BERKELEY - In the window of Cody's Books, a venerable independent bookshop, a yellow sign reads "bringing writers and readers together since 1956."
But the iconic Berkeley bookshop, which survived the revolutions and protests that passed before its once profitable doors, abruptly closed up last weekend, without warning, having given in to the titanic foes of e-commerce and chain stores.
And so Monday night, Cody's brought together its very last writer and reader. The writer was me. I was scheduled to give a reading from my thriller, Hooked. Even though I learned of the store's closing on Sunday, I showed up at Cody's Monday night just in case some prospective readers came too, expecting the show to go on.
One reader did. She stood wearing a boiled wool yellow jacket with her arms crossed, reading a white sign on Cody's door explaining management could no longer afford to stay in business.
"Are you here for the reading?" I asked.
She nodded. I introduced myself as the would-have-been reader. She introduced herself as Ralda Lee, a long-time Berkeley resident. She said she'd been forwarded an email invitation from a friend of mine advertising the reading. She'd heard that the store had closed, but that I might be coming by to intercept book-reading attendees caught unawares.
"I wanted to support you," she said. "I know what it's like. I'm an actor."
She told me that she has a son-in-law who had been a reporter many years earlier for The New York Times. She'd said she'd just returned from Valdez, Alaska, where she'd been in play.
"But I got married, and then knocked up," she said. Instead of acting, "I sat inside for fifty years."
She described herself as "older than seventy," but, with a laugh, declined further specificity.
I told her about my job as a reporter for The New York Times, and that my wife is expecting our first child in September. We talked about how I was trying to figure out how I would balance my own passions—for journalism and writing—and the stress-free love I want to give my son-to-be.
"So should we do a reading?"
In front of Cody's is a cement bench, in a circle, with flowers and foliage in the middle. Ralda the Reader and I sat on the outside of it. I pulled out my book. But before I could commence The Last Reading, she and I started chatting about life.
At one point, I got a phone call, which I felt obliged to take because it was from my boss. And when you're a journalist and your boss calls, you answer, even if you're in the middle of inpatient surgery, let alone a book reading. As I talked, I saw her open my book and start to read. When I gotoff, she looked up at me.
"I'm hooked," she said.
I said: "Let's do this reading properly."
I took the book from her, and I read a couple of paragraphs. As I did, I felt particularly self-conscious. Instead of reading to a smattering of folks, I was reading to one person, whose eyes I could feel studying me. It was tougher than usual to keep my face in the book, rather than look up and make eye contact.
Like other readers I know, I have a love/virulent-hate relationship with book readings. We love the readings. But we live in abject terror the five minutes before they start. The terror comes from not knowing whether anyone (other than a spouse) will show up (and the spouse already has heard all the jokes).
Sitting on the cement bench outside Cody's, I was grateful to have met my one reader. Just us two book people, chatting, a reminder of the writers and readers sharing a moment, ideas, questions and answers, philosophies, and then going our separate ways.