Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Change Happens

"I am a bookseller--the owner and operator of a personal bookstore. We are, I'm afraid, members of a fast-vanishing tribe. I agree with those who say that the small personal bookstore is a somewhat picturesque carryover from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet there are still people who are so badly adjusted to reality that they insist on either writing books or selling them."

These were the words of Fred Cody, co-founder and owner of one of Berkeley, California’s most venerated institutions: Cody’s bookstore. I can’t exactly confirm when Cody said these words. My guess is that it was sometime between 1977 when he and his wife sold their landmark bookstore to Andy Ross, and 1983 when Cody died.

Ross operated Cody’s from its historic Telegraph Avenue location from 1977 until about a week ago when Cody’s closed its doors for the final time. In Ross’ speech at the closing of the Telegraph Avenue branch of Cody’s (two other branches--one in Berkeley’s chic 4th Street shopping area and one near Union Square in San Francisco--remain open), he echoed Fred Cody’s remarks from more than 20 years earlier:

“The marketplace has been the center of community life since the time of the Greek Agora. It is being systematically undermined by chain stores and Internet commerce, which feed on communities without offering a vibrant communal life.”

“I know that a day will come when the world will change again. And Americans will recognize that the fetish for branding, for predictability, for mass marketing is a sad and impoverishing myth, and that people will once again rediscover a richer world of ideas, and a store like Cody's at Telegraph, that thrived on that richness, will be reborn.”

What does this have to do with the social and cultural changes happening in the wake of India’s economic renaissance? Well, the obvious connection has to do with India’s historic or otherwise culturally significant bookstores. Will People Tree, in the Regal Building on Parliament Street in New Delhi, or any of the old Higginbotham’s bookstores in South India be able to compete in the new India against Crossword, India’s version of Barnes & Noble? Are there any bookstores in India, already out of business, that played important roles in India’s Independence struggle or other historically or socially significant events?

If so, then those who once frequented those bookstores will understand what’s been lost with the closing of Cody’s. Historically, Cody’s is significant for having provided shelter to activists chased from Berkeley’s People’s Park by police, and later by the National Guard, when in May 1969 they protested then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s attempt to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of assembly by fencing off the University-owned grounds on which the park sat.

In 1989, in what current owner Andy Ross describes as Cody’s proudest moment, employees of the bookstore voted to defend freedom of speech by continuing to sell Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses despite the fact that every major bookstore chain in the country was removing the book from its shelves. This decision was made more profound by the fact that the vote took place the day after a pipe bomb was detonated in the store in protest of the book.

According to Ross, “I think the importance of this story is to acknowledge the true heroism of Cody's workers who agreed to risk their lives in support of the principle of freedom of speech. They have received very little glory for this; and, God knows, it brought them no financial gain. It was a quiet, yet heroic, act of commitment that deserves acknowledgement here and should be remembered for all time.”

Here’s my point: Change happens. Cody’s closed its Telegraph Avenue branch for a variety of reasons, among them the emergence of discount big box booksellers and the Internet, the decline of Telegraph Avenue as a shopping destination, and broader cultural trends in people’s reading habits and interest in literature. In Berkeley, future generations won’t be able to walk into the Telegraph Avenue Cody’s and get lost in obscure books that the big chains won’t stock--books like Henryk Skolimowski’s Living Philosophy: Eco-Philosophy as a Tree of Life, a book I was fortunate enough to stumble upon when passing through Berkeley one summer during college.

What’s important is that a culture has ways of transmitting knowledge to future generations. How will future generations of Americans know what independent bookstores stood for--principles captured by Ross when he explained that “independent booksellers...are the carriers of the values of civility, diversity, and respect for literary individualism, values which are fundamental to a free and humane society”--once the independent bookstore goes the way of the public telephone booth?

Americans take for granted how certain cultural institutions embody many of the principles that we claim to hold most sacred--individualism and freedom of expression, for example. For India, the sacred principles may be different, perhaps they are derived from the Gandhian philosophy of self-sufficiency, but whatever the principles are (and given India’s diversity, I am sure there are many, not always agreement on what they are), there most certainly exist cultural institutions that embody them.

As India continues along the path of economic development, what safeguards are in place to preserve--whether tangibly in the form of buildings or places, or intangibly in the form of legends or lore--the cultural institutions that currently serve to transmit lessons about the importance of these principles from generation to generation? Without such safeguards, India risks becoming as existentially and spiritually depleted as the U.S. What a shame this would be for a country with thousands of years of rich spiritual traditions.

At least there will always be the cricket.

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