Panel event will celebrate book store opening
By Lou Fancher
It's hard for human nature to change, but the nature of a city has no such barrier.
In prosperous cities, large corporations construct skyscrapers -- and large recessions leave those company towers empty and abandoned.
Developers fill a city with condos and apartments, but inadequate parking can turn their triumphs into a tangle of traffic. Without protection, urban art and artistic communities are wiped out by the onslaught of tech-hungry commerce and high rents.
A city like Berkeley, therefore, has something valuable to preserve, according to Heyday Books founder and longtime resident Malcolm Margolin.
He says a dinner conversation sparked the idea of inviting friends to discuss the city's values and culture in a free, public panel at 7 p.m. Monday as part of Books Inc.'s grand opening celebrations at its new northside location at 1491 Shattuck Ave.
"It came up because I was auctioned off for a benefit for Berkeley Public Library," Margolin says. "People paid to have dinner with me and the talk was about the 'Manhattanization' of Berkeley. I love Manhattan so I wasn't entirely opposed to it. It has economic benefit, freshening, renaissance, but at the same time, it has costs."
For people like Margolin and the panel guests -- which include Mayor Tom Bates, state Sen. Loni Hancock, author and environmental activist Kenneth Brower, poet Robert Hass and others -- low-cost housing, a family-friendly environment, and intellectual and social experimentation were attributes that originally attracted them to Berkeley.
"Unless we think of how to embed these things in Berkeley, the city will be in the hands of outside ownership," Margolin says. "I don't want to stop progress, but I want some way of defining these values and to know the various institutions we need to retain. Berkeley presents theatrical possibilities embedded in intellectualism. Without that intellectualism, it becomes stagy and stupid. It becomes a freak show."
Independent bookstores would likely be high on Margolin's retainer list. Books Inc. manager Schyler Baker says the jump from Fourth Street to the North Berkeley space formerly occupied by Black Oak Books (which closed in 2008) is aimed deliberately at long-term survival.
He says Book Inc.'s former location was "a big fun destination for shopping," but didn't attract consistent foot traffic.
And the new store's larger footprint allows for increased ease for presenting events.
Even with the Internet becoming "the loudest voice," Schyler says books continue to play a vital role. Further, live conversations between people -- store clerk to customer, reader to reader, panel member to audience, or other matchups -- offer depth, accountability, expertise, and a broader, historical or international perspective.
"The Internet is great for hearing about stuff initially,"Schyler says, "but books can be valuable when we seek to really learn." He gives an example: the national discussion on immigration policy.
"You can read a lot online, but (reading) 'The Devil's Highway' by Luis Urrea. which puts you in the shoes of people crossing the border and border patrols, can help form a deeper understanding of a complicated issue."
Margolin says Berkeley has always been "an assemblage of separate neighborhoods," but the "central core" has a strong presence and influence. He uses the environmental movement to illustrate his position, citing the Sierra Club, the backpacking industry and the UC Berkeley Zoology Department as local examples that influenced the world.
"We're tracing it back to the art: The nature worship that was going on in architecture, dance, music, poetry, books," he said. "It was based on beauty, not just the university.
"There's a value and reputation that at its worst irritates me and at its best is creativity. It's that 'Berzerkley-ism.' A place needs that kind of nonconventional thinking."
Schyler agrees that Berkeley neighborhoods are "distinctive' and in many ways, a bookstore reflects the community's varied interests.
He says demands for children's picture books have been on the uptick most recently.
"I think that's because e-readers fail to capture the special parts of the children's picture book reading experience. It's about a big, colorful book pulling you in. Opening a new book and seeing what's inside, turning the pages, being with your family and reading together — these are all part of a powerful experience."
Margolin expects that a similar, immersive conversation led by a panel of people who are undeniably passionate about their city offers the same promise of connectivity.
"Places like Ozzie's in Elmwood and other establishments named after their founders and owners once provided continuity," he says.
"I invited my friends; people from whom I wanted to hear. It wasn't scientific, it was just about Berkeley."