Wednesday, May 17, 2006

My comments regarding the forthcoming closing of Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue brought me several responses, including this wonderful note from Andrew Schelling.

Dear Ron,

Thanks for the news about Cody's closing. And for the good, & very true comment that Telegraph Ave. is (or maybe was) the best book-buying block in the universe. I'd extend the span just a bit to get University Press Books & the bookshop at the BAM in as well.

Moe's continues to have a terrific selection of poetry. When I worked there with Michael Malcolm, it was I who worked the transformation in poetry. Michael was really the guy on the third floor, devoted to Eastern Religions. He and I both had worked at Shambhala Books next door, in the seventies. Now that Shambhala has had to close – same reasons as Cody's – Phillip Barry who owned Shambhala for the last ten years or so of its existence carries on the Eastern section at Moe's.

I think the reason the USED poetry selection got so good was that by developing a smart, well stocked NEW selection we proved a commitment to poetry. This brought many poets (& students &c.) in, who swapped their good titles. The used selection can only be as good as the intelligence of the bookstore's customers.

It was fairly easy to develop the poetry section. I should also note that its location in the store was what in terms of marketing psychology is a choice spot – in other hands it would have been dominated by crappy bestsellers. Dead center on the first floor, where everyone who walks in the door drifts. Another way of putting it is that you can't help walking direct to the poetry section. By contrast, in Cody's if you don't know where the section is you'll probably need to ask a worker to point the way.

When I got to Moe's, 1982, it had the familiar hopeless little shelf of new titles. Here's the formula I used, good in the eighties & probably instructive for booksellers still:

New Directions first of all. You keep in stock all titles by the poets. Bookstores fail by thinking one Pound title, one of Williams enough. But you stock everything by: Pound, Williams, HD, Rexroth, Oppen, Creeley, Levertov, Snyder, Duncan, Everson, Rothenberg, Paz, Weinberger's essays, Hinton's Chinese translations, Rakosi, McClure, Ferlinghetti & Patchen. Simply by doing this you bring serious readers of poetry in. You have covered the widest swathe possible of ca. 1913-1972 or thereabouts. Plus by late eighties ND cautiously added S. Howe, Palmer, B. Mayer, and a few others.

Book People then gave you Black Sparrow, so you add: Reznikoff, Rakosi, Dorn, Bukowski, Wakoski, Eshleman, Blackburn, Kelly... and so forth. From Bookpeople you also got North Point (Palmer, Scalapino, R. Johnson, W. Berry).

Consortium in those days handled Copper Canyon, Greywolf, and a bunch of other presses. This was about the only necessary distributor for what you now call SoQ.

A trip every two weeks to SPD (which carried Sun & Moon as well as most City Lights poetry titles) and you had virtually everything else you could want: Roof, Tuumba, This, Potes & Poets, & 400 more. From them also journals: Sulfur, Temblor, Hills, Poetics Journal, ACTS.

In the eighties this was all you needed to bring poets into the store every time they walked past.

The other important touch was the free Christmas season broadsides, so on my watch you could get (printed by Wesley Tanner, most of them) Duncan, Whalen, Niedecker, Oppen, Rexroth, Alice Walker, Pat Reed, Palmer (worth noting the generosity here of New Directions which never asked any money).

To create this kind of friendliness for good poetry required two things. The first is easy: an enthusiast or poet on the staff. The other is rarer: an owner, Moe Moskowitz, who trusted & loved his employees, respected their interests, paid them well, gave them free reign, & cared for the interests of his customers, his city, and its citizens.

When I left in 1990 Owen Hill took over the poetry. Our tastes vary at points, which is as it should be. He has continued to respect my understanding of poetry – leaving the basic feel of the selection much as it was when I was there – augmenting it with his own intelligence. He has added a regular reading series for poetry in the small press world.

I have seen only one or two selections of poetry that rivals Moe's in over twenty years. Most bookstores are hopeless in their poetry offerings.

People outside the book world may think Cody's closure is good news for Moe's. It is not. People came from all over the world to that stretch of Telegraph Ave. because of the rich selection of books. Every lost bookstore is the loss of essential richness. I hope the citizens of Berkeley, and readers of poetry, recognize how important it is to support Moe's. An honorable person will buy a book every time he or she walks past.

Hope this is of interest to you!