Books and Politics

WHEN I saw Fred Cody one fateful day in 1969, the tear gas still hung in the air and the police were ready for vengeance. Tens of thousands of people had seized the streets of Berkeley, Calif., in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration, and police from surrounding cities had converged on the city. Cody was trying to mediate between the two sides.

He wasn't successful that day during the People's Park rebellion, but that didn't stop him from trying to bring the Berkeley community together. Businessman and political activist Cody, who died in 1983, is fondly remembered by a generation of residents.

Now his wife and bookstore cofounder, Pat Cody, has produced "Cody's Books: The Life and Times of a Berkeley Bookstore, 1956-1977," a narrative compilation of their letters, interviews, and magazine articles. The book chronicles the changing political mores of Berkeley, describes the rise of the paperback-book trade, and vividly relates the travails of owning a small business.

Fred Cody had a gift for descriptive and barbed writing. In a 1960 letter, he fumed about the building of the University of California (UC) student union, whose bookstore would directly compete with his. Cody describes the nondescript building as typical of "Soviet architectural genius. Indeed, it has no grace, no gaiety, none of the buoyancy you associate with youth and the longer I look at it the more I feel that the architects must have designed it originally as a recreation center for the executives of the Shell Oil Company."

In 1956 the Codys opened a 16-by-29-foot store north of the UC campus with a loan of $4,000. They sold only paperbacks at a time when large-bookstore owners sniffed at such low-class offerings. The Codys' business slowly grew, and in 1965 they opened a larger, airy store on Telegraph Avenue.

They were among the first to sell art calendars and to sponsor traveling writers on book tours. When feminist author Anais Nin spoke at Cody's in 1967, Fred Cody writes that "it seemed entirely natural that [poet] Lawrence Ferlinghetti should advance with a bucket, raise it above the small figure, and shower down on her a cascade of red rose petals. She hardly glanced toward him as she went on talking, not bothering to brush away the stray petals that clung to her hair and lingered on her shoulder."

The Codys combined their passion for books with an equally strong passion for politics. They helped found the Berkeley Free Clinic, a church- and community-sponsored organization that gave free medical care to low-income people. Police intentionally lobbed tear gas into Cody's Books during the 1969 People's Park demonstrations, because Free Clinic medics were treating injured people inside the store.

The Codys sold their store in 1977, tired of the daily grind of running a small business. In a telephone interview, Pat Cody says it would be much harder to start a bookstore today. "There are so many large chain bookstores," she says. "And TV plays a much bigger role in people's lives."

As Fred Cody writes, opening a bookstore "seems to many people just about as adventurous a way of life as anything they can think of. Individualism ... has not died in America - it only tends now to take different forms."

"Cody's Books" has a few flaws. The narrative of the early years plods along rather slowly. The quotations from miscellaneous famous people about books that begin each chapter serve no purpose. But overall, "Cody's Books" is as good a read as you'll get about an exciting era and a passionate business.

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