The state of Berkeley bookstores: Shakespeare & Company

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This is the beginning of a series highlighting independent bookstores located near the Berkeley campus. 

Berkeley — hometown of hippies, foodies, counterculturalists and revolutionaries — has become one of the last gleaming centers of independent bookstores in the Bay Area.

In recent years, independent bookstores have transitioned from warehouses of writing to experimental laboratories of learning. And the stakes could not be higher. In the digital era, online monoliths such as Amazon have pushed brick-and-mortar bookstores, chain and independent alike, to the brink. For the vast majority, an unwillingness to respond to changing times has led to Darwinian consequences: extinction. But for the mighty minority, that tenacious species still clinging to survival, evolution has necessitated rethinking what it means to sell books.

Today, bookstores no longer can exist simply as a means of crossing off items on a shopping list when two-minute buyers can click “add to cart.”

The solution? Bookstores must become commodities. Visiting a bookstore must become akin to making a trip to the theater, meandering among the cages of a zoo or venturing to an open mic on a Tuesday night. And independent bookstores — unlike chains — have the flexibility to do so. They must become places to encounter books as never before.

Four blocks south of Bancroft and Telegraph stands Shakespeare & Company, a hole-in-the-wall draped with a brightly plumed phoenix mural.

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The wall mural outside Shakespeare & Company depicts a colorful phoenix. A small sailboat rides its feathers like a wave, leading to a collection of open-faced books.

“The walls used to be a mess,” scoffs Stephanie Vela, rolling up her sleeves to reveal tattoo-printed arms. Vela, burrito in hand, is wrapping up a long day of work. Recently hired as Shakespeare & Company’s business manager, she has worked at the book scene since 1978.

Her latest project, an embattled effort to update the shop’s facade, resulted in a mural that has everyone on Telegraph talking. The mural — funded by the nonprofit telegraphberkeley.org — is one of Vela’s many moves to keep Shakespeare & Company afloat.

“It wasn’t just for us,” Vela explains, motioning toward the mural. “It was for the entire community.”

So who comes here? College students, yes. But mainly autodidacts. Berkeley is a city in many ways shaped by a world-class university. “Even street people have Ph.D.s,” Vela chuckles.

Casual conversation at the cashier’s desk is to be witnessed with caution. Spirited debate — primarily about metaphysics, to Vela’s surprise — has come to characterize Shakespeare’s as a hub of free thinking. And as a result, Vela’s staff has grown to become more than just archivists. They have become vital cogs in the great conversations that echo amid the aisles.

“When I hire people, I look for artistic skills,” she says emphatically, “I want people to work with me.” Together, this hand-picked team forms a sort of literary Avengers, on a mission to satisfy Berkeley’s bookish desires. “I couldn’t care less what’s on Amazon or the New York Times bestseller list,” Vela laughs as she carefully shelves a signed first edition of Vonnegut’s “Jailbird.” “This is Berkeley. I want to know what people are talking about here.”

Vela sits atop a small army of book scouts trained to scour Northern California for the best deals for her customers. From exclusive private collections to weekend-only garage sales, the relentless efforts on behalf of Shakespeare’s scouts have translated into a curious collection of rare books.

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A selection of rare books at Shakespeare & Company

Behind two sliding glass doors, a 150-year-old copy of “Through the Looking Glass” sits next to a pair of Kerouac originals. Underneath overhead shelves flooded with Ansel Adams and children’s books arranged between crisscrossing cabinets, for a brief moment it seems as if the walls are challenging visitors to uncover their secrets. “This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod,” they seem to whisper, echoing “The Tempest.”

And so Shakespeare & Company treads, navigating through the storm of an industry in transition, a maze that, once solved, will transform bookstores from just an errand to an experience.

Photos courtesy of Michael Burton. 

Contact Alex Mabanta and Sabrina Werts at [email protected]

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