Mourning the passing of something worthwhile

DOES clerking at a bookstore even count as a blue-collar job?

Well, I belonged to a union, and I punched a time clock. But I had to take a book-knowledge test to get that job at Cody's on Telegraph, the best bookstore in Berkeley.

I had to know Andy Goldsworthy from John Galsworthy; if a customer asked for that artist who worked in nature, in ephemera, deliberately setting up sculptures to decay and erode, I knew she wanted Goldsworthy. "Rivers & Tides," the documentary about him, was hot in 2002.

As my time at Cody's progressed, I wanted to bleach my collar white. I wanted a job that could pay me enough to use the travel books we stocked. Hong Kong, Helsinki, Seattle — I thought money was keeping them from me.

Now I know it's will. If I'd made it a priority, I could have gone then, but I still don't.

E-mails and calls have been trickling in from Bay Area friends, tentative with grief. They told me that Cody's on Telegraph, the flagship store for the tiny Cody's Books chain, will close on July 10.

What is it like for an old job to pass away?

Starting July 10, no clerk will point up from the information desk to show a customer the Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole in the ceiling. Cody's sold "The Satanic Verses" when other stores wouldn't and got a letter bomb for its trouble.

When I stood at that desk, that hole hovered above me, like a halo, ready to remind me that it was all worthwhile, that I was Doing Something.

Even when a customer asked for "Of My Cement" (meaning Steinbeck's "Of Mice And Men") or requested "The Odyssey" in the original Latin, I was helping civilization along.

On slow afternoons, I'd restock sections, alphabetizing by author as I went, facing-out classics and best-sellers. Once I'd finished, I basked in the sheer order I'd created.

I knew that, within minutes, customers would come along and start ripples of chaos in my beautiful shelves. But I basked anyway.

Andy Goldsworthy knows what that's like.

Starting July 10, no Cody's patron will drift toward the cookbooks in the middle of the afternoon, when the smells of baking from Bay King next door make him hungry. Neither Christopher Hitchens nor Dave Eggers will speak at 7:30 p.m. on the second floor, packing the house.

I remember a superstar sci-fi author drawing such a huge crowd that his fans spilled onto the stairs and near the first floor's benches, listening blissfully as his speech was piped out the intercom.

And when Chuck Palahniuk spoke at Cody's on Telegraph, a batch of fans dressed as the waiters from "Fight Club" were there to greet him.

I didn't notice the second floor until a friend pointed at it; I'd shopped there many times before, and blinked, amazed. Years later, when I hoped to rise beyond mere floor clerking, I got myself transferred to the hidden part of the second floor, where we sold books in bulk to schools and businesses.

But even that didn't agree with me; customer service had more joy in the face-to-face, without Excel spreadsheets and purchase orders.

Maybe I didn't put enough will into rising at Cody's.

Did I ever talk about my career with my bosses? Did I let them know that I wanted more power and responsibility so we could devise a career ladder for me? I doubt I did. I've never been comfortable discussing ambition, mine or anyone else's.

Ambition means planning, and I hesitate to make scaffolding out of the uncertain future. I can't see the second floor if it's all I can do to visualize the step right in front of me.

I left after 10 months, for what turned out to be a much-better-paying dead-end customer service job. I got a cubicle and a timesheet instead of a counter and a punch card, and the owners didn't help take calls at Christmas.

I had to get used to entering Cody's as a customer again, locked out of the computerized catalog and the break room. A beloved coworker fell deathly ill, and I only heard about it after he recovered.

Now the bookstore's illness has worsened, and Cody's is amputating a limb to survive.

That uncertain future has resolved into the abyss. I want to make the time and set aside the money to come back to visit my old store, one last time, before all those memories lose their place.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at