I’ve always loved independent bookstores, and Black Oak Books in Berkeley was a prime example. It had that perfect combination of classy and musty. New and used books. An academic flavor. Author photos on the wall. Readings. Coffee shops near by. Walking distance from my house.
Black Oak was the first bookstore I discovered when we moved to Berkeley in 1997. I was homesick for Chicago, and it reminded me of the bookstores I’d left behind in Hyde Park, my old neighborhood on the south side.
But here’s what I treasure most of all about Black Oak: It’s where I learned the secret of independent bookstores. It’s not about the store, or even about the books on the shelves. It’s about the booksellers.
Three years ago, in preparation for an upcoming European trip, I went into Black Oak in search of used travel books. All I could find were the new ones.
I approached the tall man behind the counter. I figured he’d simply point me in the right direction. But he insisted on leading me to the spot himself.
I followed him from the organized front of the store, with the inviting new book displays, into the warren of back room shelves, where they kept most of the used books.
"Any place in particular?" he asked.
I didn’t even know the proper words to describe our destination. My husband and I had set out to visit our son, a UC-Berkeley student spending the semester in Hungary. But then my in-laws jumped in, and now the four of us were going on one of those organized bus tours where you pass through five countries in two weeks.
“Eastern Europe, I guess. I'm getting ready to go on a trip to—well, different places. Vienna, Budapest. But mostly we'll be in what used to be Yugoslavia. Slovenia, Croatia.”
On impulse, I asked him a question I assumed would draw a blank.
“You don’t have anything by Louis Adamic, do you? He was supposed to be a famous Slovenian-American writer in the 1930s.”
“Louis Adamic? Of course. At least we should. I know I have some of his books in my own collection.”
Without being too obvious about it, he’d corrected my pronunciation: Ah-dah’-mich. Not: A’-da-mick, the way we said it in my family.
I was amazed that this man actually knew about Louis Adamic. He’d been a prominent left-wing journalist and popular historian. A chronicler of the immigrant experience. A public intellectual in his day. Then he fell victim to McCarthyism. Or maybe depression. He died in 1951 under mysterious circumstances—a gunshot to the head, officially ruled a suicide. But many suspected a political murder. Now he’d fallen into obscurity. Just a footnote.
He was also my maternal grandmother’s cousin, according to family lore. Not that we ever talked much about our Slovenian roots. That was the dark side of the family tree.
As the bookseller led me back to the spot where he thought we’d find the old Louis Adamic titles, he made a few little detours to point out other books I ought to read. Not selling, more like educating me. I accepted a used copy of Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” (1940)—a classic work about the famed British writer’s long-ago Balkan tour. First I’d heard of it. It became the first book in my Balkan collection.
But no Louis Adamic. The bookseller seemed surprised—maybe a little chagrined. He thought he could find something in one of their San Francisco stores. He took my name.
Back at the cash register, I told him about my half-Slovenian roots. The bookseller told me he was half-Croatian. He’d always wanted to visit the Balkans himself. Then the man behind me in line jumped in. In a heavy accent, he started giving me travel tips. He turned out to be Serbian.
Only in Berkeley, I thought to myself. We’re having our own little Balkan summit. Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, chatting away. While the line kept getting longer. But no one seemed to mind.
As the bookseller rang up my purchase, he pointed to the cover of Rebecca West’s book. The painting showed a graceful stone bridge, arched over a river, with a dark looming mountain in the background.
“Too bad you won’t be able to see that famous old bridge. They destroyed it during the fighting in the 1990s.”
Three days before we left for Europe, I got a call from Black Oak. They had a couple of Louis Adamic books for me. The bookseller hadn’t forgotten.
So, along with the usual glossy travel guides, I carried a vintage copy of Louis Adamic’s most famous book, The Native’s Return. He had followed a route almost identical to our own, on a visit in the spring of 1932, when the immigrant-boy-made-good traveled back to Yugoslavia on a Guggenheim fellowship.
We visited the capitals of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire: Vienna at the start, Budapest at the end. In between, we passed through most of the countries of the former Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro-Serbia, Bosnia.
When we entered Slovenia, I saw a vision: a storybook lake with a tiny island in the middle, with a castle overlooking the lake. A rainbow stretched across the lake. I took it as a sign.
And we had a special surprise on the tour. We got to see the famous bridge—in Mostar, that old town in Bosnia. The bridge had been rebuilt the previous year.
So that’s what independent bookstores mean to me.
Booksellers who are "well-informed and passionate about books, and …delighted to make recommendations.” (That’s what the now-defunct Black Oak website said about their staff.)
Booklovers who want to educate, not just sell books.
Finding bridges and rainbows.
Postscript: I began this essay three years ago. Red Room gave me a much-needed push to finish it. In the last few years, we have all gone through changes. Black Oak changed hands, closed, re-opened, closed again. It is now an online store, with plans to open again in a new location. The bookseller (who turned out to be the store manager) is now at another well-known local independent bookstore, and active in the NCIBA, the regional independent booksellers association. My first book, Accordion Dreams, came out in January. I am working on my next one, about my Slovenian heritage.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders