. Of course, I can always order books over the Internet, but it is so impersonal and intangible, and the loss of these bricks and mortal stores in the real world will invariably affect the quality of the selection.

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