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Day June 23, 2006

On bibliophilia, bibliomania, and what makes a good book store

Alright, I’ve admitted it before, but I’ll admit it again. I have a “thing” with books. By “thing” I probably mean addiction. OK. Definitely addiction. I’m a bibliophile, but it goes further than that. I’m probably a bibliomaniac….a condition described in wikipedia (in its more extreme form) as “identifiable by the fact that the number of unread books in their possession is continually increasing relative to the total number of books they possess and read.”

That pretty much fits. In this short Bay Area trip, I’ve bought books at Borders on Union Square (surprisingly amazing as chain stores go, giving many independent stores a run for their money), City Lights in North Beach, and Black Oak Books (well, two trips to BO. their new section on the history of ideas just can’t be missed). UPS now has two boxes of the proceeds, hopefully trucking their way expeditiously north so I can peruse and examine, if not quite immediately read, the fruits of my expeditions.

In the full flower of my bibliomania, however — a condition which often seems to strike me in the Bay Area — I want to reflect a bit about what makes a truly good bookstore. Because I think they’re a dying species. I think we may only have one in Seattle. Or one that fully qualifies, and a couple that try hard. And, as previously mentioned, Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, long an icon in my bookish universe, is closing. So the entire subject deserves pause, and reflection.

When I walk into a truly good bookstore, I can tell immediately, through long association and almost a kind of “steeping” in the spoor of other bibliomaniacs. We’d run in packs, except that trawling the stacks at a good bookstore is a solitary kind of hunt, if only because the shelves are too narrow to admit the herd. Or perhaps it’s simply that we don’t want to share the spoils.

A truly good bookstore is staffed by other bibliophiles, and hopefully a bibliomaniac or two.

For example, let’s take City Lights on Columbus, in San Francisco. Perhaps an unfair example, because you’d probably expect any bookstore which was the spiritual home of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and the Beats to be a serious bookstore. But let’s be honest, that was half a century ago, and the staff ain’t nearly that old. So whatever is going on at City Lights isn’t “primary,” it’s culturally passed down and kept alive by a committed staff.

And committed they are. Three years ago, I found all three volumes of Morris Kline’s History of Mathematics on the shelves at City Lights, and immediately bought them, and enjoyed much of the first volume sitting outside Caffe Trieste and the Tully’s at Pacific and Fillmore. Today, all three volumes of Kline’s masterful history of mathematics are still in stock at City Lights, waiting for someone else like me to stop in and want something besides Beat poetry. That’s bibliophilia.

Or take the example of Pierre Bourdieu, the social theorist who is often shelved with sociology, but occasionally with philosophy. Honestly, there’s an argument for either, and when I walk in to a book store wanting to find The Logic of Practice I know to look in either section. At City Lights, Bourdieu’s more theoretical works are found under philosophy, while his more empirical works, such as Distinction, are found under sociology. That’s not random…that’s someone who thought carefully about where Bourdieu might fit in the human sciences, and where people might look for various of his books. I want to meet that person, because I have a feeling we have things to talk about…if only how we can possibly fit more bookshelves into our respective homes.

Obviously I have no idea whether City Lights really thinks about this stuff as deeply as I’m imagining, but if they’re faking bibliophilia, they’re doing it convincingly. Regardless, I find it heartwarming and reassuring that places like Black Oak Books and City Lights (and Elliott Bay Books in Seattle) still exist, whether or not I still order from Amazon. Amazon’s algorithms may be good at suggesting things I haven’t purchased yet, but they can’t capture the kind of thinking I saw on the shelves today at City Lights.

Restaurant review: Coi, 373 Broadway, San Francisco

Coi is the new project of Daniel Patterson and my friend Paul Costigan, located in a happening location on Broadway just east of North Beach. The name is pronounced (roughly) “kwahhh”, and I believe is an Old French word meaning “tranquil.” The restaurant certainly is that — superb and innovative food, mellow atmosphere, and friendly staff. I’d recommend visiting now before the reviews start rolling in and people “discover” Coi, because in six months it’s going to be tough to walk in the door and get a table.

Daniel Patterson is the former chef at Frisson, and Paul is coming from years of experience running Rare Wine Company in Sonoma, where I met him as a client. Paul also is an expert at jazz and blues history, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of both. His skills at creating atmosphere with the Jazz blend of structure, elegance, and yet studied casualness show in the casual yet beautiful decor, the music selections, and the wine list. Instead of aiming at the types of wine I’d typically purchased from Paul at RWC, the list is designed to present diners with wines which highlight the food but provide accessible prices. Paul is a master at explaining how the wines are selected to match the food, and if you’re wondering what to have you really should let him select a wine for your meal or course.

I went to Coi on two consecutive nights, to sample both the fixed-price dining room menu and the more relaxed (fuzzy pillow cushions!) lounge with its ala carte menu. I recommend doing both (especially if you’re local) because there are gems on both menus. In the dining room, a deconstructed ratatouille soup (with concentric rings of eggplant, red pepper, tomato) was excellent, but the highlight for us was the coriander-crusted duck breast, cooked sous vide and then finished off, with a reduction sauce. In the lounge, I strongly recommend the grilled vegetable bread salad, and the signature pork cheek stew. The latter went well with a Burgundy selected by Paul, and I finished with a Spatburgunder eiswein that was glorious — tart, sweet, with massive acidity on the palate.

Both evenings were terrific, and they’re just getting started. If you find yourself in San Francisco (or are a local), try Coi while it’s still possible to get a reservation!

The ideal San Francisco hotel

Thanks to my friend Bryan (the same guy who writes Soup Noodles, mentioned in the previous post), I’ve found the ideal base of operations while here in the Bay Area: the Hotel Rex, a block or so off Union Square. The Rex is a classic old San Francisco “small” hotel — sandwiched in the middle of a block on Sutter among other businesses and hotels, with only 90 or so rooms. But it’s perfectly located, well maintained, and has both wireless high-speed internet and (in many rooms) air-conditioning (don’t let them put you in the rooms ending with the number 15…none of them have airconditioning apparently because of the fire-escapes).

The Rex is also located near amenities: the (very surprisingly good) Borders books on Union Square, and the UPS store, which is necessary to ship back all the books I’ve bought so I can still make the “one carry on” rule at the airport. The Rex is also right down the block from the Hidden Vine, an underground wine bar in the 600 block of Post. The bar is very nice and the proprietors committed to a great wine experience. I didn’t find a lot to my taste on the menu, at least this time, but fans of domestic wines undoubtedly will.

Speaking of book stores, what’s up with Cody’s in Berkeley? Normally a staple of my excursions to the Bay Area, Cody’s had almost no books on the shelves. Are they moving? Doing inventory? Hanging up the shingle?

Fortunately, Black Oak Books (up Shattuck by Chez Panisse) has gotten even better. Their new section dedicated to philosophy and the history of ideas is both massive and brilliantly stocked. I managed, in half an hour of looking at every square inch of the section, in piling up some 20 books. Naturally, common sense or guilt or the lack of desire to explain the receipt to my financial advisor got the better of me and I pared the stack down to just “the essentials,” but somehow the essentials still included some Zygmunt Bauman, Robert Brandom, Charles Taylor, Robert Axelrod, Ian Hacking, Quentin Skinner, etc. Previously, I’d snagged some Rorty and some cognitive science at the Cal Berkeley student store (oddly better than both Moe’s and Cody’s right now), so I figured that was a good enough haul for now.

Today I’ve got to pack all these books up and ship ’em to Seattle, where they’ll join their brethren in being tucked away so as to not spoil the staging at my house, to be read soon on the deck of the new house.

UPDATE: Cody’s on Telegraph is indeed closing in early July, after years of losing sales to chain stores and Internet sales, apparently. This is really a sad thing — one of my favorite things about a day in the Bay Area was shopping at Cody’s and then taking my purchases across the street to have a giant tossed salad at Cafe Intermezzo (which is fortunately still going strong). A moment of silence for the passing of a once-great book store….