The state of Berkeley bookstores: University Press Books

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Michael Burton/Courtesy

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

Midway between the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph and the Recreational Sports Facility, University Press Books waits. Over the course of 40 years, Cal students and Berkeley residents alike have walked past the store, disregarding its presence. But through its doors is an oasis for bibliophiles.

Located in a city as brainy as Berkeley, University Press Books should be succeeding. The store is a treasury of texts. Flooding the shelves, glossy hardcovers tower over haiku folios and academic journals. And yet, the store is imperiled.

“Within a given year, we might only sell three or four copies of the same title,” explains Sorayya Carr, the store’s manager of operations.

University Press Books, one of the last scholarly book stores in the country, holds a comprehensive assortment of tomes by intellectuals ranging from Foucault to Butler to Chomsky. The store prides itself on its vast stock of university press publications from Oxford, Harvard and the University of California.

But academic books, by virtue of narrow readership and heavy prices, have translated into pitiful returns on profit. “We are hanging on by our fingertips,” Sorayya says.

Battered but not out, the store isn’t going down without a fight. Embarking on a series of transformations to better meet its bottom line, evidence of change is everywhere.

At the store’s front, a collection of e-readers replaces a display of analyses on Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” T-shirts with classic book jackets hang from a clothesline above their paperback cousins.

University Press Books has even become an alternative to the Cal Student Store. Students are often found at the front desk, purchasing textbooks for subjects ranging from East Asian studies to quantum physics. University Press Books has aggressively remade itself into a marketplace for budding scholars.

And the innovation doesn’t end there.

“This bookstore is a place where things happen,” says William McClung, co-founder of University Press Books. “We want this store to be a place of social and intellectual interaction.”

Weaving through a throng of students, McClung makes his way to the back of the store. He points at a massive beechwood centerpiece.

William McClung and Vita Wells, Berkeley artist, sit at the great table.

“This is the great table. We have slow reading dinners around this table,” McClung says proudly, tapping his fingers against its warm surface, “We invite people to read what they love, and they all come together.”

Phyllis Schafer, a retired bookbinder, and Peter Burghardt, University Press Book’s events and program manager, host the monthly gatherings around the great table. Slow reading dinners, a banquet catered by Musical Offering Cafe, invite all to congregate over a common passion for books. Between a beet-dressing tossed salad, rose wine and an artisanal pizza embellished with kalamata olives, diners discuss their most-loved stories at length, often moved to reflect on their own lives and the intangible human condition.

“Ruth, would you be willing to begin?” prompts Phyllis at a recent meeting, eyeing the text resting beneath her thin fingers.

Ruth, an author, gingerly flips the pages of her book, falling on “The Silence that is not there and the Silence that is”  — a prose poem by longtime naturalist Diane Ackerman. As she begins to read, the others listen as if in prayer.

“There are many forms of silence,” Ruth chants, “The silence of neurons sparkling underneath an electron microscope. The silence of thick, furry oceans. The silence of ‘B’ in the word doubt.”

She finishes. The group — composed of graduate students, retirees and young professionals — drinks in a quiet calm. The atmosphere is serene, magical.

One by one, stories on silence emerge. A meditation on growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A trek to the ruins of an ancient empire. The death of a national hero. A lonely walk underneath a starry night. A granddaughter trying to connect to her distant grandmother but lost between layers of translation.

Over plates of raspberry-glazed bread pudding and beneath a flock of airborne books hanging from translucent lines, diners turn the solitary affair of reading into a community-building experience. In the soft glow of the room, a fervent warmth is ignited. Eyes, some of which have seen through the centuries, sparkle.

Airborne books of Vita Well’s artistic endeavor “Flights of Mind.”

“Why is our logo ‘Ten Thousand Minds on Fire’?” McClung asks with a toothy grin.

“Because when we read together, we set our minds on fire.”

When the dialogue dies down and the dishes are put away, the guests take a moment to celebrate interconnectivity. For a store that once catered exclusively to the academic elite, change has democratized the University Press Book’s character and widened its future.

“This is more than a bookstore,” McClung says, fingers caressing the table’s edge. “We are a place to be discovered.”

Image Source: Photos courtesy of Vita Wells

Contact Sabrina Werts and Alex Mabanta at [email protected]