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A landmark of the baby boom generation is changing. Berkeley, California is synonymous with free speech, the anti-war movement during Vietnam, and the 60's counterculture. It all fed off the nearby flagship campus at the University of California. Now, the students and the city are different, and a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue is scheduled to close.
It may be hard to understand what that one store means, until you take a tour with NPR's Richard Gonzales.
RICHARD GONZALES reporting:
There is a discernible sadness inside Cody's Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. In its prime, it was a physical and intellectual sanctuary for generations of UC students. Back in the day, it's where poets and Nobel laureates, mixed with anti-war protestors, were being tear-gassed by the police, just outside.
Mr. ANDY ROSS (Owner, Cody's Bookstore): Cody's on Telegraph.
GONZALES: Andy Ross bought the store from its original owner Fred Cody in 1977.
Mr. ROSS: When I bought the store in the '70s, the politics had died down a lot, but the reputation of Cody's was - it was the great Berkeley institution. And to me - I had to pinch myself.
GONZALES: A decade or so later, Salman Rushdie's controversial book Satanic Verses was released. At the time, Rushdie was under a death threat and the chain stores were pulling his book from their shelves. But it was still available at Cody's, and a short time later, the store was firebombed. Despite that scare, Cody's employees voted to continue selling Rushdie's book. The author was still in hiding when he paid Cody's a surprise visit, says Ross.
Mr. ROSS: We couldn't announce it until five minutes before he showed up. And we took him out for a tour and we showed him the bookshelves that were singed from the fire and the hole in the sheetrock from the shrapnel when they set off the bomb. And somebody had scribbled next to the whole Salman Rushdie memorial hole. And Rushdie looked up and said, well, you know, some people get statues and others get holes.
GONZALES: But now Ross finds himself in a different kind of hole. Sales have been declining for the past 15 years. Ross blames competition from chain stores, Internet sales, and a dearth of middle-class customers. Ross decided last month to close Cody's on Telegraph Avenue this summer.
Mr. ROSS: It was the saddest month of my life. It was like giving up a child.
GONZALES: Ross isn't the only Telegraph Avenue merchant complaining about sagging sales. To the naked eye, the street still has a scruffy veneer of a '60's counterculture. Record and head shops, street vendors, coffee joints, and street musicians.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Gave him his orders, in Monroe Virginia, said Steven you're way behind time...
GONZALES: Telegraph Avenue also attracts its share of derelicts, drug dealers, and the down and out. And for better or worse, it's all part of the Telegraph Avenue tapestry, say local merchants.
Mr. GENE BARONE (Owner, Mo's Books): If you walk down the street the odds are you're going to have some sort of, let's call it gritty(ph), experience.
GONZALES: Gene Barone, who manages Mo's Books a few doors away from Cody's, says there's a reason why Telegraph Avenue businesses are declining. Today's students are Berkeley are different from those of the '60s and '70s. Barone says they're more suburban, affluent, and directed.
Mr. BARONE: They are frightened of the prospect of coming down to the Avenue. They don't like that it's not pretty. It's not easy to negotiate. They're going to be faced with some crazy guy coming and screaming at them, or some unsavory character trying to sell them drugs or something. I think they don't want any of that.
GONZALES: Berkeley is seeing another demographic shift, says Barone. Escalating housing prices are driving out artists and activists. They're being replaced by upper middle-class professionals, with disposable income, who don't want or need to go to Telegraph Avenue. And no one knows this better, than Berkeley mayor Tom Bates.
Mayor TOM BATES (Berkeley, California): People that once were in the '60s and '70s who would go out to Telegraph Avenue (unintelligible) as a matter of course, have now gotten older and more conservative and would choose to go elsewhere.
GONZALES: When Mayor Bates says elsewhere in Berkeley, he means a relatively new upscale shopping district on the other side of town, called Fourth Street, and one of the cornerstone businesses there, is a newer Cody's Bookstore. The question for many of the long time customers of the Telegraph Avenue store is whether it will be Cody's in spirit, or name only.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Berkeley.
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