A 46-year-old Berkeley bookstore closes, another COVID-19 casualty

University Press Books has struggled financially for years despite trying many different approaches to stay in business.

University Press Books on Bancroft Way had been struggling financially for several years. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

After 46 years of serving up an array of books from university presses around the globe, and hosting thousands of author talks, book clubs and gatherings, University Press Books at 2430 Bancroft Way has shuttered for good.

The store has been struggling for years to pay its $10,000 monthly rent and has seen its sales suffer with the rise of Amazon, but the COVID-19 virus was the final straw that led the store’s partners to shut it down. Many of its books are still available online and its sister business next door, The Musical Offering Café, is still open.

“Before the virus and the shuttering of the store we were suffering from the crushing burden of this rent for a space that was much bigger than we needed,” said William McClung, a founder and the general partner of University Press Books and The Musical Offering Café. [The pandemic] provoked a realistic decision to close an operation we couldn’t afford to run.”

McClung said it is something of a relief to not have to make that monthly rent.


Ken Knabb, who taught a class on the classics at the store for four and a half years – usually clustered around the large table in the back that served as the store’s signature gathering space – said the store’s demise means the end of an important cultural force.

Berkeley was once known for major bookstores with huge and diverse inventories and superb author events, Knabb said. They included University Press Books, Cody’s Books, Shakespeare and Company, and Moe’s Books. Now, of those, only Moe’s is left. And it, too, is struggling in the pandemic and has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds.

These places were important because of the events bringing people together and the serendipitous discoveries that could be had there, from stumbling on an unusual book to having a conversation at the counter with a clerk or with a customer that sent a person exploring.

“It was a cultural center,” said Knabb. “People would go by the café and then go to the bookstore. It will definitely be a loss. Sometimes you don’t realize what the loss is until it’s gone.”


COVID-19’s economic impact is still unknown, but it looks bad

The economic impact in Berkeley of the pandemic and shelter-in-place order is still unknown, but a number of other local businesses have called it quits. Daiso and Fantasy T-Shirts on Telegraph Avenue and 24-Hour Fitness on Solano Avenue have closed, according to the Daily Cal. And the Berkeley GlassyBaby outlet shut down. The restaurant scene has also seen casualties, some no doubt related to the economic hit of the coronavirus. (See those that closed in March and April and in May.)

Four of Berkeley’s largest employers have collectively furloughed more than 800 employees.

Thousands of workers have been furloughed or laid off by Berkeley companies, according to WARN Act filings, which are required by state law. Four of Berkeley’s largest employers — the YMCA of the Central Bay Area, Meyer Sound System, Berkeley Marina Double Tree and Backroads Active Travel — have collectively furloughed more than 800 employees.

Berkeley won’t know until early 2021 how many businesses have shut because of the pandemic, said Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s manager of economic development. That’s when business license renewals are due.

The Berkeley city auditor, Jenny Wong, released a report in April cautioning that business closures in Berkeley could affect some 30,000 jobs, with unemployment reaching 27% or more. In 2018, the unemployment rate in the city was 2.8%.

From the time the shelter-in-place order went into effect on March 17, Klein has been particularly concerned about the survival of small independent retailers in the city. Many were already struggling against the juggernaut of online commerce. Sales tax from retail businesses had decreased 2.2% from mid-2017 to 2018, the last figures available from the city. The pandemic has accelerated the move to shop online, he said.

Unemployment in Berkeley could reach 27% or more. In 2018, it was 2.8%.

“A crisis might speed up trends that were already in progress,” said Klein. “Certainly, the SIP order has been a big winner for e-commerce. Independent retailers are paying the price or suffering as a result of that trend.”

That habit of clicking a computer from home rather than roaming around a store might stick, he said.

Berkeley has taken a number of steps to assist its small businesses, which many people, including Klein, believe are critical to the character of the city.

The Berkeley Relief Fund, funded by the city and by donations from community members and businesses, handed out $1.7 million in $2,000-$5,000 grants to 705 small businesses to help them weather the economic turndown.

Berkeley will offer training to small businesses on how to increase e-commerce sales on June 29, said Klein.

Some more help might come Friday when Berkeley will likely allow non-essential retail stores to open up again. Currently, they can deliver goods to customers or offer curbside pick-up.

One unknown factor that has a big impact on the local economy is the presence — or not — of UC Berkeley students. If Cal offers a hybrid teaching model in the fall, which is likely, there will be fewer students to buy goods, he said. Food services will have to figure out how to operate in a new era, but Klein hopes there is enough resiliency that they will adapt.

Klein said Berkeley’s overall economy will do all right, eventually. The city is home to many thriving sectors and institutions, including UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab, tech and life sciences companies, design and sustainability firms and personal services firms.

“I’m confident that Berkeley’s economy has a lot of resiliency,” said Klein. “We have a lot of strengths.”

A store dedicated to university press books was novel in 1974

When University Press Books began in 1974 it was a novelty of sorts, and McClung has tried to apply that innovative spirit to the business over the years, with mixed results. Originally, 25 people formed a partnership and raised $35,000 to set up a store devoted just to books published by English-language university presses. Often those tomes, steeped in research with academic language, appealed to a specialized audience rather than the general public.

University Press Books got significant cooperation from university presses to start, said McClung. The books then, like now, were expensive, so many presses sent a single copy, at no cost, to display. The bookstore pledged to replenish the stock whenever a copy was sold.

“We were immensely popular among the academics,” said McClung.

The big table in the back of UPB has been a gathering spot. Ken Petersen (left), general partner of UPB, Jean Spenser, the current managing partner of the Musical Offering Café, and William McClung, founder and general partner of UPB. Photo, taken in 2018,: Frances Dinkelspiel

Over the years, the store expanded its inventory to stock titles from general presses. It increased its cultural offerings too and hosted numerous author talks, book groups, movies and classes, as well as dinners centered around a book or topic where guests might read a poem. It also rented the store out for popup events.

In July 2018, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino opened Café Ohlone in a patio in the back of the store. The café’s menu of traditional Ohlone foods became immensely popular. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and many other media outlets wrote about it, indirectly bringing attention to UPB.

The eclectic set of offerings, from books to food, brought new attention to the store.

A wall of books at University Press Books before it shut down. Photo: Frances Dinkespiel

“Scholarly and academic books?” wrote a customer, Krista C. on Yelp. “My foot! This place is stuffed with books you never knew existed, and then wonder how you did without… Down the rabbit hole I fell, and it was very, very hard to imagine going home to Kansas!”

“This store is an optical illusion,” Mimia W. wrote on Yelp. “After almost four years here at Berkeley I finally set foot in this hole in the wall bookstore I always pass by on my way to the RSF. Who knew the inside is a freaking CAVE?! Inside is like a tucked-away lounge/loft full of books — mostly old classics and philosophical/political stuff. I was looking for more mindless popular humor type books. Like Mindy Kaling’s book or Tina Fey’s Bossypants but ended up buying a philosophy book by Leo Tolstoy. Full price (I never buy books period. Except for school…) Who woulda thunk?”

As prices of university press books increased, the store failed to generate sufficient income, and McClung, his wife Karen and other partners tried various ways to produce revenue. They opened the café. In 2013, they sold the building at 2430 Bancroft Way, which kept the store and café afloat for about four years, said McClung. It also meant the store took on a $10,000 monthly rent. The partners created an arts nonprofit, 2430 Arts Alliance, to promote scholarly and literary publications, classical music and other arts in Berkeley. They created the UPB Investment Group and expanded the partnership to 50 people. They sent out email blasts in 2017, 2018, and 2019 asking for investment. The McClungs put in their own funds, as well as hours and hours of work each week, to keep the business going, said McClung.

Those efforts were not enough to keep the store going.

“We’re natural allies, so when any store closes, it’s a blow,” said Tim Sullivan, the executive director of UC Press Books. “For books that are intended for a broader audience of general readers, independent bookstores like University Press Books are important — not so much for the volume of sales (e-commerce is our largest channel), but for the readers that they’re able to reach, the community they represent, and the support they provide for the university presses and other independent publishers.”

While the physical bookstore is closed, McClung said that UPB will do a pivot of sorts. It will move most of its 30,000 books, an inventory worth $300,000, to Wilsted and Taylor Publishing Services on 40th Street in Oakland, one of the store’s original partners.  UPB will also beef up its ability to sell books online, said McClung.

UPB has a lot of rare books to sell as well as scholarly collections it has acquired in recent years. A number of professors looking to downsize donated their collection of books to the store, he said.

UPB will also move some books next door to The Musical Offering Café. McClung is hopeful that he can fit the table, the centerpiece of so many great conversations, into the café, too. The cafe is doing fairly well. It has started offering fixed-price dinners to go on Friday nights.

In about a year, McClung hopes to find a new, smaller space in Berkeley, one with a much lower rent.

“There are, and there are going to be, lots of vacancies,” he said.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.