After 41 years serving an enthusiastic customer base of sci-fi geeks and proud comic-book nerds in Berkeley, Dark Carnival, at 3086 Claremont Ave., is closing up shop. Its sister store, The Escapist, which is two doors down on Claremont, may also shutter if sales don’t pick up.
Owner Jack Rems described himself as heartbroken. Speaking to Berkeleyside Monday, he said he had made the decision due to declining sales. He expressed gratitude to all his long-term customers and encouraged people to come by the store where he is holding a “progressive sale.” All stock is currently being offered at a 20% discount.
Rems doesn’t yet know when he will close the doors to the treasure-trove of a shop for the final time. “I need to pay bills, so as long as by selling off stock we are generating more than it costs [we will stay open],” he said
One loyal customer, who expressed dismay on hearing the news of the impending closure, is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, a comic books fan who lives close to both stores.
“On my first morning in the neighborhood, back in April 1997, Dark Carnival was my first stop — then as now, I considered it, along with Star Grocery, to be one of the chief glories of the Elmwood District,” he said in an email.
Chabon, who is married to bestselling author Ayelet Waldman, continued: “I bought a paperback copy of one of Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai novels and struck up a conversation with the remarkable Jack Rems that has lasted ever since. For 20 years, Dark Carnival’s stock-in-trade has fed my work and my imagination, and its twisty warren of bookshelves and generous staff have held a place in the hearts and lives of all the Waldman-Chabons (eldest child Sophie worked at Escapist from 2011-13). I’m just devastated by the news.”
Another customer, Berkeley resident Matthew Chayt, said: “Dark Carnival’s inventory is second to none and full of unique items: everything from beautiful Edgar Allan Poe editions to Doctor Who birthday cards from the 1980s. I’m sorry to see the shop go and I thank them for years of bringing something special to Claremont Avenue.”
Dark Carnival first opened on Telegraph Avenue, at Stuart, then moved to Adeline Street, at Ashby, where it stayed for six years before moving to the retail block on Claremont Avenue, at The Uplands, that also houses Star Grocery and several other independent merchants. A portion of the property on the block recently changed hands after it was bought by developer and real-estate agent John Gordon. Gordon said in January he had no plans to change the makeup of the block.
In 2011, Rems opened The Escapist at 3090 Claremont Ave., kickstarting it with the inventory he bought from Comic Relief at 2026 Shattuck Ave., which closed after the death of its founder, Rory Root. Rems employed several of that shop’s staff and named the new store after a character in Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Chabon attended the opening of The Escapist in March 2011. The Comic Relief space is now occupied by Fantastic Comics.
Chris Juricich was the manager at Comic Relief when it closed, and was taken on as the manager at The Escapist by Rems. Writing from the Philippines where he now lives, Juricich described Rems as being tireless in his attempts to keep the business alive.
“Passion or mania would certainly have played a factor,” he wrote. “One long-time friend described him as a ‘business genius,’ though I felt that, due to the nature of small bookstore business, he was actually more adept at responding to crises (financial) which regularly crept up on him.”
Juricich continued: “It was probably the best stocked, most complete store for sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery fiction in most of California, though The Other Change of Hobbit might have given it a run for its money before it, too, finally closed some years ago. I’m sad for the loss of the store to the community and no one could ever blame Jack for not having applied his intelligence and passion to its continued survival, but, much like the business of comic book retail, selling reading matter is an uphill climb.”
As Juricich points out, running a brick-and-mortar bookstore, or indeed any retail business, in the age of Amazon is notoriously tough, and it’s not the first time Rems has struggled with Dark Carnival. In December 2013, he put out a public plea to the community, writing: “No other way to say this. We need your help. To our staunch supporters: it’s thanks to all of you that we’re still here. Please, if you have any shopping to do, now and for the holidays, do some of it here… P.S.: If you’re broke, and believe me I understand, please come in anyway, say hi, hang out, I’ll give you something good to read, no charge.”
This story was updated after publication after we heard back from Chris Juricich.