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Archive for June, 2008

Triopticon

TriopsMy son and I biked down to the great East Bay Vivarium reptile store in Berkeley the other day. Our snake, Snakey, was out of mice. (We feed her frozen mice, after thawing them out. Naturally, we keep these mice cubes [if you will] in the freezer — so everything in the freezer tends to end up tasting like mice. Hey, wanna come over to our place for sherbert?!) On the counter, front and center, was a tiny tank holding some smallish, swimming creatures that looked kind of like horseshoe crabs; a sign informed us that these were triops.

Now, as it happens, that very morning we’d been listening to a song called “Triops Has Three Eyes,” from They Might Be Giants‘ terrific “children’s” album Here Come the 123s. (I put “children’s” in quotes because — like, say, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy — it’s rockingly swell for adults as well as the ostensible target audience of small fry.) So when we learned that triops eggs were, in fact, for sale, my son and I had little choice but to buy a package — which, in flowery writing, promised the purchaser a virtual voyage back to prehistory, when these plucky creatures swam alongside (or, at least, near) dinosaurs.

We set up a jar of spring water (the instructions were clear that tap water was verboten), plopped in the eggs, and waited for the magic to happen. At which point the phone rang — it was my wife telling me that Cody’s Books had closed, suddenly and forever. This was a huge shock. Cody’s is a Berkeley institution, going back 52 years. A couple of years ago their original, huge-ish Telegraph Avenue store shut down, but they still had a place on Fourth Street — smaller than the first store, but quite sufficient, and with a world-class children’s-book section. Then, just a few months ago, they announced that their lease on Fourth Street had been raised so exorbitantly that they had to move — and, coincidentally, where they moved to was downtown Berkeley, just a few minutes’ walk from where we live! My wife and son and I were thrilled: like many other Cody’s fans, we rushed into the new place as soon as their doors were open, vowing to support them whole-heartedly. And when my wife gave me not one but two Cody’s gift certificates (for my birthday and Father’s Day), I plotted and planned to make sure I honored her generosity, and my affection for Cody’s, by picking only books that I suspected could change my life.

I bought the first, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, the day before — as it turned out — Cody’s closed for good. It was a typical Cody’s experience: When I strolled into the store, I had only a vague recollection of either the author or title of this book, about which I’d read in the New York Review of Books about a year ago. So I’m standing in the middle of the store, thinking about asking one of the staff for help, when my eye happens to alight on … the very book I wanted! It was on a table of new paperbacks. And here’s why I love independent bookstores so much: Someone had thought to put The Lost there, in a prime display slot, because he or she knew that a) it was a cool book and b) their regular customers were likely to find it of interest.

When I was a child my father had a scary number of entities to which he owed money: Macy’s, Gimbel’s, S. Klein’s, Alexander’s, May’s — and those were just the department stores! His attitude about credit cards seemed to be that if a company was silly enough to issue one to him, it was only fair and proper that he ring up a huge, un-payable tab. But there was one exception, and he was very strict about this: his running charge account at the New Yorker Bookstore. This was a wonderful place, with an enormous and varied inventory spread over two floors on West 89th Street in Manhattan. We’d go in there, my father and I, and I knew that we wouldn’t be leaving for hours. Dad would go into, say, the religion section and start leafing thoughtfully — slowly — through some of the books that had been set out for display. Then he’d work his way into the volumes crammed in on the shelves above. Give him at least an hour an a half to make his way through religion. And God forbid he should go into the Marxism section — we’d be there for the rest of the night!

GutenbergBut I loved it! I discovered so many books in their children’s section: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, Alfred Hitchcock Introduces … The Three Investigators, and the series of fairy-tale books that came in different colors: The Red Fairy Tale Book, The Purple … and so on. The clerks at the New Yorker tended towards the dour, or even gruff: like the waiters at the Famous Deli, a few blocks away, they expressed their love for the customer through a kind of rarefied rudeness. But my father made clear that on any day, whether I was with him or not, I could walk into the New Yorker Bookshop and buy whatever book I wanted — and all I had to tell them was to put it on Paul Kornbluth’s tab, and that would be that. Because this was the one tab that Dad always paid; in fact, he claimed to be their oldest customer. And I used that charge account frequently (though not extravagantly). I’d pick my book and hand it to the solemn clerk, tell him to charge it to my dad’s account, and watch him open the old looseleaf binder, turn the pages till he got to my father’s, and — in pencil — write in the new amount. And in this way I confirmed my membership in a culture, stretching back at least as far as Gutenberg.

I suspect the New Yorker isn’t there anymore (I’m afraid to look!). And I know that time and technology march on: it’s hecksa-easy to buy stuff on Amazon, and people like me do most of our reading online these days, and “serious” literature is more and more the province of a diminishing peak of pointy-headed geeks. But the abruptness of Cody’s demise! Poof! One day it was open, taking orders for books and smiling and such, and the next day there was a sign on the door saying “CLOSED” and a hasty, information-challenged message on their website, headlined “THE END.” No information on how we can redeem our gift certificates, or on whether we’ll be able to pick up the books we ordered. It feels like a death — a cultural, community-wide death — with no means for the bereaved to grieve (at least for now).

In recent years Cody’s was sold by its longtime owner to a businessman who loved the store and seemed determined to keep it going. That the business turned out to be unsustainable I can accept; but that the public (and, I’m guessing, much of the staff) has been treated so shabbily I find very hard to take. There are still, thank God, great independent bookstores in our neighborhood, like Black Oak; and there is, yes, our marvelous public library. But this loss is really tough: a piece of our collective heart has been ripped out.

Our triops eggs, we are told, have remained in a state of suspended animation for years. Now, released into their new, spring-watery home, they are coming back to life. Today is Day 3, and so far three triops (a “nona-ops”?) have hatched; even since yesterday, they’ve grown considerably. Perhaps with their three (apparent) eyes they can peer into a future in which independent bookstores will once again flourish. Till then our task may be to keep the memory of that world intact, even as we make ourselves inconspicuous by playing Nintendo (“Monkeyball” rules!) and watching reality shows. As the song says, triops has three eyes — and one of them can spy our pain, and our fragile hopes.