The mail came: a thick manilla envelope with my name on it. I picked it up and read the return address:
2476 Telegraph Avenue
Has the past ever sent you a letter? Has a time in your life that you’ve filed and forgotten ever dashed off a quick note just to say, “I’m still here?”
I haven’t seen Telegraph Avenue in 25 years, nor Moe’s in 30 or more. And yet suddenly it was all as real as yesterday.
“Telegraph” is the heart of the student district for the University of California at Berkeley. It was the breeding ground for ’60s counterculture on the West Coast. And as a pimply, callow teenager from a blue collar burb 20 miles away, it was where I wanted to be. For the street theater, the buskers, the underground comix, the endless politicking in Sproul Plaza; and especially for the giant book and record stores, the poster shops, the head shops, and the shops selling all sorts of things that I had no experience in.
Moe’s Books squatted at the heart of it all; the biggest, most successful, longest-lasting bookstore in town. A palace of unexpurgated culture and used books, from cheap paperbacks to the finest volumes. Today Moe’s still carries on with the same management, decades after “the Sixties” became just another marketing ploy.
I finally opened the package and pulled out a small paper-bound book with a picture of Moe himself on the cover: short and balding, pricing a stack of books.
What lay in my hands was Cometbus #51. Cometbus is an amateur ‘zine written over the decades by a punk musician and punk historian who literally grew up on the streets of Berkeley in the ’70s and ’80s. Issue 51 was his history of Berkeley’s iconic bookstores and their owners, written from his own experience and many, many interviews.
The book was a gift from LK, my bookstore-owner friend. We both knew Telegraph well in those days. He’d mentioned that someone had written up the old days of Telegraph, and promised me a copy. I had no idea that the book would come directly from Moe’s -– or of what a flood of memories that simple envelope would bring.
Bookstore owners are by their nature a moody and eccentric bunch, prone to odd decisions and random flashes of immaturity, anger, and mania. One fantasy author has posited that massive collections of old books actually warp space and time, meaning that many used book dealers have slipped over from other universes where it’s perfectly good practice to go to work in your carpet slippers, open and close when you please, and set prices based on whim or the current air pressure. It’s as good an explanation as any.
The Berkeley booksellers were as prime a bunch of eccentrics as you could ever hope to find. But I knew a bookman who was perhaps even odder: a man who really did play by the rules of a different universe. He has no book of his own, no biography or history in his name. For now, this essay must suffice.
He was a knowledgeable book dealer with a true love of literature – and almost no skill at running a second-hand bookstore, nor any interest in developing it. Even though he built a chain of them and operated them for decades. This man was the contemporary of the Telegraph Avenue bunch. They knew him, he knew them, and he even had his own shop in Berkeley. But he traveled his own road, his own way, and only opened stores where the rent was rock-bottom.
In my mind’s eye, I see a sturdy, elderly man dragging a cheap wire shopping cart up and down the rows of a suburban flea market. The man wears a battered black fedora, dusty black suit coat, and open-neck shirt. The shopping cart holds a few books, two dented cans of fava beans and a carton of smeary supermarket danish that expired perhaps two weeks earlier. Which he has just purchased for 25 cents, and will eat later.
His name was Everett Cunningham and for decades he ran the Joyce Bookshops used bookstore chain in the San Francisco Bay Area. A typical Cunningham bookshop looked like the reference section of a public library – after somebody dropped a hand grenade in it, and homeless people moved in to sell used golf clubs.
That’s cruel – wait, no it’s not. It’s accurate: right down to the golf clubs
Everett Cunningham came out of the West with a good education from the U of Montana and a head full of languages and linguistics. He put his knowledge to work as a translator at the Nuremberg war crimes trials following World War II.
And he developed a love of modern literature. He named the Joyce Bookshops after James Joyce. He was also a huge fan of dada: that cultural movement that espoused anarchy and ridiculed bourgeois thinking and the meaninglessness of modern culture. Those who worked for him, including my friend LK, might agree that dada would inform his business philosophy.
Somewhere along the line, Everett learned the book trade and opened his bookstores: almost always in the skid row district of whatever city they were in.
Over the years Joyce Bookstores opened and closed throughout the Bay Area, but there were never less than a couple of them and as many as ten at one point. Everett used to call himself “The Last of the Empire Builders, the Largest West of Chugwater.” He gave himself the title of Uberungameinageneraldirektor, which was a German portmanteau meaning, something like heap big major general director. I attribute these statements to Everett’s love of absurdism, distrust of authority (even in himself) and a sense of humor as dry as talc.
Everett Cunningham was expert with many kinds of scholarly and high-end books, and he knew how to dispose of them privately. But when he stocked his own shops, the books were always priced wrong: too high or too low. Much was elderly and uninteresting at any price.
And again, Everett’s bookstores were drab and strange. Where he decorated at all, he did it with intent to befuddle, confuse, and outrage. He would intentionally seek out and buy very bad amateur drawings or paintings at the flea market and hang them on the walls of his stores; he’d label them with odd captions of his own devising. The most notorious of these was an oil painting of a dead man lying in a casket, captioned “It was in the Trib,” from the advertising slogan of the Oakland Tribune newspaper.
Still, book lovers and collectors visited Everett’s shops regularly. If you had the patience to hack your way through the dross and disorder, there was no telling what you might find. Maybe even Everett. In costume. He liked costumes, though he thought of them as ‘conceptual art.” LK remembers the time Everett attended a stuffy antiquarian book fair in a green cowboy outfit: solid green, down to the chaps. The stuffy antiquarians were not amused; but they knew Everett. What could they do?
Everett’s stores were also famous for their ”quarter books:” ancient paperbacks displayed on big tables or carts near the front of the store. Twenty-five cents each, or ten for a buck. Even then many of them were collectible and capable of bringing good prices. But Everett didn’t care. It seemed to me that bookstores were just ways of getting rid of books he personally didn’t have much use for.
I heard stories: he had a vast pile of old comic books in his warehouse – worth several dollars apiece – that he insisted on selling for five cents each in his stall out at the Napa Flea Market. LK recalls the time that he found an extremely valuable first edition propping up the toilet tank in the restroom at Everett’s warehouse.
At Everett’s flea market stall, I once got the full first year of Sports Illustrated magazine in mint condition for almost nothing – including the famous first issue with its fold-out of 1954 baseball cards. It was probably worth fifty bucks even then, if you could find one. I got it for 50 cents.
He had some good employees. He paid them little but they learned on the job and soon knew what would sell and what wouldn’t. They told Everett that he was letting good money slip through his fingers.
But to little avail. He’d just cut them off or give them The Smile: a wry, steady, big-toothed smile delivered with good eye contact. An impenetrable smile that warded off arguments.
And despite everything – or because of it – Everett was both well-known and well-loved in the Bay Area book scene. He’d been around forever, he was knowledgeable in his field, and was a friend to other book dealers both old and new. He was a sweet guy to talk to; and a little eccentric, which always makes a conversation more interesting.
Late in his career, Everett did one of the most constructive things I ever saw a bookman do. The storefront next to his Gull Bookshop in Oakland went vacant, and he turned it into a co-op bookstore for all the specialty book dealers he knew who dealt books by mail or at events.
There was no eBay in those days, no Internet, so these dealers had no regular place to display their stock to the public. Everett gave them that. They paid a certain monthly fee per bookshelf occupied – which was low, this being Everett – and put a special code in all their stock. At the end of the month, Everett would give them the proceed from any books of theirs that had sold, sans rent.
Everett’s idea worked; the store drew book collectors and dealers from throughout the Bay Area. If you wanted to talk books, that was the place to go. LK and I rented some shelf space together there, and sold a lot. I’m sure Everett didn’t get rich, but – that never seemed to be the point.
That was when I got to know Everett best; we talked a fair amount as I came by to restock; he took me out to lunch at a terrible, terrible drive-in on MacArthur Boulevard. ”I really like the food here,” he told me. And since he was paying, I agreed. LK later told me he always dragged people to that drive-in, and everybody endured the terrible food.
Linguist, scholarly bookman, slipshod bookstore owner, absurdist, benefactor to others: the man had a lot of sides. He was a politician, too, or pretended to be. He ran a dada campaign for city council in Walnut Creek on the Fun and Games ticket. His slogan: ”Vote for Everett Cunningham, the Cunning Linguist.”
The newspaper printed a long article on Everett’s nonsensical platform: he
promised to establish a community center for low-riders inside Rossmoor, a well-to-do retirement community, so that the low-riders and the elderly Republican residents ”could learn to relate to each other.” He also proposed restoring a defunct pornographic movie theater is Walnut Creek’s prestigious downtown district to improve the business climate in the area.
Everett’s city council campaign generated much discussion in conservative Walnut Creek – and a fair amount of hysterical laughter. And when one considers the antics of today’s politicians in Washington, perhaps Everett was guilty of nothing more than prescience. He came in fifth in a field of nine for a three-seat election; not too shabby for a dada politician.
Everett Cunningham died some years back; once the news got out, old employees and fellow bookmen gathered to honor him and share remembrances. A selection of Everett’s trademark ”quarter books” graced every table. And a good time was had by all as they swapped stories about this kindly eccentric.
But is “eccentric” is the right label to put on Everett’s file in the Big Archives? Consider a man who went out of his way to avoid success, enjoyed putting people off balance, and rejected “help” offered by others. Personally, I don’t that think help was required. I propose that Everett Cunningham had exactly what he needed and knew exactly what he was doing.
This was, after all, a man who subjected a staunchly Republican community to a crazy dada campaign for public office. A man with such a low opinion of authority that, when was told his warehouse building was not zoned to be a warehouse, promptly renamed it a ”Technical Processing Center.” And got away with it.
And this was a man who, as a businessman and scholar, did everything he could to disparage the very roles that he had taken in life.
I see that wry, big-toothed smile in my mind, and I wonder if Everett the supposed eccentric wasn’t having a long, dry, joke on everyone around him. A decades-spanning dada performance of unprecedented scope. A life as dada. I remember that smile; and I wonder.
(Thanks on this one to LK for the many, many details that made this piece richer and way more accurate.)