Local bookstore closes doors to customers after over 40 years of business

With an abundance of books still lining each shelf and filling boxes scattered around the shop, Serendipity Books in West Berkeley officially closed its doors to customers Sept. 3, following the death of founder Peter Howard.

Howard died of pancreatic cancer in March. Since then, his two daughters have been overseeing the store — located at 1201 University Ave. — though his daughter Kerry Dahm said they “don’t know the business.”

Dahm said she now plans to auction off the collection of books and sell the property, although there is no potential buyer yet and no timeline has been set in place.

“My father was the essence of the bookstore, and it’s really not possible without him. We have our own lives, and neither of us want to be book dealers,” Dahm said, adding that both she and her sister are nurses in the Bay Area.

Despite the inherent difficulty for independent bookstores to stay afloat facing competition from chains and the rise of internet sales, Dahm said the cause of Serendipity Books’ closing is solely the death of Howard and that no other factors played in.

“His business is perfectly viable, but he just failed to train a successor,” Dahm said. “The internet is out there, but I don’t think that really affected us. We got the right books to the right people.”

The bookstore originally opened on Shattuck Avenue in 1967 and later moved to its current location on University Avenue in 1986. There has been speculation of the store closing for several years — ever since Howard’s health began deteriorating — but no one stepped forward to take over the business.

John Wong, a book clerk at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, called Serendipity Books’ closing a loss. Wong said he met Howard at Serendipity Books over 30 years ago.

“Any bookstore closing is a little bit of a loss to the world of bookshops,” he said. “It’s better to have more bookshops for many reasons. It’s a sign of a knowledgeable culture.”

According to Wong, Howard would judge how much customers “deserved” books, and he would often give discounts to those who appreciated the books or could not easily afford them. However, if Howard did not like a customer, he would not sell to them and would even take the book out of the customer’s hands, Wong said.

“His method was very much his own,” Wong said. “He wasn’t in retail for the retail aspect at all. He enjoyed books.”

UC Berkeley senior Alison Lowrie, who works at Shakespeare and Co. Books on Telegraph, said she was “heartbroken” to hear of Serendipity Books’ closing.

As a customer of Serendipity Books for about seven years, Lowrie said one of her best experiences was when, after looking “in every bookstore in the West Coast” for a certain book, Howard went through four double-stacked shelves to find it. He then sold it to Lowrie 60 percent off the marked price, she said.

“A lot of times I’ve gone in there, I’ve spent an hour spending time just talking to employees” Lowrie said. “It feels like a friend has died.”

Yet while Wong recognizes the closing as a loss to Berkeley, he said it is also one less player competing for libraries.

“The most immediate impact it’s going to have for our store is we’ll probably get offers for books that he’d get offered first,” Wong said. “(Howard) was a major player in large libraries, both private and institutional.”

Recognizing the impact of Serendipity Books’ closing, Dahm said she is sorry to the community.

“I don’t think as a child you appreciate anything your parents are doing, but I’ve come to appreciate it more,” Dahm said. “My dad will not be forgotten.”

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  • I was in the bookshop when the two sisters were there talking about the closing and selling of the books. It was very sad I felt like I was in a Chechov play Cherry Orchard except it was the Book Orchard>>:(

  • Miguelito

    I always stop by Serendipity when I am in the Bay area from my home in Washington State. There’s really nothing like it on the West Coast.  I stopped by today to learn the sad news of the passing of an era.  Early fall leaves are beginning to gather at the door like customers and books trying to get in…