Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2008 Issue

Cody's: Every Story Has An Ending

Cody

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?

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