One complaint is that many of the articles jump to the back of the book, which both interrupts the flow, and requires the reader to flip past the nude pages in the middle to pick up a story. Online, most of the magazine’s content sits behind a pay wall, so the hard copy is the best way to enjoy it. Don’t be bashful. Good journalism awaits. -Katia Bachko

Cometbus, Issue #51: The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah

There is a serious book to be written about the history of independent bookstores in Berkeley, California. It would discuss the rise of the corporate bookstore, real estate manipulations, the declining population of Berkeley in the 1970s, and the free speech movement. “The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah”, a history of the bookstores on Berkeley, California’s Telegraph Avenue, is not that kind of history.

“Electric Menorah” is the latest installment of Cometbus, a punk ‘zine published on and off since 1983 by the writer and musician Aaron Elliott. Conducting over forty interviews with East Bay businessmen, burnouts, and scenesters, Elliott has compiled a full, though largely personal, history of the Berkeley independent bookstore.

The conventional independent bookstore is, of course, run by a middle-aged woman with a B.A. from Mt. Holyoke and a husband who is a senior executive at a major company. The owner is pleasant and loves books, though her tastes may range toward the conservative: classic literature, coffee table books about English manor houses, etc.

As Elliott demonstrates, this was not the story of the Berkeley bookstore. With the notable exception of something like Mrs. Dalloway’s, owned by an elegant daughter-in-law of McGeorge Bundy, Berkeley bookstores were owned by hard-nosed types. In 1963, Moe Moskowitz and Bill Cartwright opened the first of these bookstores, Rambam, on Telegraph Avenue. The pair soon split up. Cartwright opened Shakespeare and Co., and Moe, a cigar-smoking millionaire and former anarchist, opened Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. The two men, naturally, hated one another and their businesses were rivals.

Cometbus #51 spins out from there, telling the story of a few heavily competitive stores run by several highly eccentric men. It is a compelling story, particularly in the way that the author manages to place this narrow retail history in the broader context of the 1970s. Apparently Bob Baldock, who ran Moe’s Books for Moskowitz, was involved in the Cuban revolution as a young man, and fought with Fidel Castro in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra Mountains. Yes, that actually happened. And in between robbing a bank and setting pipe bombs in Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars, Kathy Soliah, a key figure in the Symbionese Liberation Army, worked at the Campus Textbook Exchange on Bancroft.

“Electric Menorah” is a fascinating resource for anyone interested in history of the Bay Area, but it helps a lot to be familiar with Berkeley (and even then, it’s hard to follow without the benefit of Google and a map). “Electric Menorah” also does a lot of name dropping. Oddly, this doesn’t come across as pretentious so much as just confusing, because none of the largely forgotten bookstore owners’ names are familiar. Though the issue is less than 100 pages long, a diligent reader should be prepared to keep a running list of the people mentioned.

Still, the issue is entertaining and well structured, and Elliott is a likable narrator, low-key yet opinionated, determined to tell this story his way, no matter whom he might offend. When he describes Salman Rushdie’s visit to one Berkeley bookstore, Elliott says:

Ugh. Hear him speak and you’ll find out why he got what he deserved. The guy’s a total ass.

This quotation is not defended and is maybe not terribly useful, but this unprofessionalism does not undermine the issue. “Electric Menorah” is a personal history. If you think the winner of the Booker Prize and the author of The Satanic Verses is an ass, go ahead and say it; it’s your damn magazine. This is, perhaps, the entire point. Elliott not only wrote the entire issue of Cometbus, he apparently printed it, too, using a photocopier—as he has done for twenty-five years. The author’s irregular language is a specific choice. He is embracing unprofessionalism, as did the bookstores he loves (for all their flaws) on Telegraph Avenue . -Daniel Luzer

News Photographer, January 2009

CJR Staff is a contributor to CJR.