Black Oak was one of the first independent bookstores that I perused when I arrived in Berkeley. I had gone to discover the Gourmet Ghetto, made famous by Alice Waters, discovered a pizza place that only made one type of pizza a day but charged a fortune and still had people lined up outside. I also discovered a Jewish deli, the original Peet’s coffee and, given that I hadn’t found a job yet, that I couldn’t afford to eat until I returned to my friend’s house.
I did discover, within this tasteful enclave of decadence, that I could afford a book or two – used, from the bargain bin of the Black Oak bookstore. Alon means Oak in Hebrew, black has long been my favorite color (and not just because it makes me appear slimmer).
Black Oak Books is no longer situated on Shattuck Ave. They have now moved to 2618 San Pablo Ave., between Parker and Carleton, a precarious five-minute walk from my house. As with all Independent bookstores, these past few years has marked a time of great transition for Black Oak Books.
They streamlined their business focusing on Internet books, buying books, re-pricing books from the old store, and continued looking for a new retail location. T’Hud Weber, the store manager, told me the new premises is still a work in progress, and they plan to begin holding author events and other community events. I found the place just as charming as their former premises. I have to admit: give me the smell of books, a smiling staff, the offer of an author event, and the offer of bargains, and I’m yours!
Here are Ms. Weber’s answers to my questions:
1) What value does your bookstore provide for the local community?
As we are in a very different location in comparison to our previous location, we are still evaluating the community needs/wants. We have had very good feedback from the neighborhood. We’ve been repeatedly thanked for opening a bookstore in this location, and have been told that this is “exactly what the neighborhood needs” which is wonderful to hear. We strive to have the lowest possible prices for used books, we have a large “Bargain Books” section priced at .50-$1.00 per book, and we have special sales for new books every other week. We also buy books from the community.
2) Who is the most inspiring author you have met? Why?
The most inspiring author I’ve met is Neil Gaiman. He’s a great storyteller, and is able to jump and blur boundaries between children’s/adult fiction, genres, characters, and voices. And, hey, he’s kind of a rock star.
3) What community events or campaigns has your bookstore been involved in?
We have not been directly involved in any community events or campaigns as of yet. Again, we’re still trying to gauge what the community needs from us at this point. However, we do put up flyers/postcards/posters from neighborhood vendors upon request.
4) If you were to retire tomorrow what would you most miss from your work?
I would miss my role as the “Book Adoption Manager”: helping unite people with that special, rare, hard to find, odd, or sentimental book. I would also desperately miss the smell and feel of the books, as this has been a particular fetish of mine since early childhood.
With all the challenges facing the independent neighborhood bookstore, I hope Black Oak not just survives, but thrives. They have shown the necessary propensity to adapt. I wish them well.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com