In Praise (and Memory) of Serendipity

ser·en·dip·i·ty  (srn-dp-t)
n. pl. ser·en·dip·i·ties
1. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
2. The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.
3. An instance of making such a discovery.

[From the characters in the Persian fairy tale 
 The Three Princes of Serendip, who made such discoveries, 
from Persian Sarandp, Sri Lanka, from Arabic sarandb.]

Serendipitystacks2 150x150

I’m planning a folklore-related blog post (out soon), and, as always, I started with my own bookshelves for the research.

They failed me. Or so I thought.

I went to the web, of course, and I found bits and pieces of what I needed — but not enough. This became inspiration for another blog post that will come after the folklore one.

But then, purely by accident, I found a book that I had forgotten that I owned, that had a bit more of what I wanted. I love my bookshelves.

And this experience reminded me of a wonderful place in Berkeley: Serendipity Books.Serendipitystacks 150x150

Walking into the store was breathtaking, in many senses of the term. First of all, it seemed like more books than there could ever be in the entire world. Second of all, you felt that you had to hold your breath to keep the place from collapsing on you: the place was crammed with books. Several rooms, little nooks and crannies and rafters of books, piles on the tables, on the chairs, piles on the floor that were half my height. Boxes, everywhere.

It was amazing. There were books, there were magazines, there were Playboys from the sixties, there was a box of lurid, cheesy, gay erotic paperbacks from, I don’t know, the forties or fifties or so. I think he even had old calendars.

It was well named, Serendipity. My most exemplary memory of the place was walking through the aisles of the front room with my neck craned and my mouth agape like a country tourist who visits New York City for the first time. Of course, I tripped over a stack of books. And there, at my feet, lay Recipes of the Philippines, by Enriqueta David-Perez.


This is the same cookbook that my grandmother sent off to my mother, when my mother wasn’t yet my mother, but a homesick 23-year-old new bride, carted off to chilly, lonely California, with a new degree in Dentistry that had suddenly become useless. I wanted a copy of that cookbook, as out-of-date as it is — it still measures rice in gantas, for heaven’s sake. But where am I going to get a copy of a Filipino cookbook from the ’50s or ’60s? Why, Berkeley, as it turns out. It’s sitting next to me now, complete with the yellowed newspaper clippings of recipes for Filipino Christmas pastries that were in the book when I bought it.

If you can find the other patrons of Serendipity, I have no doubt that they will tell you similar stories. If you can find them, because Serendipity closed its doors in September, after its founder, Peter B. Howard, passed away of pancreatic cancer.

I hadn’t been back to Serendipity in a long time, and now I never will.

“This is the greatest fucking bookstore in the world,” said Howard. “This is the best open-premises bookstore.”

— Peter Howard, interviewed in Berkleyside.

Rest in Peace, Peter Howard. Rest in Peace, Serendipity Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.