Big Dada Books

The mail came: a thick manilla envelope with my name on it. I picked it up and read the return address:

dada moes

Moe’s Books
2476 Telegraph Avenue
Berkeley, CA

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.

dada menorah

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 a simple envelope could 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 owned 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 (or bought existing used bookstores) 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 began opening or acquiring bookstores: almost always in the skid row district of whatever city they were in.

Over the years various Joyce Bookshops opened and closed throughout the Bay Area, but there were never less than a couple of them: 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:” drab, ancient hardcovers displayed on big tables or carts near the front of the store. Twenty-five cents each, or ten for a buck. You might find a bit of gold in there if you looked closely, or on the cheap-paperback cart.

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 to help him scout out and acquire books. 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 that 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 on a Saturday afternoon, that was the place to go. LK and I rented some shelf space together there, and sold a lot. I’m sure that Everett didn’t get rich, but – that never seemed to be the point.

Around then 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 local 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 if cynical 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.)

12 thoughts on “Big Dada Books

    1. admin Post author

      Who knows, Gnome? I looked into starting a used bookstore some years back — even started building stock. But eventually I figured out that it was a quick way to lose money, at least around here. Those I know who thrive in it have special circumstances, and a lot of experience. The used bookstoreis, at least at this point, a declining breed.

      One of the things my friend LK tells me about the book biz these days is that browsers are fewer, at least in his store. He gets people who come in seeking one particular book that they’ve heard about in the media; and that’s all they want. Obviously e-books are taking their share, but I think some people only have time to get their info in snippets online.

      I had the idea that I would display two groups of books based only on the amount of time it would take to read a discrete, self-contained section of each one: five-minute books and ten-minute books. Short-short story collections, collections of myths and legends, popular culture quick biographies of authors or actors or directors or songwriters or politicians, “instant history” books with essays that summarize the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the causes of World War I in three pages, and on and on. Anything you could read in five minutes, put down, and then pick up again at any time, at any place in the book, which would ride in your briefcase or purse or backpack (or by the toilet), waiting.

      I don’t think I could have supported a store on that, but had it succeeded it’d have been an interesting confirmation of changes in the American lifestyle.

  1. LK

    Nicely done boomer! Everett was a vivid character and a complex man. I think you did a wonderful job of describing a difficult-to-describe personality. Every now-and-then I get a customer at my shop who remembers Everett and I get another view of him. I hope your blog can elicit a few more of those. Thanks for the memories!

    1. admin Post author

      LK: no problem. Many of those memories were yours to start with. It was a pleasure to reintroduce Everett to the Internet.

      I did a little research just now to see if there was much else out there about Everett; there isn’t, but he was quoted in a 30-year-old article about Moe as once having had a bookstore right across the street from Moe’s. I thought he’d never had a store on Telegraph; do you know? Of course journalists are never wrong, right?

      1. LK

        I don’t recall Everett ever saying whether he had a book shop in Berkeley. When I worked for him, he had two shops in Oakland (The Gull and the Franklin Street Store), a shop in Concord (always called “The Joyce Bookshop”), and his flea market stall at the Napa/Vallejo Flea Market. And his Technical Processing Center in Martinez, of course, usually referred to as the “TPC.” My understanding is that he often bought existing shops in the area that were going under and would then keep them going, sometimes for several years. Don’t know how many he had all at once. He had one in San Francisco, tho. It was referred to by Herb Caen in one of his typical man-about-town columns. Everett had placed a lady mannequin in the window of his shop and labeled her “Mrs. Suburbia” or some such. This merited a mention in Caen’s column.

        1. admin Post author

          LK: the article mentioned that Everett’s shop was across the street from Moe’s location “25 years ago.” Since the article is from ’83, that would have been the late ’50s. I don’t think all the dates in that article quite match up with reality; but in any case, it would have been a very long time ago.

          I specifically remember him telling me that at one point he had ten shops; I might have gotten him wrong, might have been ten shops total. Or he might have had ten shops for some very short period of time. I can’t imagine him staying on top of an empire like that for very long.

          1. LK

            Everett rarely visited any of his shops when I worked for him. He hadn’t been to the Napa/Vallejo Flea Market in many years and I know he didn’t go to Oakland during the entire time I worked for him (about 4 years). He pretty much hired older retired folks to operate his shops and then left them alone. I recall him saying that he hired the best retired beer-truck drivers and former waitresses to run his shops. As you observed, making a big success of his book shop empire wasn’t what Everett was about.

  2. Forrest Seale

    You’ve met some interesting people along the way, haven’t you? There seem to be many fewer of these types around these days. Or maybe they’ve just completely given up and moved to the shade of a big tree in the middle of a very large tract of BLM land. Of course most have no need of a solar panel to recharge the cell phone. That’s what sets them apart from the rest of us in 2013. BTW – Thanks for the visit – it was a pleasant surprise. I thought all had forgotten about it after all this time.

    1. admin Post author

      It’s hard to say where they’ve gone, Forrest. Somebody like Everett Cunningham would have a hard time operating today, I suspect; rather large new (and expensive) buildings stand now where some of his old stores used to be. I have a friend who has other friends who live non-standard existences in illegal cabins on private land up in the hills; one guy is going college in his ’40s on no money by living on the street in a ‘stealth” camper he built for his truck. This guy still has hooks into the “real” world: a gym membership so he can take showers, a storage locker for his tools (he works construction), and of course free wifi and power plugs at certain coffee houses. They’re all out there somewhere.

      I never forget a good blog, Forrest; I’m like the dog who always comes back, eventually, to sniff the territory again 🙂 Was glad to read what you wrote.

  3. azure

    Enjoyed the story and forwarded a link to this blog entry to a friend of mine who, w/her husband, ran a bookstore in Berkeley in the 1960’s, I think. I didn’t know her then, didn’t become friends w/her until years later.

    She & her husband moved to Oregon in the 1970’s– plenty of people walking their own path in OR in the 1970’s and into the 1980’s.

  4. azure

    Heard from friend, she liked the blogpost. She & her husband owned Cody’s a bookstore she says very near Moe’s. I think they owned Cody’s for about ten years. I think/not sure.

    1. admin Post author

      Azure: Good. I looked through the book, and I don’t think they’re in there. Description of Cody’s owners in the book skips from Cody straight to some guy named Andy Ross, who also ran it for a very long time. I bet they sold it to Ross, and the author of the book just decided not to mention them.


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