Berkeley’s Black Oak Books to close after 33 years

Black Oak Books at 2618 San Pablo Ave. is closing and all the books are 40% off. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Black Oak Books at 2618 San Pablo Ave. is closing and all the books are 40% off. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Black Oak Books, which has had a presence in Berkeley for 33 years, is shutting its doors.

Gary Cornell, the math professor and entrepreneur who rescued the storied bookstore in 2008 during the recession and who is still subsidizing its rent, said the store no longer makes financial sense. Its location, at 2618 San Pablo Ave. near Carleton Street, does not draw enough foot traffic and sales have been generally flat the past six years (Although they did go up by 1% in 2015). In addition, Berkeley has raised its minimum wage to $11 an hour, with more increases to come, making it more difficult to run the business.

Read more stories about independent bookstores in Berkeley.

“I wish I could have kept it open,” said Cornell, 62. “But, in the end, you have to say it’s not working.”


The store will close at the end of January, he said. Until then, all the inventory at Black Oak Books — both new and used books — is 40% off. The store is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.

Lulu Degatinais, who has worked at Black Oak Books for years, checks out a customer on Wednesday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Lulu Degatinais, who has worked at Black Oak Books for years, rings up book purchases on Jan. 6, 2016. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“The sale is on,” said Cornell. “It’s an amazing opportunity to get books at amazing prices,” he said.

Black Oak Books will continue as an online entity specializing in scholarly works, he said. Cornell has located a space to keep stock in El Cerrito and plans to keep on his full-time manager, Mario Jacobus, to oversee the online business. Black Oak’s four other employees will help out in the transition.

Cornell has already found another tenant — not a retail store — for the space, he said.

There were a few people browsing books in the store on Wednesday afternoon, and most expressed dismay that it would soon close, although they also admitted they did not visit very often. Jonathan Doff has a studio nearby on Parker Street and said he comes by Black Oak only about once a month. While he buys books at the store, he also buys online, he said.


Ming Leung, his wife Nina, and their three children were also browsing. Nina held a large stack of art books in her arms she intended to buy at the 40% discount. But both said they rarely visited the store as it was not convenient. They live in the North Berkeley hills and are more likely to go to Books Inc. on Shattuck (which moved into the old Black Oak Books space in 2015).

“If this were more convenient I would have made this more than an occasional stop,” said Nina Leung.

Added her husband: “It’s sad to see brick-and-mortar bookstores closing because the browsing experience is different than browsing online.”

Black Oak Books was started in 1983 and for years had a large space at 1491 Shattuck Ave. in the Gourmet Ghetto The store carried new and used books as well as first editions and rare books. It was a premier destination for touring authors.

In 2008, the store could no longer cope with its large space and high rent. It owed money to the Internal Revenue Service. Cornell, a former math professor at the University of Connecticut who had just sold his company, Apress, a Berkeley-based publishing company specializing in computer software books, paid off the IRS and bought the bookstore’s name. (The former owners shuttered the San Francisco store around this time.) Cornell moved the business to San Pablo Avenue in 2009 into the old Rountree R & B club, which he had purchased. He ramped up the store’s math and science sections.


Gary Cornell, the owner of Black Oak Books, in the store. Photo: Black Oak Books
Gary Cornell, the owner of Black Oak Books. Photo: Black Oak Books

“I was hoping the area would be the next Temescal and become really hot,” said Cornell. “It looked like the neighborhood was being developed. Sea Salt [restaurant] was there. But the kind of businesses that would bring in foot traffic — which is the key to a bookstore — never happened. It never got a lot of foot traffic.”

Black Oak didn’t pay rent but was able to pay utilities and upkeep. Cornell said he did not mind not making a profit, but he didn’t want to lose money. But he estimated that the increase in Berkeley’s minimum wage meant the store would have to grow sales by 50% during the next few years to keep up. That was not going to happen, said Cornell, who said he is not opposed to the rise in the minimum wage in principle.

“Berkeley real estate has become really expensive,” said Cornell. “It’s very expensive to do business in Berkeley. At some point, you have to say you can’t keep subsidizing it forever.”

Last year saw the closure of two other independent bookstores in Berkeley: Bookish, run by Gina Davidson, shuttered just one year after opening. Meanwhile Shakespeare & Company closed after operating on Telegraph Avenue for 51 years.

Cornell has a number of other businesses, including a start-up based in Nevada. He said he has been spending much of his time at his Reno home, another factor in his decision.

Mario Jacobus, the manager of Black Oak Books, points to some boxes that were moved from the store's previous location on Shattuck Avenue. They still have not been opened. Jacobus estimates the store has 100,000 books. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Mario Jacobus, the manager of Black Oak Books, points to some boxes that were moved from the store’s previous location on Shattuck Avenue. They still have not been opened. Jacobus estimates the store has 100,000 books. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Cornell said he thought there were about 50,000 books in the store, but his manager, Jacobus, said the number could be twice that amount. There are so many books that there are still some unpacked boxes from the move from Shattuck Avenue seven years ago, he said.

Black Oak will return unsold new books to the publishers. It may see if another bookstore, like Powell’s in Portland, wants to buy some of the remaining inventory, although nothing has been decided, said Jacobus.

The store’s most popular books? The paperback edition of Americanah by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is by far the most popular, said Lulu Degatinais, a store employee. The store has sold 73 copies of her paperback, which came out in early 2014. The next most popular book is The Martian by Andy Weir, followed by The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, she said. These are now all 40% off.

Related:
Berkeley’s Revolution Books relocating, launching fundraiser (06.29.15)
Shakespeare & Co closes after 51 years in Berkeley (06.03.15) 
Books Inc. opens in North Berkeley after move (06.08.15)
Bookstore moving into old Black Oak Books in N. Berkeley (10.15.14)
Black Oak Books is back (12.15.09)

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