For almost as long as I have lived in Berkeley, Black Oak Books has been my neighborhood bookstore. I can’t even begin to put in words all that Black Oak meant and my sadness at the closing of the Shattuck store.I have great appreciation for the devotion and knowledge of the many booksellers who have worked there. If I were to look back at all the readings I attended and conversations I participated in and overhead, I’d map a biography of my mind over the last twenty some years.
There were readings that I planned to attend as soon as I saw the calendar--energetic, well attended events that come to mind immediately: the nights that the Nobel prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz read to a crowded room full of people whose listening was deep and eager, the night James Hillman challenged the audience to ask him questions and danced away from many of them. Richard Mishrach, Ruth Bernard, Danny Matt, Julia Alvarez, Katha Pollitt, Lawrence Wechsler, W.S. Merwin.
But there were also readings I went to spur-of-the-moment, not knowing much about the author even if it seemed like I should. I discovered anthropologist Ed Hall because I went one night at the last minute to hear him reading from his autobiography An Anthropology of Everyday Life. His talk and later his book provided a wonderful nontechnical introduction to his views on time, place, art and navigating through layers of culture. A small group discussion with Jean Killbourne, who has been documenting cigarette and alcohol ads for many years, made clear that even those of us who think we are too smart for advertising still digest its messages. And then there was the very special night when farmer Dave Mas Masuumoto gave out peach slices to lucky members of the audience.
Stopping in the store, buying novels on booksellers' recommendations like A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Alexander, still one of my favorite books, going to readings, and running into beloved Berkeley publisher Malcolm Margolin or Jungian scholar Meredith Sabini, I felt like I belonged to and participated in culture of thought and feeling that I had dreamed about when I was a high school student in Omaha. The day of the 1989 earthquake, I was near the store at the time, and it seemed natural to come in briefly after my appointment and to exchange a few words of concern with simpatico booksellers and customers before I headed home.
My own book, The Book of Qualities, was being displayed on the counter by the cash register when Marty Asher, then at Quality Paperback Book Club, visited the store in 1985. His impulse to buy a copy of Qualities, which resulted in his featuring it as a Quality Paperback Book Club title, was instrumental in bringing my first book to a national audience.
I know that Black Oak has been struggling to survive for several years and the reading series hasn’t been consistent for some time now. I see the ways our lives have changed in the age of information. We can find out anything about anyone so quickly, catch a clip on youtube, send off our letters to the editor without every folding a piece of paper. Much of it is dazzling but there are no peaches. Still, I trust that the creativity keeps finding new ways to enter the world, the conversation continues.
For me there was something deeply nourishing sitting in a room on a rainy Wedesday night for an hour, with ten or twenty or seventy people and learning the stories behind the story--the ones that didn’t quite fit in the narrative, the ones that illuminated the work that goes into making a book, the struggle that an author had with her publisher regarding the image on the cover, the origin of a question that guided the writing. It was a great pleasure to hear the way the words sounded in the mouth of the person who wrote them, the visible and invisible exchanges when we sat together listening to people who love language and story speak about what they are passionate about, compress their work into a small slice of time and invite us into their world.
About J. Ruth
Causes J. Ruth Gendler Supports
Poets in the Schools
River of Words
Friends of the Earth
Doctors Withour Borders