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Berkeley’s independent bookstores survive, thrive

Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Moe’s Books: serving Berkeley since 1959. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

2016 BABF logoThis article is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.

Fill in the blank: B–k. Maybe you read “Book.” Or possibly your mind extrapolated a bit and thought “Berkeley.”

Berkeley means books. There have been terrible losses: Cody’s (can it actually be eight years?), Shakespeare & Company (only last year), Black Oak Books on San Pablo (last month), and, back in 2011, the rambling Serendipity Books on University Avenue, of which the New York Times wrote: “The lack of direction was on purpose and in earnest. [Owner] Mr. Howard wanted people to search for books and find not just what they were looking for but the book next to it, which they might want more if they only realized it existed.”

But Berkeley still has one of the most thriving book scenes in the country. Founded in 1959, Moe’s Books lives on, all five stories of it, now led by Moe Moskowitz’s daughter Doris. 

Revolution Books is vintage Berkeley (“the world IS a horror,” says its promotional materials, “but it doesn’t have to be that way”).


Revolution Books at the Bay Area Book Festival. Photo: BABF
Revolution Books’ booth at the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival. This year the festival takes place on June 4-5. Photo: BABF

Another bookstore also wants to build a new world: dating from 1982, Builders Booksource “caters to the wonderfully over-educated contractors and design folks of the East Bay,” per its website, and is located on well-designed (of course) Fourth Street.

Pegasus came 10 years after Moe’s, in 1969, and has three storefronts that cover the town from Solano to Shattuck and all the way to Rockridge in Oakland — creating excellent “booksheds” just like “watersheds” — and keeping great late hours.

Mrs. Dalloway’s opened on College Avenue in 2004 and expanded in 2009. It’s known for careful curation, its landscape and gardening collection and an especially good children’s section, as is the wondrous Mr. Mopps’ Books which opened next to the famous toy store of the same name on MLK Jr. Way three years ago.

Books, Inc. moved from its location of Fourth Street but didn’t leave Berkeley: It landed last year in the old Black Oak location in the Gourmet Ghetto.

When downtown, you can’t help lingering at the window of University Press Books at 2430 Bancroft Way, which also offers “Slow Reading Dinners” where participants (ranging from UC Berkeley students to retirees in their 80s) read passages from their favorite books while savoring a meal catered by The Musical Offering Café next store.


We are a spiritual bunch, too. Eastwind Books on University Avenue remains an oasis of books on Western and Eastern spirituality and writing from Asia. On Harold Way, Dharma Publishing has a collection of teachings on Buddhism and is painted to look like a Tibetan temple. On Durant near downtown, the Buddhist Churches of America Bookstore offers specialized tomes. Sultana on San Pablo sells Islam-related books, and Lewin’s Metaphysical Books in the Elmwood offers an excellent selection within that topic.

AO Scott at Mrs dalloway's Photo Mrs Dalloway's
A.O. Scott reading and book signing at Mrs Dalloway’s in February 2016. Photo: Mrs Dalloway’s

Want your books at a discount? The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library offer terrific deals at their outpost in the Central Library and at their shop at 2433 Channing Street. And the big Half Price Books on Shattuck and Addison has new books, used books, and a rather amazing section in the rear of great books for a dollar or two. It’s also big-hearted: It donated 14,000 children’s books for Bay Area Book Festival last year, and has committed to the same at the second annual festival on June 4-5 this year.

Pundits and economists have rung the death-knell of the brick-and-mortar bookstore, but that’s clearly not the case here — despite the fact that Berkeley also consistently makes the top 10 of Amazon’s sales within small cities. Amy Thomas, owner of Pegasus, reports that last year’s sales were her strongest ever. The success of Pegasus reflects a larger trend. According to a recent report from the American Booksellers Association, growth of indie bookstores has increased over 30% since 2009, and book sales overall were up nearly 10% last year.

One reason stores like Pegasus, Books Inc. and Mrs. Dalloway’s succeed is because their shelves carry a curated inventory. The stores are staffed by book lovers who offer reading recommendations as well as friendly service. As Ann Leyhe, co-owner of Mrs. Dalloway’s, says: “We are, in every sense of the phrase, full service.”

Also fueling the Bay Area book scene is a persistent hunger for fostering community. The Pegasus store on Solano organizes a “Happy Hour Stories” event on the last Tuesday of every month. With wine and cheese on hand, customers listen to a selection of short stories read by Pegasus employees and friends. Just about every store in the city organizes author events. Moe’s hosts the legendary “Poetry Flash” reading series, curated by Joyce Jenkins and Richard Silberg. Mrs. Dalloway’s boasts over 100 events per year.


Half Price Books table and booth
Children’s giveaway at the Half Price Books booth at the first Bay Area Book Festival held in Berkeley in 2015. Photo: BABF

When asked if she noticed any book-buying trends, Bea Dong, a manager at Eastwind Books, pointed out that Eastwind carries books that don’t make the shelf at conventional stores. Eastwind serves a niche market by featuring multicultural titles from Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and South Asian authors.

Devin McDonald, co-owner of Mr. Mopps, is bullish about the future of print books. Mr. Mopps’ bookstore, just a few doors down from the toy store, is not much bigger than your average bedroom, but it’s intimate and displays a quirky, hand-selected inventory for children. “Amazon relies on an algorithm,” McDonald said, “but the experience of coming into our store, feeling the books, and talking to a knowledgeable salesperson on-hand blows that algorithm out of the water.”

Most of these bookstores, and many others in the Bay Area — including City Lights, Green Apple, Booksmith and Book Passage — will create outdoor pop-up stores at the Bay Area Book Festival on June 4-5.

But why wait until June to pick up a copy of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn or Rebecca Solnit’s re-released Hope in the Dark? Before seeing these writers in person at the festival, stop in at your neighborhood store, buy or order copies, and get to reading them right away. You’ll be glad to get an early jump on your summer reading.

2016 BABF logoThis post was written by, and is sponsored by, the Bay Area Book Festival. For more information about the festival, which takes place on June 4-5, 2016, visit the festival website. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Bay Area Book Festival.