Andy Ross evokes a modern-day Don Quixote as he recounts the highs and lows of his 30-year career as a bookseller at Cody's Books in Berkeley, Calif. It was a struggle marked by a romantic idealism that, in the end, goes unrequited.
“My experience at Cody's was larger than life,” Ross said in an interview at a cafe a block away from the sole remaining store of the three Ross once owned. Accompanying Ross was his wife, Leslie Berkler, who left her v-p position at Cody's at the beginning of the month. Currently, Cody's is downsizing its inventory in preparation for moving at the end of March from an upscale shopping area in North Berkeley to a 7,000-sq.-ft. space on downtown Shattuck Avenue.
“Bookselling was a vocation. We were struggling for culture. We were trying to fight the Philistines,” Ross said. “But it became a losing fight.” Ross, 61, bought the original Cody's, located since 1956 on famed Telegraph Avenue, a few blocks from the Berkeley campus of the University of California, from its founders, Fred and Pat Cody, in 1977.
According to Ross, Berkeley was a hotbed of intellectual curiosity then, as America experienced a golden age in independent bookselling that lasted through the '80s. He described average Saturday sales at Cody's at its peak as topping $27,000, and he gave $3,000 holiday bonuses to his staff.
“We were one of the great bookstores of the world,” Ross declared, making one of several sweeping and grand statements about Cody's historical importance. “It's no exaggeration to say that Berkeley got its reputation as the Athens of the West in good measure because of Cody's and stores like Cody's.”
Warming to his subject, Ross described his “greatest moment in bookselling”: in 1989, an undetonated bomb was found in the store's poetry section, in protest of Cody's carrying Salman Rushdie's controversial Satanic Verses. The police had to pack the bomb with sandbags and detonate it inside the store. The next morning, Ross asked his nearly 50 employees to vote on whether to continue carrying Satanic Verses. They voted unanimously to sell it. “People had to make an existential decision,” Ross remembered, his voice cracking with emotion. “How important was freedom of speech? These guys were heroes.”
The '80s and '90s also brought lawsuits, as chain bookstores began competing for market share with the independents. The Northern California Booksellers Association, of which Cody's was a prominent member, first sued Hearst Corp. (then parent company of Avon) and Bantam in 1982, charging them with antitrust violations, a matter later taken up by the ABA in its two lawsuits against eight publishers. In 1998, the ABA, joined by 26 booksellers including Ross, also filed suit against Barnes & Noble and Borders, charging them with antitrust violations.
“We were battling against the modern age,” Ross recalled. “Our values were pure, our motives were sincere, but it was just too big of a fight.” Citing a “bad judge” and “crushed by money,” the ABA and the group of independent booksellers lost the “mother of all lawsuits” when the ABA reached an out-of-court settlement, though Ross insisted, they “fought an honorable fight.”
Despite a steady drop in sales throughout the '90s—a trend Ross attributed to changing patterns of literacy, as “students, people in their 20s, aren't reading anymore”—Cody's opened two satellite stores, one a 10,000-sq.-ft. store on Fourth Street in 1997; the other in 2005, a 22,000-sq.-ft. space in San Francisco, just off the city's touristy Union Square.
“The company was in trouble,” Ross admitted, still defending his decision to expand, though sales on a typical Saturday had slid to an average of $9,000 by 2005. “We could have made ourselves smaller. But I didn't want to be a small shop. I wanted to be a world-changing store.”
Little more than a year later, Ross faced his “greatest tragedy as a bookseller,” when financial losses forced him to close Cody's Telegraph, 50 years to the day after it had first opened. Two months later, he sold Cody's to Japanese distributor and retailer Yohan Inc., though he stayed on as president, overseeing the closing of the San Francisco store in April 2007, a mere 18 months after it had opened its doors.
“It was very hard to sell in San Francisco,” he said, describing patrons who wanted to know why the store didn't serve coffee—“as if the essence of a bookstore was a great cappuccino.”
When he realized that the last remaining Cody's store would have to downsize both inventory and staff to stay open, Ross resigned his position in December. “I was still wrapped up in the idea of Telegraph Avenue,” he explained. “I didn't want to have a store that wasn't comprehensive.”
Though he complains that publishing, too, has changed, that it's become media-driven and mass market, and it's “no fun anymore,” Ross is not quite ready to quit tilting at book-world windmills: he recently established himself as a literary agent for the same kinds of titles he most enjoyed selling at Cody's—“serious books,” he said, like narrative nonfiction, history and current events.
Although he declined to give specifics, since no contracts have been signed yet, he reports a few projects in the pipeline, including one with a “bestselling” author who lives abroad. “I think I can find books that have discrete markets, not mass markets, and I can succeed,” he said. “I tried to do that in bookselling, but in the end, couldn't.”