Next installment in our series of independent bookstores is Book Zoo. Not exactly the antithesis of our starting point Walden Pond Books (the owners actually worked there before opening up their own shop), it is, however, the smallest bookstore I’ll be covering. So from largest to smallest, we bookend our collection… we’ll fill in the rest of the shelf over the next week or so.
Book Zoo is a rare breed of bookstore. I was going to say “dying” breed, but I didn’t want to start off on a dour note, because this is truly something to cherish rather than mourn. These guys are old-school. Really old-school. They don’t even have a cash register… instead using a secret compartment in a hollowed out book as their cash stash. It’s incredible.
What’s more incredible is their uniquely curated collection of books. Limited by their small store, they don’t try to be everything to everyone, and they don’t carry books that are easily found elsewhere. In fact, owner Erik Lyngen has an almost disdain for the commonly popular. And as one who fails to understand the mass-appeal of much current pop-culture (e.g. – American Idol), I completely get where he’s coming from.
Book Zoo sells almost exclusively used books, about 95%; the other 5% are remainders. They buy their books from the local community and are highly selective about what they’ll take. You’ll find this is the case with most used bookstores these days (other than places like Half Price Books in Berkeley who’ll take your whole load, but give you pennies on the dollar). They have to maintain inventories that they think will move, or that will at least be uniquely interesting.
When I asked Erik specifically what type of stuff he was looking for, he said, “the juicy stuff.” I asked what that meant, and he said, “you know how people are constantly cycling through books, clearing off their shelves to make way for new ones, but no matter how many garage sales they have, or how many used book stores they sell to, there’s one corner of the bookcase that they just can’t part with. That’s the stuff we want.” The unusual, the eclectic, often radical, and weirdly unconventional… drugs, sex, occult, philosophy, poetry, sci-fi pulp. You get the idea.
You can see this from just a quick glimpse at their storefront. While others typically host the current top sellers, Book Zoo features titles like The Ballet Lover’s Companion, Ecology of Fear, Visions ~ A History of the East Bay African American Community, Female Desires, Fighting for G.O.D. (Gold, Oil, & Drugs), and Cuntionary (you’ll have to go see for yourself what that one’s all about).
I asked about the challenges of competing with the likes of Amazon or Borders, but these guys aren’t competing in that arena at all. They’ve really carved out their own niche, creating a one of a kind experience that can’t be replicated online, or in a homogenous chain. This is not the bookstore you come to with a book in mind, expecting to find it, or counting on them to order it for you. No. You come to Book Zoo to browse. To explore. To find something unexpected. For example, there’s a small rack of poetry books & pamphlets near the front door, including handmade books by the likes of Greying Ghost Press who “seek to reassure the reading public that printed matter won’t vanish.”
This falls in line with Erik’s philosophy as well. He’s not worried about the future of reading printed books. He offers this brief exercise… Imagine you could create your own dream community Main Street. What would you have? Among other things (grocery store, cafe, post office, etc.) you would undoubtedly have a bookstore, wouldn’t you? I would.
Erik and partner Nick Raymond have created a warm & comfortable spot at 6395 Telegraph Ave. near the intersection of Alcatraz. It’s a tough location, being more car-friendly than pedestrian-oriented, but they’ve established Book Zoo as a destination in itself. Unusual art, posters, and artifacts decorate the walls, comfortable chairs & couches beckon visitors to sit and stay awhile, and a nice children’s section in the back welcomes kids too. They might even get to meet Ramona, Erik’s daughter and spunky helper on-hand (pictured above).
Their hours are limited… signs and website playfully say “By Appointment and or Chance.” Some may find this frustrating, but the truth is they simply don’t have the luxury to be open all the time, both owners having other jobs to make ends meet. The store is a real labor of love, and while friends pitch in to cover shifts, Erik admits they are chronically understaffed. You’ll mostly find them open Tuesday – Friday Evenings and most weekends. They also host frequent events, typically featuring live music. Check out their schedule here, as well as Erik’s photos of events and collection of customer portraits.
Go visit Book Zoo, and support your local independent booksellers!