Interview: Brian Rood, Avenue Books: Losing Ground, Berkeley 01/16/04
by Richard Whittaker, Jan 16, 2004
I’d heard the end was near for Avenue Books, the kind of intimate bookstore that now seems to belong the past—Brian had told me himself. It had to be a depressing event, but Rood had not lost his dry wit. I took it as a matter of character. Nothing to be gained by dragging customers into the sad story.
One evening some years ago I’d been strolling north along College Avenue toward the U.C. campus when I discovered the place. Tucked neatly in between neighborhood businesses it could easily have been missed—another feature of its charm. It didn’t shout. Small of square footage, it was big in terms of atmosphere, a quality measured on a different scale.
I quickly had found Rood a man of warmth and always ready to discuss things bookish at length. And there was an elegant older woman, Elise White. She worked there most days radiating dignity and a quality of refined substance. Elise was formidable. Upon first entering the shop, I always found her a little intimidating, no matter how many enjoyable conversations we’d had at the counter with a book sitting between us waiting to be rung up. Her self-possession, erect bearing and frank gaze were a little unsettling. Did one measure up?
Who was this mysterious woman? I asked myself. What was her story? Just running into her at the bookstore, sent my imagination into novelistic mode. Our conversations, begun over a book, took off from there. Elise was a careful observer and savored various threads of decline and popular absurdity. Would she be interested in writing for my magazine? Yes, perhaps. But it never came to pass.
Brian and Elise not only approved of my own efforts with works & conversations, they carried the magazine. It sold well there. They also carried Indigo Animal, selling well over a hundred copies. Of course, I loved them for that, but I’d fallen for the place before I’d come in showing them my wares.
Has not the independently owned bookstore reliably been one of the few public places offering a certain kind of refuge? John Evans of Diesel Books, related how he’d heard it said that the most important thing an independent bookstore can provide is an aesthetic presence in a neighborhood. There are libraries. There is a certain kind of coffee shop. Perhaps a very small number of other places that can provide this kind of presence. How important is this? How does one measure the value of an aesthetic presence?
If you’ve experienced a little bookstore like Avenue Books and then seen it go out of business, you know the feeling of loss. But nothing about this realm of feeling is quantifiable and, especially in our materialistic culture, the qualities and contents of this realm hardly seem real. On what basis can they be remembered and held dear? My conversation with Rood took place on the occasion of Avenue Books in Berkeley closing its doors…
Richard Whittaker: How did you first get involved in having a bookstore?
Brian Rood: I wanted to have a bookstore when I was in high school. It was one of the things I thought I might want to wind up doing. When I was a kid I used to go into Vroman's in Pasadena. It's the oldest independent bookstore in California. It's been there for over one hundred years. I had a love affair with books that so many people do from a very early age. When I was in school from 1966 to '76 at Cal [UC Berkeley], I was in literature forever - in English first, and then Scandinavian and Comparative Literature. Then my fellowship ran out, my wife got pregnant and I went into the building industry. I did that for 18 years, going from a library carol at UC Berkeley to a construction site. It's a very difficult adjustment.
When I got into my early 40's I began falling apart physically - which is what happens to people who do construction. I remember I was complaining pretty much full-time, and my girl friend at the time said, "If you don't like it, why don't you find something else to do? Is there something else you'd like to do?"
I said, "Yes, I've always wanted to have a bookstore."
She said, "Why don't you get a job in a bookstore and see if you really do like it."
And this was the bookstore I used to shop in. I had sort of a regular routine in the course of my week. Thursdays I stopped here and got a New York Times book review and went down to Norman's which used to be at College and Alcatraz. I'd have a couple of martinis and a hamburger and look through the book review to see what I wanted to read. Then I'd come back here and buy a book after dinner. I'd get one or two hardcovers every Thursday.
RW: Going into a bookstore in those years - the end of high school, early college years - it was almost like entering a magic realm. You know what I'm talking about, right?
BR: Yes. I know what you mean. When you walk around from one section to another you're going from world to world - especially in Vroman's, which had two floors.
My interest was always fiction, although I did read a certain amount of history. But I read novels, and it was nice to be able to go into a store that not only had the new things, but had a really good back list representation, had a lot of the classics, and that's what I read. I read as a student would. I wanted to know what came first and what came later. It was a nice store for that.
I had routines, even then, and it was on my way, so it became an important part of my life. When I was a kid, a couple of days each week I'd go to Santa Anita, which is on the other side of Pasadena. I'd take the bus down Colorado and then get over to Sierra Madre Blvd. Then, when the races were over, I'd take the bus back and stop at the bookstore, in part to assuage my guilt for having cut class to go to the racetrack. It was sort of an essential part - my routines were always the nice part of my life. People think of routines as being stultifying and horrible, but the things I did routinely were the ones I wanted to do.
RW: Meaningful places and meaningful things....
BR: Yes. And I made sure I had the time to do them. Going to the bookstore, stopping at the one liquor store along the way because it carried the racing form. Vroman's didn't. That was the one real drawback of Vroman's.
RW: My mother lives in Claremont and, as it happens, when I drive down to visit her, I often stop at Vroman's. They have coffee and pastries there, too, you know. It's a nice place to recover a little from the long drive. And even now, I like Old Pasadena.
BR: I do too. Fortunately they decided they wanted to keep it with some semblance of what it used to look like. In Glendale, just on the other side of Pasadena, the downtown is just shuttered. They built a big mall that takes up about three square blocks in the middle of Glendale and all the retail activity in the town now takes place there inside those walls. You don't see anything on the street at all. But when you go to Pasadena, there on Colorado, and now on Lake, there are people walking up and down the street. There's a lot of pedestrian traffic and it looks like an actual community. Something is going on. And that's nice. I like that. And in addition, it's a very pretty little city.
RW: Yes. In Alameda, for instance, they built the Southshore Shopping Center some years back. On Park St.- a retail district going back over 100 years - a few nice businesses remained, even when I lived there six or seven years ago, but the street had declined. The one really nice place, a restaurant/gallery called The Courtyard, closed a couple of years ago. I wonder what your thoughts are about this trend?
BR: I can tell you that there's been a lot of discussion in city planning circles about all of that. Obviously there are many different visions of what the future should look like, but I think what happened with the mall was really kind of influenced by one big-box developer, Wallmart. They'd fly around the country looking for communities that were nice and compact and had a minimum population of - I don't know, maybe 80,000 or so - and which also had a good road that accessed an empty enough area that they could put something in there. That way everyone would have easy access, and they wanted a place where it would be relatively cheap to buy the property, too. You'd have enough space for massive parking lots and it would be relatively simple for people to get in their cars and drive out there and do all of their shopping in one place.
When they tried it and it worked, everybody noticed. Then others started doing the same thing. There was notable success in places where, in the wintertime, it was hard for people to get around. And so you have these huge enclosed malls in places like Minneapolis and Syracuse where there's extreme weather.
All of this contributed to the overriding idea of how you might be able to attract the most customers while spending the least amount per square foot. You can see it everywhere--the strip mall and the freeway corridor. You can't drive on the freeway without seeing these things.
RW: I was listening to an interview about Victor Gruen, the architect who really invented the mall, and how in the end he despaired about what he had created.
BR: I bet. Well, you grew up in LA, or around LA, and probably you can remember being in downtown Los Angeles when there was one. There was a lot of stuff going on there in the early fifties.
RW: Actually I didn't know downtown LA. I lived in the suburban sprawl of the Pomona Valley. I had no real reasons to go to downtown LA.
BR: I probably wouldn't have either, except that my dad worked in downtown LA and we'd go in to meet him. Anyway, it was a real city. And Los Angeles is the prototype of the mallification of America. When the downtown started dying, and that was already going on immediately after the war, all the little agricultural parts of the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Valley started becoming the population centers. At the same time they were removing all the public transportation. The population centers were extending away from the city center and you had all the freeways being built.
When you went out into those outlying areas - well just one example, the most egregious example, Ventura Blvd. - Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley extends for 30 miles. It goes through probably 10 different cities. It's a 30 mile long strip mall.
RW: It's pretty bad.
BR: It's beyond horrible. It's automobile dealerships, five or six-store strip malls with the parking lot in the front and the stores arranged in a U or L shape - the prototype. Ventura is only the longest of those streets. There are plenty of other ones all through out the valley just like it. It also happens in the nicer parts of Los Angeles, or the more expensive parts anyway. When you go on Sunset Blvd it's the same fucking thing, from Hollywood to the beach except when you're going through Beverly Hills.
RW: A couple of years ago I was in Pennsylvania 30 or 40 miles east of Philadelphia with my wife for a wedding. I needed to get a tie and we couldn't find a clothing store. We found one of those giant malls and went in there. We actually got lost in there for a while. Couldn't escape. Honestly, it bordered on being a terrifying experience. Trapped in the pumped up muzak, swamped by the relentless barrage of visual hype, a totalizing corporate ersatz fantasy world. Obviously though, a lot of people don't feel that way. They seem to like it.
BR: I don't get it either. At this point I think it's more understandable than it was at the beginning of the phenomenon, because people get used to anything. They start thinking of it as their daily reality. So people who are 25 years old now find malls to be perfectly normal. They're not offended or shocked, but they don't have anything to measure it against.
But for us, having been around at the creation of all this and maybe having been initially intrigued, you go and look at it and say, "No, I don't want to do that." What keeps people coming back to it, I don't know. Probably it just has to do with traffic patterns. Maybe it just has to do with where you're going on a regular basis. You establish your patterns along that route.
Somehow somebody managed to tap into that in a way that made these things possible. You can use it for good or for ill. The idea of having all of these things under one roof. In some places that makes a kind of sense, for instance in a severe weather situation - twenty below zero.
You mention you were in Philadelphia. I was in the Philadelphia airport a couple of years ago. The Philadelphia airport is a mall. It's a mall that has airplanes landing every few minutes. It's a fucking shopping mall! You could get anything you wanted there. There were probably 50 restaurants and every conceivable kind of goods and services. Yet you looked out a window and there were commercial airliners.
RW: This corporate culture, fast food. But food thought of in an expanded way can take us back to books. A bookstore is a place where a kind of nourishment is available. So I want to frame some kind of question around all this - idea of food, fast food, bookstores, corporate culture.
BR: Right. I think there are real connections. Both the book business and the food industry have been undergoing exactly the same kind of changes - the food industry probably over a longer period of time.
I think the entire thing is based on a concept of convenience - which has been sold to people without their really examining the conditions of sale. They're told that the point is to make life easier. That's the point. It isn't the quality of the food. Nobody really suggested that you could get a better hamburger at McDonald's than at Chase's. If you go into the city and stop at the Zuni Cafe and get a hamburger there and compare it with one you can get down the street at a Burger King - there isn't any comparison! No matter how unsophisticated you might be, you know there is no comparison. But Zuni isn't convenient and Burger King is. You're being sold something, not on the quality of the product, but on the convenience and ease of the transaction.
RW: Right. Do you happen to recall the Apple system up-grade where you no longer needed to double-click on an icon? Just a single click would do it!
BR: Think of all the carpal-tunnel syndrome that was avoided!
RW: Thank heavens! So over against all this ease of life there is the question of the quality of life.
BR: Exactly. And there are mini-rebellions around this. The one I'm thinking of is the "slow food movement." It was begun in Italy. Basically it's for anybody who enjoys the process of making dinner for your family or guests. They become participants in this movement.
You take the time, first of all, to consider what you're going to cook and then how you're going to do it. Then you carefully prepare every course of the whole meal so the end result nourishes not only the body, the taste buds, but something else.
When you think about it, in the wintertime, in the food sections of the newspaper - and I like to think also in the book review sections of the newspapers, too - there is something meaty that goes in winter more so than at other times of the year, though there's plenty of good stuff any time of the year, if you look at it. But the kinds of things you see in the winter time, in food, precisely, are the things that take the most time and effort to prepare. Frequently they're inexpensiv - stews, braises, all these things that have flavors that develop over three or four hours of slow cooking.
I mean what happens to a crappy piece of meat when the collagens all break down? It becomes this umptuous, wonderful thing with all these flavors melding. It becomes incredibly complex and you drink your best wine with it. Your most complex red works with this. This is what you save it for!
Everything that takes a long time to make wonderful suggests itself at this time of year. And for a lot of reasons, too. There's warmth associated with the process. I always held the vision - now remember, this is from a kid who grew up in LA - of the wintertime with the fire in the fireplace and the book...and the big chair. I used to have this very English fantasy of what my library would look like, and it was always in the deep of winter with the fire blazing on the hearth. There was something about it that was so compelling and nourishing in the same way that long-cooked beef would be. They went together in my mind. There is something tremendously comforting in that.
But you know there are certain things you read when you're on a bus or on BART. We sell a lot of mass-market paperbacks - or used to - precisely for that purpose. People would stick them their pockets. They're not bulky. It was a wonderful idea, the mass market paperback. But it became associated with reading in 15-minute snatches here and there. Then you could throw the book away when you were finished. A disposable notion of the book came along with that eventually. That was kind of weird in itself.
When you think about when you sit down in your home in a comfortable chair and devote a couple of hours to reading - what is that book? It's not the same one, is it?
In my house, and probably in yours too, there's more than one place where typically I will be. There is the one chair in the living room. There's the bed and there's my office. And typically there's one or two books I'm reading in each place and very rarely do they move from one place to another. They usually have something to do with a particular time of day that I might be in that place. Typically I might have something like Boswell next to my bed. I'd read five or ten minutes before going to sleep. Boswell's good for twenty years of sleep inducement.
RW: [laughs] But that's not a denigration, right?
BR: Not at all. The life of Johnson is told in vignettes, and one is just about long enough so that off you go. The novel was the book that usually was sitting in the living room. And there were books that might have a slightly more practical concern that might have a bearing on something I'd been doing.
The way I think about the bookstore - there are a lot of bookstores that look pretty much the same. When you walk in the door the same things will be displayed as the first things you see. Even some very fine independent stores will do this the same way that a chain store might do it. You will put things that are liable to be best-sellers right out front. You will put things that are heavily discounted - the remainders for instance - they're going to be out front, too. This is for all the people who might not ever make it into the deep recesses of the store. It's exactly the opposite from the way a grocery store is organized. All the essentials are in the furthest parts of the store. The milk and the eggs and the butter and all the stuff you have to replenish each time are all in the back of the store. You've got to pass everything in the store. But you can't be sure of that in a bookstore, so you've got to get them right away. What is "the casual customer"going to buy?
That's not the way I think about how you arrange things. In our store what we get them with right away is what we think they ought to buy. The first thing you see when you walk in the door is our "recommended" table. What's on that table exclusively are books that someone read in the store and loved. There's a personal recommendation in every one. 25% of what we sold was off that one table.
RW: I remember very clearly when I first discovered Avenue Books, there was a quality in the atmosphere of the store, and the direct personal connections are probably something I must have felt.
BR: And it's a store which is small enough, and had enough people working in it, that there was always someone to talk with you about your purchase. There was never any shortage of people who would want to talk with customers about books. We kind of became known for that. I liked that a lot.
You know, when I'd go into a bookstore, what I enjoyed talking about was books. It wasn't that I required assistance to get something, I just liked talking about books. What do you like? Why? Tell me about it. Is there something I'm unaware of that might be worth taking a look at? Why did you like that? That kind of conversation. It was nice.
In most stores, even in independent bookstores, you can't really do that. The bigger you get, the larger the gap between the staff and the customer. It takes a store of a particular size and intimacy to foster that kind of interaction between the staff and the customer. And I think that is one of the things that distinguishes a small neighborhood shopping district from any other kind. The thing about the small neighborhood shopping district, the thing that is most essential of all is that word, small.
We select books based on two criteria really. One, what do you think the customer is going to want? And what would I really like to sell to them. What do I value? We try to have both things. I don't censor, by any means. I've had some right wing shit in this store that I just find appalling. But I wouldn't not order it. First of all, you need to know what the other guy is thinking. But mostly what we're doing is trying to concentrate on only the stuff we think will sell and that's worth selling. It makes the shopping experience completely different. As I said, it's a much more personal kind. And that's the thing, that when people complain about malls, I think that's at the core of that complaint. That there's no human connection.
RW: You could almost say that one of the features of corporate culture is that lack of human connection. But the substitution the corporation offers is pushed as being adequate. Not only adequate, but desirable. The product that takes care of your needs.
BR: I think the word you use "adequate" - that's a real important word in the whole corporate culture - malls, fast food, and all the rest. Adequate. The quality of the goods need only be "adequate." So adequacy, convenience, is sufficient to satisfy your basic needs, and it will save you time.
Again, how it got sold in the first place is the puzzle. I mean, you can get people trained to do anything. Their minds are going in too many different directions to stop and think about the patterns that get established in their lives. But that's counter to what I was talking about where one stops at the places one loved along one's daily route. This other thing is about there being a parking lot you can pull into and it won't take any time.
RW: Okay. What are our basic needs when you really look into it?
BR: In that context, I meant just those things needed to sustain a life without considering the quality of it. Enough food to keep you going. Enough warmth so that you're not thinking of getting a blanket. Shelter. All those kinds of things. But the other thing is what makes a life a truly rich one? What will satisfy that? Now that is where you extend yourself, your desires - and your critical thinking .
RW: We're talking about meaning here, aren't we? What is necessary for that?
BR: And what's necessary to leave behind the residue that makes a treasured memory, too? What are those things you look back on with fondness? Those are the things that we're talking about with the quality of life, the one's that are memorable.
You don't get that with McDonalds. Now maybe people get it with Barnes & Noble. I don't know. But it seems unlikely, somehow. I think also when you examine the difference of what it feels like to walk down College Ave. as opposed to the experience of walking on Bay St. in Emeryville - or even Fourth St. in Berkeley - because what you're seeing here on College Ave. is really organic. The buildings are not all matched, they're not color-coded. The businesses that have come along and stayed, have stayed because they satisfy some sort of essential purpose of that neighborhood.
RW: Something that is "organic" - meaning something that has appeared in response to deeper layers of our human nature.
BR: Yes. It wasn't "concept."
RW: Bay St. and Fourth St. are things generated from an idea.
BR: Yes. Some of them better than others. Did you know there's an entire housing development in the Bay Area based on the painter Thomas Kincaid's paintings.
RW: I've heard about that. I'm afraid to go and have a look at the place.
BR: I find it to be incredibly cynical. It panders to the best part of our desires and our notions of what would make a good life and it does it in a way that imposes a kind of uniformity that works against it.
Now when Fourth St. was first developed it started out as a design center. There were stores on one block basically where you could find lighting fixtures, windows and doors, a bookstore that had books exclusively on design and building and then thrown in with that mix there was also Abrams, Milliken and Kent, the architectural firm that owned and designed the whole thing. There was a cabinet shop and there were two restaurants - Betty's Ocean View Diner that served breakfast and lunch to the people who worked around there basically, and there was The Fourth St. Grill, which became very Chi-Chi. But initially "Fourth St." was developed around the fact that it was located next to Truitt and White Lumber, an independently owned lumberyard, incidentally. There was this huge trade that went through there of all the construction people.
Abrams' idea was that they're coming down to the lumber yard and we'll sell them all the other things they need, the really fine items you can't get in a lumberyard. It made perfect sense and it was really useful to a lot of the people in construction, which was what I was doing at the time. But as it happens, they got a lot of other people coming down. All the Berkeley yupseouise started coming down. Then you had another group of people you could sell to, and it took a little while before that was understood. But when it was, it was understood in spades. What they wound up with eventually was Crate and Barrel, Restoration Hardware, Z Gallery and like that.
RW: Well what do you think? Is this an inevitable cycle where in the beginning there's a good idea, something good happens and people feel that, and then it goes downhill.
BR: I think absolutely it is. It's a little bit like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Every morning you wake up and the whole life of this town is reinvented. There's no memory. It the case of Fourth St. which had been there for a long time with semi-industrial, light industrial businesses on it and then came an architect's office and then out of the architect's office a few stores that dealt with building and the natural things one connects with architecture, to food, to high-end food, to shopping that surrounds high-end food, to buildings that have a certain look and appeal to mass-market retailers, to a general kind of decline in the feeling that there was initially something unique about the place.
In time people will be looking for something else and a lot of people will move out and the place will fall into decline.
RW: In the context of what we're talking about, this cultural ebb and flow, how does good fiction writing fit into a person's life?
BR: I can tell you the value of fiction the way I use it in my life, the way it comes up in my life - first you look at the individual book you're reading. It's fiction. You're not bound by fact. The situation can be whatever you choose. Reality can either play a major role, or no role whatever. You're allowed to come up with a concept or idea that may express your greatest horror or your most fervent desire. But it's done in a way that allows people who read that book to see it in a way they're never seen it before. I mean a decent piece of fiction is as individual as anything you're going to get. The stories may all have been told, but everybody's slant on the story is his or her own slant. If it isn't, it's going to be a bad book.
Then there's the entire body of literature. I'm not sure everybody cares about that, but those of us who have been intimately involved and interested in literature our entire lives are aware of history in a different way than a lot of people might be. Which is to say, we see in it the history of art as being as important as the history of military conflict.
Why did the Romantic period morph into Realism, Naturalism? The various schools in literature and art and music reflect things that happened in a way that is more illuminating than almost anything else you can look at. The entire opus of literature gives us a window on the way things evolve.
There are reasons why all these things come along that we regret and abhor, but somehow they speak to something, and that's what you need to identify, it seems to me. I mean, I know what I need to make me happy. I know where to go to get what I want, but for a lot of people - I don't know if it's a lack of time or of imagination or a lack of money or whatever it might be - they settle for convenience over sustenance. You know, what is sufficient and what really sustains? I think they're not the same.
But that real sustenance requires a lot of the consumer. It requires that you take a look at the individual items that are going to go into your meal, or the book or the magazine or the newspaper. You have to examine it and bring some critical thinking to bear rather than just taking what is given to you.
RW: It occurs to me that it's meaningful - maybe always meaningful - to hear another person's story if it's the real story. Do you find that encouraging?
BR: I'll tell you what I find encouraging, and this just occurred to me. When a change in the neighborhood like this happens. When a store closes, it's jarring to a lot of people. For a moment at least, it wakes people up. There's a complacency that is halted for a minute and it's replaced with a realization that something is happening here, something that might have been avoidable. If it was something worth sustaining, why didn't we save it? What happened there?
Because it isn't just me. I accept my fair share of the responsibility for the fact that my business failed. I mean, it was my business. It could have been run better. I'm not sure exactly how. I'm not sure how I could have done that. But somehow at the end of the day of this bookstore, there are people asking why did this happen? And "I really wish it hadn't."
That book up front is full of the written comments of customers, many of whom really did support the store. There's one in there I remember from a 25 year-old girl who's lived in the neighborhood her whole life. She tells the story of how when she was nine years old she ran away from home to Avenue Books. She sat back in the kids' section and read for two or three hours, you know, while imagining her mother was searching frantically for her. And then after a few hours, her mother calmly came down to the store and said, "It's time to come home."
This was the place that was her safe haven, her refuge in a moment when she needed to get away. I can't imagine something that would have pleased me more than the notion of a kid running away from home and who felt comfortable and safe coming in here. To think that you could have created something, consciously created something, that would be that to a kid, you would have felt like some kind of genius. It's just great.
RW: You've brought something to people.
BR: I like to think so. I think that community service is something that people don't think about. We think about self-interest as being a great motivator, but the things that are really important to us in the long run are the things we do to make the place we live in a better, richer place. There is such a payback when you're located in a neighborhood like this and you see the same people walking up and down the street and you're in a position to do something for them, give them something that might mean something to them. You're in a position to encourage children who are beginning to learn how to read, to enjoy that process and to be able to build on that later on. You're in a position to be able to donate to your schools fund-raising drive or something. You can do all those things right here in your own community. And people come in and ask you for it. There's an actual interchange that goes on between the local business and the community that is very human and very direct and that has a measurable effect. You develop relationships with people that are so rewarding. They're so rewarding, Richard.