Cody's: Every Story Has An Ending
The closed book store reflects the times
By Bruce McKinney
Call any bookman in the Bay Area and you inevitably find someone who knows something about Cody's, the Berkeley based bookstore that after a run of more than fifty years recently closed its last door. It has over the past few years operated two stores in Berkeley and one in San Francisco. Cody's was a new bookstore that sold the front list and made its money and reputation on the back. The front list included best sellers and new titles, the back list books that sell year after year, academic and graduate level material and literature including arcane material such as economics texts. In its heyday, the 1980's, it was both a business and a cultural event, a place to meet and browse. In the new century it fell victim to a plethora of factors that have been eating into the business' core for twenty years.
A business can survive a setback or two but the woes besetting new-book sellers have been particularly extensive. In the late 1980's the big box bookstores arrived. They took large spaces, inventoried tens of thousands of items, negotiated lower purchase prices and better payment terms and retailed their stock at prices sometimes lower than independent booksellers could buy for. In the mid 1990's Amazon appeared online, first as an internet doyen and later as a marketing juggernaut in the book business. In the late 1990's Google popped up and in time began to revolutionize the way people search and think. In 2004 they began to offer full texts both of out-of-copyright material and more recent material by permission. Within the next few years they are expected to offer fifteen million books in full text searches. For many people it's the information they want, not the book and this has added to the downturn in sales.
As if all this has not been enough there have been two other factors. The cost of doing business continued to increase even as sales dropped. Rents, wages, upkeep and taxes all increased exponentially even as sales weakened. Andy Ross, who purchased Cody's from Fred and Pat Cody in 1977, owned it for 29 years and sold it to the Japanese firm Yohan in 2006, remembers a business that regularly had $30,000 Saturdays in the 1980's and was hard pressed to sell $7,000 twenty years later. Sometimes the world moves on. The quick departure of the book buyer has been almost unseemly.
Mr. Ross believes the disappearance of the existing book buyer is only part of the problem. He speaks of the shift for younger readers to skip books altogether and go directly from early learning to reading online without developing an appreciation for books. This goes part way to explaining why even the big box stores, that have been vanquishing independent booksellers one by one for two decades, are themselves now tottering on the verge of failure. Borders' financial woes have been widely reported. We are living through an era of economic pacmen.
The demise of Cody's has not gone unremarked. The Berkeley Daily Planet, a weekly newspaper available both in print and online, ran an editorial by Becky O'Malley in its July 17th edition that I quote here in part:
"Could Cody's Rise Again?
Cody's: Every Story Has An Ending
Cody's: the end
When downtown shoppers pass the southeast corner of Shattuck and Allston these days, they're apt to see unhappy-looking people with their noses pressed to the glass in the door of the storefront there. That's because the last stand of the fabled Cody's bookstore suddenly closed its doors a couple of weeks ago, leaving books on the shelves and signs announcing upcoming author talks in the windows. A combination of changes in the publishing industry and unsuccessful business decisions with accompanying debts prompted the current owner, a Japanese corporation, to withdraw funding from the enterprise."
The editorial goes on to explore some possibilities for saving Cody's but in the same issue there is a letter to the editor from Mr. Ross that suggests that bookstore romantics may need smelling salts:
"ROSS BIDS FAREWELL
Editors, Daily Planet:
On June 20 Cody's Books closed its doors forever. People will argue the causes of Cody's closing. But I have no doubts on this matter. Cody's was the victim of history.
But it is less significant how one dies than how one lived. In this respect, Cody's acquitted itself with honor and dignity. At the end of the day, when the record is written; it will be remembered that Cody's added immeasurably to the life of the mind; that it profoundly enriched peoples lives; that it gave back more than it took; and that it was obedient to its own ideals.
The doors close. The lights go out. The steadfast and courageous employees move on to new lives. Other book stores will come to serve Cody's customers. But there will always be a place in our hearts for Cody's. And it will serve as an inspiration for those who seek a better world.
Good bye, Cody's and good night. You have earned your rest.
Former owner, Cody's Books"
Bookstores aren't only places, so closing their doors doesn't absolutely end their existence. The best of them are sublimated by history and experience from places with an address, lights and hours into a feeling that a lucky few have and never surrender. So when the Ayatollah Khomeini called for the death of Salman Rushdie for writing the book Satanic Verses and Cody's was firebombed for offering it the staff voted to keep on selling the book in spite of the risk. Many booksellers took it off their shelves. Cody's, who was attacked, kept right on selling.
All that said, unless there is life after death it seems Cody's won't be back but neither will their spirit so quickly depart.