On Bookmarks, and Memories

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Bookmarks. What do you use for bookmarks? I’m not one of those people who is appalled at the idea of dog-earing a page, but if I have the choice, I try to use a bookmark. Reshelving all our books this past week, I’ve noticed all the ragged little bits of stuff peeking out of this volume and that one. Bits of envelope, pieces of napkin, lots and lots of Post-Its, the receipt for the book itself, often with the date — it’s sobering to see how long ago I bought some of my books, especially the ones I haven’t finished yet. I’ve found old shopping lists, those annoying coupons that are always stuck in the middle of magazines (and when’s the last time I subscribed to a magazine?), and more than a few ghosts of bookstores past. I posted one of these ghosts a few days ago; since then I’ve found many more.

These are mostly my bookmarks (or my husband’s), and therefore my memories. Some of them are stowaways from used bookstore purchases. I used to save the things I found in used books, but I’ve lost them all now. It’s too bad; imagining the story behind these found objects is part of the fun of a used book.

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Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley was our bookstore Mecca all through college. A lot of people preferred Moe’s, I know, but Moe’s always seemed too scattered and haphazard to me, and not in the wondrous way that Serendipity Books was. Chalk it up to the OCD in me. Even after my husband and I went away for grad school, we always made the circuit of Berkeley bookstores when we came home to visit family on winter break. Cody’s was the first stop. They had the best math book section of all the stores in Berkeley, maybe even the Bay Area; this added to its appeal, for my husband and me. They had a good folklore/mythology section, a good linguistics section, lots of science fiction — lots of everything, really. And off to the side of the cashiers, an information counter with multiple copies of Books in Print, and at least three staff members at any given time to help you with special orders.

They opened another branch on Fourth Street sometime in the late nineties, in an upscale shopping area. Nice place, but more of a general/popular bookstore, less of a scholarly one. I heard that they opened the Fourth Street store because people were too scared of “seedy” Telegraph Avenue to go to the flagship store. This makes no sense to me. The Telegraph store was an easy walk from the University of California Berkeley campus; it should have been full of students — but either students don’t read, or they can’t afford books. I went to Cal, and I went to high school in Berkeley before that; I’ve seen Telegraph have its ups and downs of both seediness and thugginess. The late ’90s were (comparatively speaking) neither seedy nor thuggy times for that area. But perhaps my tolerance is higher.

Later, they opened up another branch in San Francisco, too, near Union Square. I was living in San Francisco by then, but somehow, I never got around to visiting it. The whole enterprise shut down in 2008. We miss you, Cody’s.

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Stacey’s is probably the reason I never made it to the Cody’s San Francisco branch. They were on the other side of Market Street, at 2nd. The door stood right at the head of one of the staircases up from BART (the subway system). Stacey’s started out in 1921 as a medical textbook store, and later branched out into other technical and professional books, fiction and other general reading. They also had a nice math book section, in particular an extensive selection of the Dover reprints. I still remember the sea of bright yellow hardbacks that covered the second floor every year, when Springer-Verlag (one of the premier publishers of mathematical texts) had their annual sale. The place was bright and airy, with lots of comfortable seats near the upper story windows overlooking Market Street. They had a really nice periodical section.

As time went on, and physical bookstores got desperate, Stacey’s technical sections shrunk. Around 2008 or 2009, I was working downtown, on Folsom and 4th, and I needed a certain technical text for my research. I could have just ordered it from Amazon, but I already felt guilty that Amazon and my busy schedule had cut down too much on the time I used to spend patronizing bookshops. Besides, it was a nice day. So I strolled down to Stacey’s at lunchtime and tried to special order my book. They wouldn’t. It wasn’t a book they would normally carry, you see, so if I decided not to buy it, they would be stuck.

I was shocked. I once special ordered a technical book from Black Oak (more on them later); they never made a peep, and they weren’t in the technical book business at all. If Stacey’s had insisted that I put down a deposit, or pay in advance, I would have understood….

I went back to the office, and to Amazon. The episode left a bad taste in my mouth; it was one of the last times I visited Stacey’s, which shut down in 2009. I regret that my relationship with them ended on that note.

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The original Black Oak Books was in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, across Vine Street from the original Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and down a block from Chez Panisse. As an undergrad, it was a place I went frequently to look, but not very often to buy. The front of the store sold new books, mostly literary fiction and other general interest reading; the room where they kept their antiquarian books was visible from the front shopping area. In the back room (where I spent most of my time) was the used book section: paperback fiction, used anthologies, lots and lots of used scholarly books, including math and physics and other subjects that they didn’t sell new. I think Black Oak must have been the preferred book buyer for all the professors in Berkeley; the selection in the back was fascinating, full of classic and semi-classic texts that were out of print, though not quite of antiquarian status. They were pricey, though. Some of the books were genuinely hard to find; others you could buy used at Moe’s or Pegasus for a lot less money.

I did buy from them more frequently as a graduate student, and after I was out of school. I even spent more time out front, though it was always the back room that made it special to me.

Later on (after we had moved back to San Francisco), they opened a couple of used book annexes in the City: one in North Beach that specialized in Beat Literature, and one in the Sunset District, near the University of California San Francisco, that sold fiction and scholarly texts. I can’t remember anymore whether the annexes stayed open until the end, but the flagship store shut down in 2008 or 2009. I remember when it happened; the messaging was that the closing was a temporary setback (too steep a rent hike, maybe?), but they would re-open Real Soon. This was about the time that many venerable bookshops (and even some prominent Barnes & Nobles locations) in the area were shutting down; I assumed that Black Oak wasn’t coming back.

But they did. I’ve not been to the new (not so new, now) location, but I’m happy to see that they found a way to survive.

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Chelsea Bookshop was a sweet place, a one-man operation, not too far from UC San Francisco. The owner was in his late thirties, I think, when we knew him. It was a fun place to browse, and to chat with him and other customers after dinner at one of the nearby restaurants. I remember that we found at least two of Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship series there (“The art of winning without actually cheating”). Old-fashioned, but still funny.

When Black Oak opened up their Sunset annex directly across the street from him, he insisted it was good news. “It will bring more book people to the neighborhood — that’s a good thing.” He even sent them a welcoming bouquet of flowers on their opening day. Unfortunately, he did close some time after the annex opened. The space is some kind of podiatry store now.

Carroll’s Books was in Noe Valley. I didn’t go there much; I have vague memories of a narrow entrance next to a teashop, but nothing stronger than that. I found the bookmark in Calvino’s The Uses of Literature. I suppose I must have bought it there.

Carroll’s isn’t in Noe Valley anymore. I think the owner runs an english-language bookshop in Paris, now.

Book’s Inc: “The West’s Oldest Independent Bookseller.” So the bookmark says. “Book’s Inc: The West’s last surviving independent bookstore!” So I overheard a lady say to her friend the other week, as we all walked past the Book’s Inc Castro District location.

I don’t visit any of their bookstores much — not sure why, there’s nothing wrong with them. But they are the oldest in the West, and still hanging on, so they must be doing something right.

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I don’t think of bookmarks as hotel amenities, but apparently they are at the Shangri-La in Makati, Manila. We stayed there over Holy Week in about 1999 or so, on a family trip. The Shangri-La is a luxury hotel, the kind of place that Arab oil millionaires stay on vacation (we saw one, with his family). We could afford to stay there because my cousin’s husband bullied the desk staff into pretending to believe that we were “locals”, and therefore only had to pay the local rate, which was actually reasonable (for an American). Trust me, they were pretending — my husband and I do NOT pass as locals.

Luxury hotel, the use of my cousin’s driver (my cousin and her husband are not exactly poor) — we had a great time. My sister couldn’t afford the Shangri-La, even at the local rate; she stayed somewhere more spartan (an Army barracks, in fact). But every morning the driver would pick her up and drop her off just in time to eat her way through the Shangri-La breakfast buffet (on us, of course), after which she would sweep up to our room, take a shower, and then we would all cruise off for the rest of the day.

The hotel guards figured out my sister’s schedule. Every morning I would see them all casually assembling on the rotunda balcony overlooking the hotel lobby just as my sister walked in. They would stay and watch as she chowed down, and then disperse once she hit the elevator for our shower. I guess she amused them.

I suppose the Shangri-La could have had a bookstore, but I found the bookmark in a Springer-Verlag text called Methods of Mathematical Economics, so I don’t think we bought it there. And I found a receipt from the Shangri-La lounge in another Springer-Verlag on Game Theory. I’m pretty sure it was my husband who brought them both over.

The BART ticket is for our local Bay Area rapid transit system. It looks like the minimum fare (the fare from one station to an adjacent one) was 55 cents when someone stuck that ticket into Stephen Potter’s Three-Upmanship; it’s $1.75 now. I once found a commemorative BART ticket in a used book, honoring the Bicentennial (1976). I kept it for a while, but it disappeared in some cleaning spree or other.

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I’ve written about how I found this cookbook before. My mother has the same one, in a different edition, that she brought with her from the Philippines when she and my father immigrated to California. The one I have came with recipe clippings inside, from Filipino newspapers, mostly for holiday dishes. And desserts, lots of desserts. I’m guessing that the lady who owned this book pulled it out mostly for big fiestas.

This edition of the cookbook is from 1956; the clippings are undated, but there are clues. From the back of the article on fruitcake recipes, I learn that the Summer Olympics that year were in Australia, and that the Philippine basketball team beat the Japanese and French teams, before losing to the U.S. I didn’t know basketball was considered the Philippines’ national sport. The reporter was especially proud of the victory over France, your average French player being so much taller than your average Filipino player. It’s all about superior skills, man.

On the back of a recipe for “Valentine cake,” I read about a riot and hostage situation at a prison 20 miles south of Salt Lake City. Six members of a Mormon basketball team were taken hostage, along with thirteen guards. None were harmed. Oh, Utah’s governor at the time was George D. Clyde. From a recipe for “Be-My-Valentine cake” I learn that Magsaysay was the President of the Philippines, and he liked to quote Nehru. At least during election years.

Both the valentine cake recipes were holding the page for bopiz and binagis, which are spicy, vinegary dishes made from pork and sweetmeats, in particular pig’s heart. Seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day, doesn’t it? My auntie’s version of these dishes are among my favorite things (auntie dials back the sweetmeats when she makes them), though honestly, I can’t tell one dish from the other.

My mother’s copy of this cookbook has newspaper clippings, too, from American papers. And a short letter from my grandmother. Lola tells Mom (though she wasn’t yet my mom) to be brave, and not be homesick. She asks when my mother is going to go out and get a job. Lola believed strongly in wives having jobs outside the home, as a sign of at least symbolic independence. “You shouldn’t have to ask your husband for money to buy your panties,” was the way she put it.

My father is more old-fashioned; I know he wanted kids right away, and getting a housemaid to help with the chores isn’t so common in the U.S. as it is in the Philippines, unless you’re the Brady Bunch. So Mom didn’t get a job outside the house until my sister and I both were in school, maybe ten years after they came here. I’m sure that must have bugged my grandmother.

There’s more, but this is a good place to stop.

I wonder what the equivalent memory-holder will prove to be for ebooks. Our notes and annotations? Some record of the friends we’ve forwarded passages to, the reviews we leave on Goodreads and such places?

What do you find in your books? What memories do those found objects call up?

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