Black Oak Rising
Posted on November 28, 2008 at 10:51 pm
One of the joys of living in North Berkeley has been my close proximity to the great and venerable bookstore, Black Oak Books. Home to both the new and used, with a wonderful collection of contemporary and classic titles, the store reflects the work of deep and well read owners on the pulse of important cultural and critical issues, purveyors of the significant events of our day and the literary roots of our world view.
So when I walked into the store several months back and noticed that something was different, that the neat, well ordered collection I had become so familiar with was looking raggedy, with the book covered tables appearing thin, lacking the tightness that had always given me comfort, I noticed a subtle anxiety rising within. I saw empty bookshelves with signs announcing that books were coming, shoddy, chaotic remodeling, and the sudden appearance of cheap mysteries thrown randomly together. I became distraught. Something bad was happening. The world had shifted. I collected myself, and built up the nerve to ask one of the unfamiliar clerks behind the counter, “Excuse me, but has something changed. The store seems….different.”
“Well yes,” he replied, “It’s been taken over by new owners.”
I gasped, looked around, and felt my “book world” crumble. This was it. The beginning of the end. My sanctuary in the neighborhood had been taken over by some anonymous group that knew nothing of this place, of its significance, its history; who knew nothing of books and bookstores, and who would, in short order, run my beloved Black Oak into the ground, leaving a hole in the block, in the neighborhood, in the world, surely to be filled with some large, sterile retail chain outlet, one more Staples or Shoe Warehouse. Dismayed, I angrily exclaimed, “Well clearly the people now running this establishment don’t know what they are doing. Just look around. It is chaos! No books! No order!”
I felt like one of those street ranters, yelling about some calamity in the making, the end of the world, some political upheaval that only I had the acute vision to perceive. I needed to let everyone know of the impending doom. Yes, I was ranting….but rightfully so!
“Books are on order,” said the clerk calmly.
I thought I was speaking to an alien. He had the demeanor of one of those “Body Snatched”, sent to Earth to destroy our retail centers of learning, to undermine our intellectual heritage, to dumb us down, and prepare us for colonization by some extraterrestrial race.
Weeks went by and I would stop in to see how things were going, to assess the state of “my” bookstore. I was unhappy. No changes. The same signs. “Books on Order.” Dust gathering on empty shelves, the ongoing de-evolution of this great institution. And I would rant again, grabbing the attention of one of the “pod people” who, I was more sure than ever, had been installed by their leaders on this unlikely front of the imminent takeover. The same question and the same flat response, “More books are coming.”
I imagined my photo hung in a back room office with a caption reading, “Avoid contact with this person. If you must speak to him, be calm and he will eventually go away.” And so I did, only to return a few weeks later, and then again, unable to resist, although I knew it would only cause me pain. Like the compulsive urge to pick at a cuticle or scab, causing a useless bleed and an unsightly sore, it was beyond my control.
But then something happened. I passed through the doors one afternoon and had the strange feeling that some light had entered that darkened place. A soothing sense of order fell. Spaces between scattered books had narrowed. Current, stimulating titles jumped at me. A pleasant tightening. It was as if a long slumber had ended, yawning awake. And a few weeks later I went in again. Pleasure, giving way to jubilation, overtook me as I mumbled to myself, “Could I have been wrong?” Full shelves, a gathering crowd of customers perusing and buying. I couldn’t control my exultation and blurted to the clerk, who was now looking much less pod like, “The store looks great!”
“Thank you”, he said.
And so my anxiety over the possible demise of Black Oak Books had been soothed. However, the feelings I had were based on more than just sadness over the possible closure of a neighborhood bookstore, that lovely and comforting place to spend an hour or two scanning well stocked shelves. There was also despair over the decline of book culture, a literary dissipation that robs us of food for critical thought, of worlds available to us only through the touch of the book, the tactile, visual, and mental stimulation that provides keys to our inner lives otherwise inaccessible. I felt the loss of physical spaces to be with books. As Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble devour the literary landscape, mesmerizing us with cheap prices and best sellers, we slowly lose the full experience of the book. Cultural spokesman like Thomas Friedman exult in the ease of online acquisition, singing the praises of Internet Purchase, and miss the deep satisfaction of wandering cluttered aisles, of the smell of new books, of the company of other book lovers, of community, of the bookstore as fortress in a wasteland of convenient consumption.
In the Bay Area, over the past several years, we have seen the devastation of the Independent Book World. Cody’s, Gaia, Shambhala, A Clean Well Lighted Place. All of those stores, intellectual and community anchors, gone under the cold economic pressures of our times. The rebirth of Black Oak at the edge of the abyss represents much more than a business success. It is a small victory, perhaps a temporary one, over the forces of homogenization, a victory of quality over expediency and simple considerations of cost. On the cultural battlefield, Black Oak Books serves as an outpost of hope, of the possibility that depth of meaning may trump units sold, that in our chain store and internet world, small islands still exist where the flames of human possibility still burn.