Literary Long Weekend: East (San Francisco) Bay
Priced-Out Into a Bookstore Paradise
A funny thing happens when you move to the San Francisco Bay Area. If you’re like me, upon my arrival nine years ago, you spend many hours looking for an affordable place to live. Or, perhaps you lived reasonably within your means for a few years, only one day to receive notice that your means no longer met the rentable end. Having neither very much money nor the inclination to sleep in a cupboard, you retreat to Oakland.
At first you’re a little disappointed. San Francisco: people all over the world know and visit it. It’s vibrant and happening. It’s an easy place to fall in love with. It doesn’t take very long, though, to see that for all its many changes, there is a certain unrivaled (and largely unknown outside the area) funk and diversity to the East Bay that even San Francisco can’t quite match. A kind of odd parochialism may even set in, where just as you rarely imagined venturing over the Bay Bridge before you moved, now you rarely venture back. Something similar may happen, too, should you visit us on your next Literary Long Weekend. There is so much happening between Berkeley and Oakland alone that you may completely forget your cousin asked for a postcard from City Lights in San Francisco.
For the sake of this piece, I decided to dust off my trusty Linus bicycle and play resident tour-guide of the literary scene in the East Bay. I suffered a few near misses; a full-fledged hit; untold curse words, from and directed at me; and generally got sweatier than you think you might expect in our perpetual jacket-weather. It was also fun as hell, and reminded me why for all my gripes about rents now increasing on this side of the Bay, I love it so much.
Downtown Oakland has in the past few years developed a very quirky literary scene, which is reflected in a couple of its new annual events, the Oakland Book Festival and the Beast Crawl. I am regularly amazed at how casually intelligent and creative Oakland is, and both these events are delightfully non-corporate platforms for both. Neither, however, are occurring this particular weekend, so onward we pedal.
We start our tour at Bookmark Bookstore (721 Washington Street). The Bookmark sometimes feels like a secret you want to keep, but realize it’s best for everybody that you don’t. Managed by the Friends of the Oakland Public Library, it helps raise money for literacy programs, reading campaigns, and in general helps out a library system doing amazing work responding to (and despite its own) great financial need. These are the literary Titans of the East Bay, and theirs is quietly one of the great used bookstores for discovering things you didn’t know you needed (priced at dollar amounts you’ve lost in couches).
From there, it’s just a few blocks down Broadway to one of the new kids on the block, E.M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore (410 13th
Possible refueling pit-stops: Modern Coffee, conveniently located right across from E. M. Wolfman and Awaken Cafe will keep you caffeinated enough to dodge morning traffic and potholes.
Heading north on Telegraph Avenue, we have one more stop downtown. This strip is now dubbed Uptown, and it used to be ground-zero for Oakland’s gentrification battles (i.e., before the developers won). Don’t get me wrong: the food in a lot of the cafes is great; the beer is excellent; and the gorgeous Fox Theater is one of the finest music venues I’ve ever stepped foot in. All of this makes the anachronism that is Bibliomania (1816 Telegraph) so appealing. Daryl and Jean Van Fleet are passionate about their stock, and though the mix of long out-of-print political ‘zines and tracts, treatises on anarchism and the occult, coffee-table books about 1950s London, gigantic tomes on labor and military history, etc. may appear random, they can talk to you about it all. We need places like Bibliomania, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves that we have too few.
You may also realize at this point that you need a drink, and are keen to dig into that book on Native American iconography you just bought. If so, local favorite Cafe Van Kleef is right across the street, and they will mix you up something nice. If you’re hungry, Burrito Express is a few lights north, after which you will never willingly again darken the door of a Chipotle.
Temescal and Rockridge
In the nearby Temescal neighborhood, the gentrification battles lost in Uptown continue. Depending on who you ask, the area in the past ten years has either undergone a renaissance or been wrecked. What you can get: artisanally-churned ice cream, a straight-razor haircut, jeans, a 1,000-calorie chicken sandwich, oh . . . and, and how could I forget, anarchy! Ok, the Omni Commons (4799 Shattuck) isn’t completely anarchic, but what is? What it is, though, is an inspiring, kind of bewildering (because it somehow works!) experiment in collectivism. The eight collectives that work here range from a DIY hacker space, to political activists like Food Not Bombs and Global Women’s Strike, to the local publisher, Timeless Infinite Light. One of their most active groups is a key element to the semi-underground literary scene that Oakland does so well: the Bay Area Public School. Want to discuss Dante’s Inferno in Italian? There’s a class for that. Believe that Deleuze can only be properly understood when read aloud? There’s a group for that. Basically, if you will or want it, there can be a class for it. The Omni also regularly hosts phenomenal readings. My personal favorite: when the likes of Maggie Nelson, Bernadette Meyer and Eileen Myles came to discuss the poetry of Alice Notley. Yeah, that was a good weekend.
You can round off your first day at my daily haunt, Diesel Bookstore (5433 College Avenue). Though it is the most conventional of the stores we’ve visited so far, I enjoy the sometimes awkward two-step we do between being commercialism and art. Part of our clientele want their A-list fiction, after all, and we happily sell it to them. But this is Oakland, and another part want to encounter something completely new to them. For the past 25 years, Diesel has succeeded because it figures out ways to do both. In addition to its strong support for independent and small presses, promoting them with as much regard as they do Penguin-Random House and the like, on any given Friday night they’re bound to have an event you weren’t expecting. Bluegrass music? Yup. Public discussion about Stella Gibbons with Malory Ortberg? Done that. Public forum on Kendrick Lamar’s latest album. Of course! Next year, we’re thinking about literary movies. Anybody up for a viewing of Wise Blood?
Get your day off to a healthy or gluttonous start (you choose!) at the Grand Lake Farmers Market. It can get crowded very quickly, but the quality of the produce and cheese is so high you won’t notice. It’s also close to the ever-picturesque Lake Merritt. Ponder what makes people want to jog, as they race by you. But don’t wander too far. A few blocks north you’ll find East Bay institution since 1973, Walden Pond Books. The rule-of-thumb here is simple: if you see what you want, buy it. The turn-over is very quick, and you can’t be guaranteed it’ll be there after brunch at Grand Lake Kitchen.
From here, stretch your calves and hamstrings . . . we have a hill to climb! Much may surprise you about Piedmont Avenue. First, Piedmont is somehow its own town, tucked within the bounds of an already pretty small town. Second, and most important for our purposes, is that you’ll find a bookshop at nearly every block of the shopping district. The three obvious players are each interesting in their own right, and are on the main drag itself: Owl & Company Bookshop (3941 Piedmont Avenue), Spectator Bookstore (4163 Piedmont Avenue), and Black Swan (4236 Piedmont Avenue). But don’t forget to look down the side streets. On Glen Avenue, you’ll find possibly the best of the bunch, Book Zoo, as well as my favorite specialty magazine shop in the Bay Area, Issues.
And right when you think there could not possibly be another stop, you discover Dr. Comics & Mr. Games (4014 Piedmont Avenue). At this point, having filled your bag with so many books, you might want to eat that wheel of cheese you bought at the Farmer’s Market earlier. Pedal a few blocks up Piedmont Avenue to the Mountain View Cemetery, ascend to the highest point, and get your daily dairy alongside a magnificent view.
One mile away, we have a date with one of the true treasures of Oakland, Marcus Book Store (3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way). For over 50 years now, they have been heightening the consciousness and creativity of the Bay Area’s Black community, and taken the nation as a whole to task for its subtle and not-so-subtle racism. Defiantly militant, they have paid bail for protesters, hosted untold civic meetings and author readings, and continue to be a moral conscience even after the closure of their San Francisco location. Raise your fist to salute them… and buy something while you’re there, too.
For your evening refreshment and relaxation, with a significant dash of old-school punk rock, head south down Martin Luther King, Jr. a few blocks. I’ll meet you at Eli’s Mile High Club.
Like many college towns, Sundays are wonderfully calm in Berkeley. UC-Berkeley’s brightest are sleeping off Saturday; parents around town are tending to their kids before its back to work tomorrow. In many ways, Berkeley defies the times. Much has changed, of course, as tends to happen whenever money drops from drones on high. But because its city hall is so notoriously slow in approving development deals, parts of the city remain as though in a fairly non-commercial time capsule, about which we can sometimes happily marvel, “How on earth is that place still around?”
In this vein, Berkeley excels at niche bookshops that are neither too precious nor exclusive.
We’ll start in the hills with Dark Carnival and its affable next-door sister-store, Escapist Comics (3086 & 3090 Claremont Avenue). The abiding philosophy of these stores, near as I can tell, is to stock as much as their shelves (& floorspace) can hold, beautiful display be damned. At first, it can be intimidating, with the walls of books hovering above you, seeming ready to collapse. If you listen closely, you might even hear them groaning. This is especially true in the somewhat spooky dark of Dark Carnival’s massive collection of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. I’m not a big reader of any of these genres (or comics, for that matter), and yet I always make a point of stopping at both shops when I’m in the area, winding my way deeper into their backrooms (and Dark Carnival’s upper floor), and exclaiming to the cats with each new discovery, “Oooo, would you look at this!”
Fans of children’s books will definitely be up for the 20-minute pedal into North Berkeley for Mr. Mopp’s Children’s Books (1405 Martin Luther King Jr. Way). Who am I kidding? If you’re not a fan of children’s books, you’re a monster. Come to Mr. Mopps and find your humanity. They have all the heavy-hitters one expects, but thankfully so much more. Including my new favorite book, Kafka for Beginners.
If you’re getting hungry, the famed Gourmet Ghetto is five minutes away on Shattuck Avenue. You’ll have no trouble finding what you want, but if you’re daunted by the choices you can’t go wrong with the Grégoire Restaurant‘s exceptional French takeout menu.
Other culture-specific shops in Berkeley (to name but a few) include: Sultana Bookstore in West Berkeley (for Islam-related literature); Eastwinds Books of Berkeley downtown (with its strong Asian/Filipino focus); and the Spanish Table (not primarily a bookstore, but a wonderful collection of Spanish cookbooks and untranslated books accompany an amazing array of Spanish and Portuguese wines and cheeses).
Before making our way to our destination on UC-Berkeley campus, it behooves you to walk slowly up and down Addison Street between Shattuck Avenue and Milvia Street, for the Berkeley Poetry Walk. Poems by locals like Tom Clark and Robert Hass are celebrated alongside those of Oakland’s Gertrude Stein and Jack London, and others far more flung. I’ve read them all numerous times, but it never gets old selecting a new one to read aloud.
Our final stop has two bookstores divided by a couple of blocks. First, University Press Books (2430 Bancroft Way). An academic in my life before bookselling, it does my heart good to see university press books get the love and space they deserve. You feel smarter for walking in, though perhaps a little dimmer when you realize you don’t understand a good deal of what you’ve been browsing. Second, and I leave this for last intentionally, because it is a sort of temple, a bookish holy of holies: Moe’s Books (2476 Telegraph). An icon of the student protest days in the 1960s, which they’re not afraid of celebrating, Moe’s is by no means a relic of its past—the presence of the such a high-caliber university as UC-Berkeley keeps it from being such, with each generation of student bringing new interests, approaches, and (naturally!) books. If they don’t have what you’re looking for, chances are good they likely had it last week. It is easy to get overwhelmed, but pacing yourself will yield treasures on each of its four levels and down nearly all of its aisles. Pro-tip: I always check the library carts first, as these are the freshest of the used produce.
Celebrate your discoveries from the weekend with a friend, or somebody random you meet on Telegraph Avenue (because you will meet somebody on Telegraph who wants desperately to talk to you), by sharing some traditional Ethiopian cuisine at . It will feel like the properly East Bay thing to do.