Eastwind Books: A unique space empowering Berkeley’s Asian American literary community

Yijian Shan/Staff

Nestled between restaurants and tea houses along a stretch of University Avenue, Eastwind Books of Berkeley can be easy to miss amid the flow of pedestrians and the bustle of its adjacent bus stop. But if one happens to glimpse the dark crimson awning hanging above, embellished with a classic Chinese ink seal design, they may find their eyes lingering on what lies beneath. The eclectic window display showcases Asian American bestsellers, pairing short story collections by Viet Thanh Nguyen with the exclamatory, self-explanatory title “Let’s Make Ramen!: A Comic Book Cookbook.” 

The wooden shelf compartments in its side window, too small for books, instead house a collection of ceramics and delicate novelty knick-knacks. Nowhere does it read that bookstores must sell books exclusively — if the check-out areas of Barnes and Noble are any indication, these brick-and-mortar establishments have long since expanded beyond merely peddling paperbacks and hardcovers. Yet according to owner Harvey Dong, Eastwind Books’ uniquely curated collection of volumes is still its greatest source of pride. 

Harvey Dong and Bea Dong, owners. Photo by Anna Ho, Senior Staff

Step inside, and one will find shelves upon shelves of multidisciplinary tomes spanning genres, topics and renown. A shelf below Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is Lac Su’s “I Love Yous are for White People: A Memoir.” Celeste Ng and Kevin Kwan sit alongside the nonfiction accounts of Juanita Tamayo Lott’s “Golden Children: Legacy of Ethnic Studies, SF State. A Memoir.” Two steps away from seminal authors in Asian American critical theory and history — Helen Zia, Clement Lai, Janet Stickmon and Philip Choy — sits a robust collection of children’s picture books, complete with a hand puppet manual featuring a knitted red and gold dragon. Among it all is Dong, meandering between shelves, pulling volumes down and introducing their authors and editors as though speaking about old friends. 

What renders the store unique among myriad independent bookstores in Berkeley — or even booksellers in general — is its niche focus. 

 “If you go to Barnes and Noble and their section on Asian American fiction, you’re not going to see a concentration like this,” Dong said. 

What renders the store unique among myriad independent bookstores in Berkeley — or even booksellers in general — is its niche focus. 

Alongside UC Berkeley students, he counts parents, local and visiting professors, and a librarian of Native American studies from the Central Valley among store regulars. According to the latter, it makes for a convenient one-stop shop. 

In exploring known canons as well as expanding them, Eastwind Books does its part in serving as a distributor and occasional publisher for local Asian American authors. Their editorial team is a tiny operation, with Dong or his staff often doing the proofs for pages themselves. According to the website, it has published eight titles, including an anthology on the Pilipinx American experience lead edited by Oakland activist Evangeline Canonizado Buell: “Beyond Lumpia, Pansit and Seven Manangs Wild.” 

“There’s a need to provide a publishing avenue for groups that are underrepresented,” Dong said in explaining the store’s editorial reasoning. “We need to get particular kinds of information out there.” 

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The store’s mission of speaking truth, or indeed truthful narratives, to empower stems from Dong’s background. As a Third World Liberation Front activist 50 years ago, he campaigned to establish ethnic studies as an academic major as well as implement greater educational directives for people of color alongside students from San Francisco State University. He and his wife of 35 years, Bea, are both UC Berkeley graduates. She is a triumphant 1994 degree-holder from UC Berkeley’s brand-new ethnic studies department; he earned his doctorate in ethnic studies in 2002, and now teaches and lectures in the department on Chinese American history and Asian American literature. The two bought the store in 1996 and transformed it from a primarily Chinese-language bookseller to one much more interested in how American culture meshes with members of the East Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander diasporas. 

A selection of the bookstore collection. Photo by Anna Ho, Senior Staff

 

In an age when online retailers undercut the bookstore’s Chinese textbook and reader sales, Eastwind Books registered as a nonprofit in 2018 in order to continue operations. In addition to regular author readings, it collaborates with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center to host symposiums concerned with storytelling amid modern political crises. Much of these initiatives center around inspiring interest in narratives that are neglected or stereotyped as the cycle of electoral politics churns on. 

The political aspect can also be intensely personal. The store’s role as a gathering place is fulfilled not only by purveyors of information, but also by those hungry for pieces of their own intangible cultures.

The political aspect can also be intensely personal. The store’s role as a gathering place is fulfilled not only by purveyors of information, but also by those hungry for pieces of their own intangible cultures. Dong is heartened when the children of immigrants, one or several generations apart from their families’ westward journey, visit the store as a place where they can learn about personal histories. His own family’s past can be found on the shelves in black-and-white photos featuring his grandmother and father in Philip Choy’s “Canton Footprints: Sacramento’s Chinese Legacy” and in an ash green pottery vase that used to sit in his grandfather’s herbalist shop window.

“(We bring in) topics that can get people engaged more in dialogue and discussion that could tie history to the present,” Dong said. “The knowledge of what happened, historically, gets people to think more about their family backgrounds. It becomes more real, and it encourages people to tell their own stories and histories.”

Contact Anna Ho at at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anna_j_ho.