Google is a powerful tool but can often have sad results. The saddest, so far, was googling around for an old friend and discovering his obituary just weeks after he had passed away from a heart attack. The discovery I made last night was of less magnitude on a personal level, but its implications were more far-reaching, as they had to do with the death of a culture, rather than a person. And it felt personal, as the culture in question is one which I have devoted my entire life to, which is that of literature.
I went trawling - via Google - for independent bookstores in what is now referred to as Silicon Valley. When I lived there, nearly 40 years ago, it was known as San Jose, and there were still a few orchards left, and at least one cannery, which I remember passing one afternoon in the summer of 1967, hungover after drinking wine at a friend’s house, walking down the street and eyeing the cannery in my desultory, "summer of love" malaise, a noisy, boisterous place open to view, men loading crates onto trucks, women tending conveyor belts of peach and pear, fruity smells wafting into the street, sweet and acrid. San Jose was a mixture of agriculture, industry, and abundant, affordable housing. There were also numerous bookstores. New books, used books, and people eager to read them.
The first bookstore I went looking for was at the Old Town shopping complex in Los Gatos, a little town nestled at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I can’t remember what the bookstore was called, but I remember it was fairly large, and their collection was excellent. It is where I bought my hardcover edition of Geography and Plays, by Gertrude Stein, from Something Else Press, Inc. There is no bookstore there now.
I went looking Upstart Crow, a large independent bookstore with an attached coffeehouse at the Pruneyard Shopping Center in San Jose’s Campbell neighborhood. I enjoyed Upstart Crow’s comfortable atmosphere and extensive book collection. An old friend and former college professor named Richard Christian at San José City College used to meet there with a group of Francophones to practice their French in casual conversation. Richard lived nearby. My memories of the Pruneyard Shopping Center are especially vivid since I also used to work there, first in the high monolithic glass business tower looming over the center where I went around emptying wastebaskets and vacuuming carpets as a nighttime janitor, and later as a gardener planting flowers in the narrow dirt strips ornamenting the walks of the shopping center. Upstart Crow, I discovered, went out of business in 1986. Bankrupt.
A Clean and Well-Lighted Place was a large independent bookseller located in Cupertino. I visited there rarely because of its distance from where I lived in San Jose. There were several years in which I managed, somehow, to get by without a car. There is no public transit system to speak of in San Jose, or at least when I lived there in 60s and 70s. I did not ride a single bus the entire time I lived there, although I did wait for one once for over an hour before I arrived at the conclusion that the bus to which the sign referred must be a mythical entity and gave up and walked to my destination. A Clean and Well-Lighted Place went out of business in 1997.
Another independent bookseller whose name escapes me was located at the former Town and Country Shopping Center, off Winchester Boulevard, not far from the Winchester Mystery House, which has since morphed into a colossus called Santana Row, a mix of high-end and mid-tier retail tenants ranging from luxury brands like Gucci, Burberry, Salvatore Ferragamo and Tourneau to casual brands like Diesel, H&M, Ann Taylor LOFT, Anthropologie, Free People, and Urban Outfitters. It was also home to a flagship Borders until Border’s went out of business in 2011. Apparently, no bookstore has taken its place. I remember that bookstore (which may have been a flagship Borders before it became a national chain) because it is where I purchased my Vintage edition of the Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, edited by Carl Van Vechten, and The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, a Doubleday Anchor Book, edited by David V. Erdman with Commentary by Harold Bloom, circa 1970; the first for $2.95, the second for $6.95.
I looked elsewhere for other independent booksellers but could find very little outside of some rather exotic sounding stores such as Books By Bear off Quarry Road in Los Gatos and Kinokuniya Bookstore, the latter appearing to specialize in Asian literature. My overall impression is that book reading culture had died in the SiliconValley. It is not hard to guess why.
I was happy to find at least one ostensibly thriving independent book seller in Santa Cruz, so hope grows eternal in that neck of the woods, caressed by sea breezes and visited by locals and tourists.
But that other culture, the culture I remember from the 60s in which people devoured books with zeal and talked of them with intensity and intoxication, is gone. People are now isolated by iPods, iPads, BlackBerries and the electronic glare of Kindle substituting, rather poorly, for what used to be the sacred occasion of reading and deep concentration.
I have deep feelings for the Bay Area because of the years that I lived there, so it’s upsetting to see that culture of independent booksellers vanish so utterly. I have also long regretted my decision to move to Seattle, ironically, for many of the same reasons I was forced out of the Bay Area when the computer industry began to grow with such dizzying rapidity in the mid-70s, causing the housing prices to skyrocket. I came to Seattle looking for cheaper digs, a place where I could write and hold down a part time job, a strategy that worked well until the late 80s, when Microsoft and Bill Gates’s and Paul Allen’s empire changed the demography, and once again drove real estate prices through the roof.
My regret is misplaced, however. Although I hate to admit it, I did good by moving to Seattle, which continues to have a culture of independent book sellers. I can’t say it’s thriving; there have been some heavy losses, such as Horizon Books on Capitol Hill, a used bookstore that was like paradise to me when I first moved to Seattle and lived just blocks away. It occupied an old house with a front porch and its wooden floors were uneven and its shelves divided by narrow corridors where one felt cozily sheltered from the gnashing teeth of modern day capitalism. Also gone is Steve’s Broadway News on the corner of Broadway and East Olive which had a huge collection of magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. Seattle’s print media and its outlets are not in robust health, but they are enduring, and a few important retailers remain, rooted like baobabs in a wasteland of alliterate philistines and clueless billionaires.
Elliott Bay Book Company, while not quite as large as Powell’s in Portland, appears to be doing quite well at its new digs on Capitol Hill, and has preserved its ambience of creaking wood floors, northwest ruggedness and robust, exhilarating eclecticism. A visit to Elliott Bay is like a visit to an amusement park. You don’t exit its doors with anything less than a feeling of exultation, one’s head teeming with words and ideas.
There is also Open Books, in the Wallingford neighborhood, specializing in poetry. It is hard to imagine that in a city so engulfed by affluence and software geeks that anything like poetry could survive here. But it does. It is crab grass. Its roots are deep and broad. And Open Books is a lush greenhouse for all the verdure thriving in the exotic world of poetry.
I do hate the weather of the northwest, the Cimmerian gloom and chilly summers, the mold and damp and endless drizzle. I miss the California sun. But that other culture, that sweet powerful energy I remember from the 60s in Los Gatos and Cupertino and Sunnyvale has been replaced by the austerity and coldness of a digital, binary world aptly called Silicon Valley. And while evidence of Bill Gate’s empire can be felt everywhere in Seattle, foreboding a fate similar to that of Silicon Valley, it has not yet driven out that other world, the one of paper, ink, and spine. The one in which words simmer in gentle argument, and ideas are tied together by the water of the eyes.