Monday, June 26, 2006

Oxford Memories

Whenever I go on vacation, I tend to visit college campuses and bookstores in whatever town I am visiting. These are not the usual tourist attractions, but I like them because they are pretty and relaxing and they give me a warm feeling of tranquility and intellectual challenge. Serendipitously, colleges and good bookstores they are often found near each other.

When we visited the San Francisco Bay area a few years ago, we stopped for the afternoon at the University of California campus in the People’s Republic of Berkeley and walked down to the Cody’s Books on Telegraph Road. It was a delightfully chaotic store full of light with a rough-hewn charm. My son found a book he had been looking for and I bought from a street vendor a tie-dyed tee shirt that screams “Souvenir of Berkeley” much louder than anything with actual words on it.

Sue Trowbridge recently off-handedly mentioned that the Telegraph Road branch of Cody’s was going out of business. I’m sorry to see it go. For a few decades now, independent bookstores have been falling like canaries in a mine disaster.

A bookstore I miss tremendously is Oxford Books in Atlanta and I’m not the only one. When I first discovered it while in college, it was just an oversized strip center store with a very small narrow mezzanine that served coffee, pastries, and Dr Browns sodas. Nowadays every self-respecting bookstore has to have a snack bar, but back then this was a major innovation. Oxford was my favorite late night haunt. On weekends I think it was open very late, until 1 am or something. It was in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center between Midtown and Buckhead which made it very convenient to swing by after dinner or a movie and browse. I spent many a late weekend night with my future wife just browsing and soaking up the atmosphere.

Then it expanded into the space next door, nearly doubling in size. Up at the top of the parking lot, right off of fabled Peachtree Street, there was a large old house that became Oxford Too. This became my favorite haunt. The front of the store had aisles of remaindered and discount books. Then there was an enormous used books section. Oxford Too also had comic books and sheet music, but the draw for me was the separately walled off collectible book section. This portion kept irregular hours at the whim of the manager that maintained it, but it had rows of vintage science fiction and contemporary literature. As a college student, this stuff was well out of my price range, but it gave me ambition.

After I graduated and moved out of town, the entire Oxford establishment moved into an old car dealership on Pharr Road. This location was simply enormous and became the literary center of Atlanta. There would be multiple books signings by famous authors daily. The little coffeshop had grown into a full-size restaurant. Individual departments had rooms as big as the original store. The owner of Oxford was trying to go toe-to-toe with the BigBoxOfBooks™ chains that had cornered him in that area.

Then Oxford became a business school case study in how not to manage growth in an economic downswing. I wasn’t around to watch the fall, but I was shocked and dismayed to hear that such an institution could be brought down so suddenly and thoroughly. Now at the original Peachtree Battle location there is a branch of an independent mini-chain ironically called Chapter 11 Books. I have no idea whether there is any association karmic-ly or otherwise with Oxford, but the name alone stands as an Ozymandias -like warning.

Nowadays, my whole family will spend several hours on a weekend night at the local BigBoxOfBooks™ thumbing through magazines, reading manga (Well, at least my son. A bookstore manga aisle is a hotter teen-dweeb spot than Xanga.), and drinking over-priced highly-caffeinated milkshakes. The experience is pleasant and relaxing. And sterile. Nothing will ever replace the charm and haphazard joy of the legendary Oxford Books.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What is or was your favorite bookstore?

Update: I've added this picture of the tower at Berkeley because I ran across it going through old photos. Unfortunately, I don't have picture of Cody's or Oxford.


Gypsy said...

I loved, loved, loved Oxford Books! When my brother was in school at Georgia Tech that was always on our must-do list when we visited.

There's a great used bookstore in Mesa, AZ called Bookman's. It's right up there with Oxford, too, as is The Book Broker in Colorado Springs, CO.

Jamy said...

Hmm...I frequently all the bookstores in Berkeley on my many visits there. There is one in Ann Arbor called "Dawn Treader" that I liked a lot. In Seattle, "Elliot Bay Books" is quite good.

But I don't love bookstores. I'm more a library person!

yellojkt said...

I've been to Elliot Bay. Bought the tee-shirt. If and when I blog about bookstores again, I'll post my photo of the stained glass window.

I also went to Black Oak in both Berkeley and SF. Dropped a ton of money on collectibles in both places.

Elizabeth said...

When we were in Portland my husband took me to a bookstore called Powell's Books. It was huge and a lot of fun to look through!

Elizabeth said...

Ooops, forgot to comment on my favorite bookstore. I love love love Gulliver's Books in Fairbanks, Alaska!

yellojkt said...

Powell's is enormous. I have that tee shirt too. See a trend?

Impetua said...

I live near Portland and have been frequenting Powell's since I was in middle school... it is ginormous.

My favorite bookstore is in Depoe Bay, I believe it's called the Channel Bookstore. It's homey and crammed to the rafters with used books, and there are always several cats and kittens lurking about. It has that musty books-by-the-sea smell. I have been searching for copies of books that I had as a kid and happened upon a treasure trove of them there a couple of years ago.

I've been to Gulliver's in Fairbanks too and whiled away a pleasant afternoon there. My favorite places to visit on vacations are bookstores and stationery stores (mostly just in Europe, since they have cool paper products there that are different than here).

Anonymous said...

OK, there is nothing to beat Powell's. I mean, seriously, a bookstore where they hand out maps at the entrance! I lived in Portland for a couple of years and even worked near Pioneer Square; heaven! Powell's is the thing I miss the most since I moved to Germany.

On a smaller scale, I used to really enjoy going to Book Village in Pasadena (CA not TX) back when Nick Smith (of filking fame) worked there. It really had that air of a place where you could find the sort of book that would land you in a Lovecraft story.

Planet 10 in Pasadena was nice for SF while it lasted, but the people who ran it just weren't really up to running a bookstore. And for mysteries there's no place like Book 'em in South Pasadena (but I went to school with the owners' kids and I may be biased).

Anonymous said...

There was a bookstore in New Hyde Park, NY, which had another branch in...I think it was Long Beach or Freeport. They were both little hole-in-the-wall stores, and they carried new and used books, nearly all of them paperbacks. The shelves went easily eight feet high and the books themselves were often two-deep on the shelves. Everytime you went it was a treasure hunt. They didn't have a café, they didn't have big honkin' Comfy Chairs (nor did they have space for them), but they had a very deep catalog and if they didn't have something in stock, they could get it within a couple of days. And then when you were through with them, you brought them back and got a partial credit on your next purchase.

They're gone now, sadly. Probably because there's a B&N in New Hyde Park now.

Yello, have you been to Daedalus since they opened up in Belvedere Square?

yellojkt said...

Haven't been to Daedulus. I live a couple of miles from the warehouse in Columbia and have never been there either. I never find much to interest me in remaindered bokk stores. Sometimes I can find hardbacks of books I want that are cheaper than paperbacks, but they have the remaindered stripe.

Trinity13 said...

I used to got to my local Barnes and Noble, but now I like Half Price Books...need I explain why? :-)

Anonymous said...

Denver has a pretty great big-indi bookstore in The Tattered Cover. I've spent many a dollar there. It just moved and I haven't checked the new spot. It's not as convenient a location, but I would still prefer giving my money to them than B&N or Borders. They have done a lot to fight government intrusion on who is reading what. Thanks PATRIOT act, hope the fact that I'm reading Housekepping prevents some terrorism.

yellojkt said...

I hope to get to The Tattered Cover this summer. They have a great podcast where they tape the author talks at their signings.

Anonymous said...

I have seen some really great readings there, with the best being Jonathan Lethem and John Hodgman, who blew my puny mind.

Anonymous said...

hey foma,

came across your blog while searching for oxford books. i used to be an employee of both oxford at pharr and oxford at peachtree battle ('90-'94). yeah, sad that they're gone. great place to hang out for hours, great place to socialize, and a great place to work. i cherish my memories of those years.

Anonymous said...

Oxford Bookstore on Pharr Road was a great loss to me.

Does anybody have any photos of the store before it was demolished?

Please let me know.

I have one of the building when it was a car dealership.

It was ingeniously layed out, from the entrances, to the art gallery, video section, music section, rare books, etc.

Steve said...

Pretty effective piece of writing, thanks for the post. said...

I fully tie in with everything you have printed.

utenzi said...

I used to go to Oxford Too quite frequently. And Oxford was great for the frequent autograph signings that were held there. I must have over 50 books that were signed there.