Oakland Postcard: The (Indie) Shop Around the Corner

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I am endlessly charmed by my neighborhood in Oakland, a town that has no shortage of charm. Before the pandemic, my wife and I would frequently take walks up through the Mountain View Cemetery. If you can tolerate the ways in which it defies physics by going uphill in every possible direction no matter where you turn, it has some of the best views in Oakland. Prior to March 2020, my wife and I would stroll arm in arm musing at our neighborhood tiki bar, our neighborhood music shop, our neighborhood comics and games shop, our neighborhood ice cream shop. Theoretically, you could get tipsy at Kona Club, buy a ukulele at Mountain Music (formerly Acme House of Music), get copies of all three volumes of Congressman John Lewis’s March graphic novels, and have an ice cream sundae from Fentons Creamery all within the same afternoon. Theoretically, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My wife and I were working from home and our usual haunts (cemetery included) were suddenly unavailable to us. It was during this time that Spectator Books, the queer-owned new and used independent bookstore a couple blocks away, became my lifeline.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

The store wasn’t open for browsing, of course, but it was taking phone and email orders. I have a library degree and I am a professional book recommender, which means that books are my job and my joy. My “happy places” are either in my apartment with my books or in a bookstore with books that I want to adopt and take to my apartment to live with me forever. Not being able to go inside Spectator Books just about broke my heart, but co-owner Stacie Willoughby was my salvation.

I will use any excuse to (1) strike up a correspondence, (2) take a walk, and (3) make a new friend. I quickly became the very eccentric queer who would email Stacie at all hours, ordering whatever book flitted into my consciousness. Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler. Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book. That last one—and my mention of a new ice cream maker my wife and I procured—prompted Stacie to go to the used shelves and send me a list of all the ice cream books available in the shop, a level of personalized service no algorithm could replicate.

I now own four ice cream cookbooks. I regret nothing.

It got to the point that not only did Stacie recognize me when I’d pick up my orders, but they also recognized my wife if I sent her down to pick up the new additions to our overflowing shelves. Mostly, I would try to pick up the books myself, since I loved any reason to take a break from my makeshift desk at our dining table. Soon, I began to cherish the slightly awkward, socially distanced, yelling-through-masks, three-minute conversations I’d occasionally have with Stacie. I hadn’t realized how great a toll the isolation of sheltering-in-place had taken on me, even as I tend more toward introversion. Each time I picked up a book from the shop, I would exhale a sigh of relief (safely enclosed in my mask) as a reassuring voice in the back of my head whispered, “The bookstore is still here. You’re still here.”

I am not alone in finding respite in print books during this incredibly difficult time. Print book sales have had a remarkable increase in the past two years according to Publishers Weekly, with adult fiction making an almost 49 percent increase when comparing the first half of 2020 and 2021. Anecdotally, the past two years have brought me invites to more virtual book clubs than ever before, and my biweekly walks with a coworker often involve lengthy discussions of what we are reading and what is on our TBR (To Be Read) pile.

Sometimes the highlight of my stuck-at-home day was when Spectator Books would post some of its most interesting, available used books in its Instagram stories. It was as close to browsing the store as I could get, and believe me, I was desperate.

I now own a copy of The Great American Christmas Almanac by Irena Chalmers because of it. Again, no regrets here.

One of the most amusing things, however, is that Stacie now has a good idea of my book-buying habits. I’m not going to say my book-reading habits because that would imply that I read all the books that I buy. As any bibliophile knows, buying books and reading books are completely different hobbies. Since they know my buying habits, they occasionally send me an email when a particular new or used book comes in that they think I might be interested in. They know how to make a girl feel special, I’ll give them that.

I think that one of my favorite bits of delight happens when I order a book, such as Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab, and Stacie replies that not only are they going to order a copy for me, but now that it’s on their radar they’ll order a few more copies for the shop. It is such an amazing feeling to know that maybe someone else might pick up a book because I recommended it. I love to think that I’ve influenced my neighborhood in some tiny way as I strive to lift up authors from historically excluded groups and diversify my own reading.

Most importantly, there is a special kind of magic in being a regular at a shop or restaurant, especially at a time when we’ve all been limiting our interactions to keep ourselves and one another safe. My neighborhood looks different post-COVID, with more than a few empty storefronts appearing over the past 18 months; even the Starbucks closed down. Supporting local businesses is how I can help preserve the neighborhood I love. The independent shops in Oakland and Berkeley are truly what sustained me during this pandemic, and it’s important for me to sustain them in return.

When Spectator Books reopened for browsing, there was a hand-drawn sandwich board out front that said, “The books missed you too.” While I gladly do a spin around the shop weekly, I still email Stacie with my quirky book orders, and I look forward to picking up my copy of the ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits songbook for ukulele.

And I won’t regret that one either.•

Patricia Elzie is a writer, podcaster, and librarian.
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