Requiem for Black Oak Books

by Irvin Muchnick on June 9, 2009

Yet another venerable independent bookstore, Berkeley’s Black Oak Books, has closed its doors. This one hits home: in 2007 Black Oak kindly hosted the launch reading for my first book, Wrestling Babylon.

The demise of Black Oak, like that two years ago of another Berkeley institution, Cody’s Books, is sad. Yet I confess that I can’t bring myself to join the chorus of ritual condemnation of the new hegemony of Amazon.com. The reason is that, on balance, I believe online retailing is a very good thing for the vitality of diverse literary voices. My experience with Wrestling Babylon shows why.

That I landed a reading at Black Oak in the first place was a fluke. I happen to live two blocks away, and the manager of the reading series was a good friend of Josh Kornbluth, the comedic monologuist and local icon, who had just booked me for his interview show then running on KQED-TV.

That said, and with all due modesty, I also delivered big time on my end of the bargain. A crowd of around 100 people filled Black Oak the night of the reading (all right, I happen to have an extremely large extended family), and the 30 copies of Wrestling Babylon on hand there sold out. Not wanting to wait for resupply by the distributor, the store purchased another 30-copy batch directly from my author’s-discount inventory.

Here’s where we get to the moral of the story. The Black Oak shelvers proceeded to stack a quirky little book that had just generated a lot of on-site buzz on a table in the rear corner. One of the charms of Black Oak was always its haphazard organization – you might find Frank Kermode’s 1965 Bryn Mawr lecture series, The Sense of an Ending, on the “New Literature” table – but this was not charming. Only two or three more copies of Wrestling Babylon sold. The rest were returned.

Meanwhile, Amazon and other “virtual” retailers, for all their arrogance and impersonality, at least offer a universe of infinite space. As a result, Wrestling Babylon two years later still enjoys a nice backlist trickle, supported by mainstream coverage in such places as Forbes.com, the New York Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Scripps Newspapers, along with rave reviews by such major literary gatekeepers as the Sacramento News & Review, the Penn State Daily Collegian, and WorldWrestlingInsanity.com.

We average writers, or at least the few of us who aren’t delusional, don’t really expect our product to be pushed as hard as that of blockbuster bestsellers. But who among us shouldn’t cheer a new paradigm that at least gives everyone a fighting chance to get discovered?

The Black Oak folks had benign instincts and remained true to their atavistic roots. Don’t even get me started on Cody’s. As a parent and community member, I’d put a ton of volunteer energy into marketing an annual Cody’s benefit to raise money for local schools (while also driving traffic to the store and burnishing its brand). Yet when I published my own book, the people there wouldn’t give me the time of day. They were too busy booking name authors for their disastrously expanded upscale affiliates in locations like Berkeley’s Fourth Street and San Francisco’s Union Square (the latter was only a block or so from an existing Borders). Sorry, but I have no sympathy whatsoever for the argument that right-thinking folks must shed crocodile tears for independent booksellers who are so inept that they think the recipe for survival is to ape the same chains they decry.

To return to my basic theme, this is a time of transition and dislocation in belles lettres. Bookstores aren’t the only things changing. So are books. You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.

Irvin Muchnick’s CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death will be published in the fall. And, yes, pre-order info at http://benoitbook.com includes international Amazon links.

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