Who Killed the People’s Bookstore?

Laura J. Miller. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago. May 2006.

In the summer of 1968, after running for State Senate, and then from the Secret Service; after a brief stint at San Francisco’s Pier 9 loading and unloading for the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, Mario Savio, once the most famous leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, got a job as a clerk at Cody’s Books.

Fred Cody had already become known as a man who supported young radicals. He was an active member of the Better Berkeley Committee: a group of plain-clothed and plain-spoken volunteers who patrolled the streets because the city police, they felt, were too brutal. Cody was also known as a man who tolerated noise. Illegal block parties flourished on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. The band Loading Zone blocked poor Cody’s loading zone. The store had even been tear-gassed, which kept Fred and his workers out for days.

Before that, Haj Razavi of the Persian Fuckers, a Berkeley hippie commune, stood on a box outside the store to heckle passers-by. Undercover cops, dressed up like people from the neighborhood, threatened Razavi with brass knuckles pulled from their jeans pockets. By the end of the summer, he had disappeared. The last time he was seen, he was heard saying, “Well, capitalist Cody, this is a summer you won’t forget, eh?” Berkeley’s endless springtime weather once made of its streets an urban festival of the will and mind of the young. That summer of 1968, perhaps unfairly, the radicals slung their fruit at Cody. He had to take it. The students were his customers. He made a living off what they read.

The fifty-year summer of Cody’s ended forever at 8 pm on July 10, 2006. Two other Cody’s stores, one on Fourth Street in Berkeley and one in San Francisco, were acquired by a Tokyo-based corporation called Yohan, Inc. On April 20, 2007, Yohan closed the San Francisco shop—which Cody’s had been criticized for opening while the Telegraph store was not doing well. Only the Fourth Street store remains.

Andy Ross, who bought the store from Fred and his wife Pat in 1977, said the decision to close Telegraph and sell the other two stores was difficult. On Ross’s final day as owner, a crowd of friends and neighbors, some of whom had been frequenting Cody’s since they were students at the university, plus members of the press, packed into the store, which was dressed up with balloons for its fiftieth birthday. Ross addressed his audience of more than a hundred with tears in his eyes and a hand on his heart.

When asked why—why Cody’s, precious Cody’s, Cody’s of the Berkeley baby boomers’ youth, Cody’s that in the ’60s defended student roadblocks even if the road blocked was its own, and in the ’90s, Rushdie—Cody’s that had rescued counterculture icons when their fame was up, why, why—Andy Ross had an answer: Kant. Students weren’t reading The Critique of Pure Reason like they used to. Just the week before he’d had to return an edition of it to the publisher because of poor sales.

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