Serendipity: Outpost of Civilization
Peter Howard (Courtesy of the Bancroft Library)
By Bruce McKinney
Twelve hundred and one University Avenue in Berkeley is both outpost and Mecca for those who love books. This is the store, shop and warehouse of Peter Howard who, after graduating from Haverford College in 1960, completed a masters and most of the requirements for a Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley in 1962. In 1963 he launched Serendipity Books with high hopes, and a balance sheet filled with ambition.
In 1967 he opened a store on Shattuck at No. 1790 and in time broke through walls and leased five locations nearby before buying his present 5,500 sq. ft. site on University Avenue in 1986. For the past 25 years he has immersed himself in an ever deeper and more complex inventory of what is thought to be something like a million items divided 60/40 between shop and a warehouse long ago made necessary by Peter's continuing purchases. Beyond all this, he carries a steady flow of de-accessioned material from his alma mater. The card catalogue of this inventory sits neatly between his ears, his intelligence and memory the glue that hold this complex enterprise together.
He has for some time though, been seriously unwell; the news doubly difficult because his wife Alison is also fighting cancer. The shop is up for sale, the sure sign a generational shift is underway. Mr. Howard would not relinquish control unless required.
For the past two months two firms specializing in the purchase of large inventories, Powell's and All About Books, have considered purchasing the complete stock but nothing has so far materialized. In either case, the shop would close and the inventory be shipped to Washington or New Jersey. What will not fit into the crates and boxes, nor otherwise be transported, is the spirit of the place; the karma, zip and pizzazz that have made Serendipity an institution of the first order for those who love books and have learned to tolerate the sometimes caustic byplay of a sparring owner whose temperament could range from morning glow to afternoon showers all within the time it takes to eat a ham sandwich.
In this respect, Mr. Howard is in spirit, if not by DNA, the linear descendant of Charles Goodspeed, the Boston book selling codger of the first rank who suffered mortals, if anything, less willingly. They both presided over important cultural way stations. As rare as the rarest books, such places resonated a deeply felt appreciation for the printed word that is ever more out-of-step with iBooks, eBooks and the Google searches that serve peanut butter to people who have never tasted fillet mignon. Some few shops become institutions, a title rarely bestowed and less often earned. On Mr. Howard's head the crown sits lightly.
The open question now becomes what is next. The inventory, whether it is 600,000 or one million books of which 20,996 were recently available online, is offered for $2,250,000, the 5,500 sq. ft. ivy clad building for $1,250,000. One dealer, John Durham of Bolerium Books of San Francisco, is interested to rent the shop, but not to purchase the entire stock and much prefers that Peter repent his exit and live on to squire another generation. He explained, "I like the space, I love the guy." Just this past week Peter made an increasingly infrequent trip to the shop and announced, "no more deathbed discounts." He had a week off from chemo, was feeling revived and encouraged by his doctor.
Serendipity: Outpost of Civilization
Possibilities too numerous to count
Marc Selvaggio, himself a Bay area dealer, describes Peter as, "the most generous of booksellers in America, his concern always that dealers he sold make money."
Anthony Bliss, curator of rare books and literary manuscripts at the Bancroft Library describes him as "a source of incalculable value." "I've known and relied upon him for thirty years and never had a harsh word."
For others, Peter's quixotic nature has kept them away. John Windle, the San Francisco antiquarian dealer, said this; "I've known Peter Howard for forty years and yet feel I don't know him at all."
The Internet has decimated the values of old and rare material by exposing the bizarre imbalance between copies sought and seekers for them, the most recent insult the emergence of eBooks that permit out-of-print material to be read for free and newer material to be snatched on whim off play lists that grow longer by the hour. Book stores have been under pressure for the past one hundred years but the buzz saws of computer access, transparency of huge inventories, declining attention spans and the growing belief that skimming a hundred books is better than reading one all the way through - altogether spell cataclysm. In such an environment its apparent why Serendipity matters to those who care about books and why, if it closes, the loss will be palpable.
For the local store to continue a new owner needs to be found. The shop is already staffed. The manager Nancy Kosenka, who has been with Peter since 1976, is looking to stay as is bookkeeper Tsomo Tsering. The assistant Tsering Wangchuk enjoys his job helping visitors and organizing material. Peter is irreplaceable but someone or some combination of souls may elect to climb the mountain that Peter has looked down from for more than three decades. If it comes to this two generations will be grateful.
To they who may be interested sales have been running at over a million dollars a year for a long time and the shop seems assured of regular traffic. The inventory at the outset will be a herculean challenge: what is there? What is it worth today? Who will buy it? In the shop most material is priced; in the warehouse most not.
The prospects for used and rare bookstores in the western world are decidedly negative, but in a few places, and Berkeley is one, they will survive.
Here is to hoping that money and imagination find their way to continue what Peter Howard has carried into the 21st century - respect for the printed word.
The shop is located at 1201 University Avenue, Berkeley, 94702. The hours are Monday - Saturday, 9:00AM - 5PM PST, or by appointment.
Those interested in the opportunity should contact Nancy Kosenka by phone  841-7455 or email at email@example.com.