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Bookselling in the East Bay

When I was asked by the owners of Diesel, A Bookstore if I’d like to buy the Oakland location from them, my question was the same one I’m usually asked these days: Why are they selling?

The question is sometimes a coded form of cynicism. There’s a general line of thought—which is slowly being corrected by statistics that say exactly the opposite—that bookstores are dying off. To those of this mind-set, an owner selling is an omen that things must not be going well. At Diesel, though, we have an open-book policy when it comes to our accounting. All staff members are invited to take a look, ask questions, and even make suggestions. Knowing the healthy state of the store, I knew something else was up.

Ultimately, I think their asking boiled down to a love of surfing. When you see a wave building, you have to act. One part of that wave was me. I identified with the professional role of bookselling in a way that they recognized in themselves. There’s also the fact that something really special is brewing in the East Bay. While political commitments and art have never been separated from one another, the link in recent years has become electrifying to witness. Not so long ago, a great deal of art and literature was interested in posing political questions whose answers were mostly held in abeyance. These days, art and literature seem to be reclaiming their desire to articulate answers.

And so I said yes to their offer. Thus was born my sense of what East Bay Booksellers, the new name I envision for the store, could be. Good business and commerce may keep the lights running, but it is the exchange of ideas and experiences that will compel us to turn them on in the first place. This will be exemplified by our tangible commitment to works in translation. The exchange of ideas and experiences I have in mind, this daring to pose an answer (even when there might be multiple), does not simply tack on diversity as an ambition or as an affected or preferred style. On the contrary, who can conceive of such an exchange without diversity (or vice versa)? To regard translation as a niche interest not only does it a disservice but also highlights an isolationist escapism that I want no part of.

As so much of my thinking about bookselling is related to the give-and-take, back-and-forth of conversation, it makes sense that East Bay Booksellers is only a physical reality if the community that benefits from this conversation is able and inclined to help make it so. To date, I’ve raised 70 percent of what I need by way of loans given entirely by customers. It’s been exciting to introduce long-time friends to people new to the East Bay—most of them linked by the desire for a space in common to look for something different. This month, after many requests to do so, we will begin a more traditional crowd-sourcing donation drive. I’d love to see our neighborhood expand even further, beyond what my eyes can see or feet might carry, and welcome your support if this vision is at all in conversation with yours.

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