Friday, May 12, 2006

Cody's closing

Clive Keeble is a bit like an old man whose friends keep dying. Every time a good independent bookshop closes, Clive gives a big sigh, puts on his black suit, and does the honourable thing by making sure that everyone knows.

This time it is at least a long way off. Not that that makes it any better. For 43 years, Cody's Books, in Berkeley, California, has served generations of UC Berkeley students from a position on the south side of campus. But it has been losing money for 15 years, and it can't go on. Details in the San Francisco Chronicle.

For an indication of what this means in human terms, see Anirvan Chatterjee's eulogy in the Journal.

I wonder if Cody's had competition from an official university bookshop. I mention that because, some twenty years ago, I visited an enormous university bookshop on the other side of America. In fact it was more like an aircraft hangar.

My first impressions were that this was the worst bookshop I had ever been in. The floor was bare concrete. The books -- which were virtually all textbooks -- were exactly as they were when sent out from the publishers' warehouse: they were packed in brown paper, standing on wooden pallets, line after line of them. The only attempt to display the book took the form of tearing open a package, taking one out, and putting it on the top of the pile.

Hmm, I said, very sniffily. This place could do with a good manager.

A few weeks later I had the opportunity to talk to the manager. And I discovered, of course, that in terms of sales per square foot, this was one of the most efficient bookshops in America. In those days (and, I dare say, now) American university teaching was heavily textbook orientated. Each lecturer would have one or more set books. Each week he would deal with one chapter of that book. And every student was obliged, if she wanted to pass the course, to have a copy of that book.

What this meant was that, at the start of each term, 20,000 students came into the bookshop, each of them needing to buy six, or ten, or whatever copies of a number of set books, none of which were cheap. All the bookshop had to do was make sure that there were sufficient copies of these, and take the money. No need for frills.

With competition like that, the small independents stood no chance.


EJ said...

It's a sad day when a store like Cody's dies. Nearly half the books I own came from there. I will remember it's numerous floors with great affection.


Finn Harvor said...

I've been in uni bookstores that look like bookstores, but also been in ones that look like the hanger you describe (though in this case it was more like a bomb-shelter).

I guess the irony doesn't need any underlining: warehouses selling books dictated by the uni's curriculum slowly strangling smaller bookstores that have more in common with the actual spirit with the curriculum (the humanities part of it, anyway). But yep, sad.

Anonymous said...

It could be worse, and in Melbourne Australia it is. At the beginning of the academic year, the university bookshop near me actually moves its books OUT of the shop, to make way for compilations of photocopied notes. Coursework is arranged around these, with care taken to not copy enough of any one book to pay royalties. This from a university that was once a major publisher of serious academic works.
I used to manage a secondhand store opposite the university.. but over the last 20 years the number of students buying non-prescribed material has fallen precipitously. And of course the supply of secondhand texts has dried up as well, those two inch thick piles of photocopies aren't collectors items.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I live in Berkeley. And the student union building on campus does host a bookstore. Two, actually. One sells textbooks for classes and is arranged alphabetically by class ... that is, the textbook(s) for Geography 101 are next to the textbooks for Geomancy for Poets ... The other bookstore in the student union building is a small independent bookstore. Or maybe not. Barnes & Noble took over the textbook bookstore. I'm not sure who runs the other, though last time I walked through (a couple years ago?) they were both still there.

I'd rather Cody's didn't go.

Still, I can think of more than ten bookstores off the top of my head within Berkeley city limits. Some of them sell used books, some new, some both; one specializes in comic books & graphic novels, one specializes in metaphysical books, another's focus is gardening. There is a big Barnes & Noble store (other than the one for textbooks).

I work for the public library. Berkeley has one main and four branch libraries. (Had to get that in.)

Cody's will continue running two recently opened stores -- one of which is also in Berkeley (the other is in San Francisco). The second Berkeley store is in a very chi-chi section of town so I've only been inside once.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Oh. Forgot to say. Cody's never did sell textbooks. So the competition for the student dollar doesn't happen there.

Anonymous said...

"You can't expect to buy books on one day, then see a Nobel Laureate at your local bookstore the next day"