Today I made my first trip to Berkeley since moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area at the beginning of the week. I was going through my usual ritual of renewal and re-acquaintance, visiting the Farmer’s Market for some lunch and then heading off down Shattuck towards Peet’s and Live Oak Park when disaster struck: The Other Change of Hobbit was gone, boarded up.
I’ve been shopping at The Other Change of Hobbit pretty much my entire life, and it is what all science fiction and fantasy bookstores aspire to, perfection of its kind, particularly in its earlier incarnation, next to the elevators in the Durant parking structural. A big open space, lined and filled with books, with chairs and cushions scattered around for comfy reading, a couple of cats on patrol, and a staff – and clientele – of incredibly knowledgeable and friendly science fiction aficionados, experts on the genre in all its form and manifestations.
Rarely would a visit to Other Change pass without encountering a conversation about “novels that a nephew who enjoyed Star Wars would like” or “what to read after Tolkien/Narnia/Harry Potter” or something more erudite and obscure, such as novels focusing on xeno-sex or featuring species of star-faring intelligent plants, or talking/telepathic horses. As I got older and bolder, I increasingly joined in these discussions, or tried to at least. The patience and encouragement of the staff and the other patrons could set the standard for nurturing young minds and burgeoning interests. There were, of course, disagreements and disputes, but always within an atmosphere of collegiality, affection and respect. And I got to know some of the owners, and Dave Nee in particularly, pretty well over the subsequent years – decades, really, now that I think about it, encountering them in other contexts besides the store, but always finding them to be among the finest examples of the various intelligent species inhabiting this planet.
I’m sure it wasn’t really perfect, that there were mean and stupid customers, and the staff had off days when they were short with kids asking naive questions. But I never saw any of that. It was for me an oasis, a temple, a community.
And today it was gone.
When I came back to the Bay Area briefly a couple of years ago, it was to discover that another bookstore, another key institution of my life, was gone – Cody’s. And over the course of the following year, both Black Oak and Stacey’s shut down for good. But while the loss of these bookstores – particularly Black Oak – was pretty devastating, it was nothing to the feeling I have now, that struck me as I stared at the boarded-up storefront where Other Change used to be. Just ten minutes ago. I sat down here, in the nearest café, to try to collect my thoughts. I still have tears in my eyes. I can’t bear to look online, to see if they have only moved, for fear of what I might find, or rather fail to find.
This will all seem a bit melodramatic if it has indeed only moved, but if that were the case you would think there would have been a notice or sign of some sort. And the truth is I have been expecting something like this ever since I got back – expecting to turn a corner and find something I love gone… But not this. This is really about the worst.