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Books Are Dead. Long Live Books.

The artist cooperatives, innovative bookstores, poetry reading series, presses, and gritty, grassroots communities behind the East Bay's literary renaissance.



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Heywood dismissed the idea that literary events have to cater to tradition. "A while back we featured a beautiful menu from a Swiss Air flight that traveled from New York to Zurich in 1964," he said. "It was signed on the front page by the poet W. H. Auden. We worked with a chef to put together that exact menu again, and served dinner in the shop. We had a speaker who told us about Auden's traveling habits. Much of what we try to do is reach out and show people books are fun, colorful, and life-affirming."

At another Book/Shop event, the entire store was stripped down so it was empty except for vintage French poetry books and a chocolatier serving fine chocolate. "The smell was amazing," Heywood said. "The books were gorgeous, and they were only out for that night. When you came in the next morning, you'd never know it even happened. We want to create that kind of magic."

Book/Shop also sells reading accessories, such as watercolor-patterned book sleeves and brass-and-leather goatskin bookmarks. But like many items in the store, the $95 price tag is not for everyone. Books range from $10 to $500, and tip toward the higher end.

This upscale approach is not a typical feature of the East Bay's bookstore and literary resurgence, however. What's happening elsewhere is multi-faceted, highly accessible, and low-cost.

According to the media, the future of reading lies in Kindles and eBooks. Heywood begs to differ. And another voice of dissent has risen from a second new indie bookstore in Oakland: E. M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore. Located in downtown, it is a funkier, cheaper response to the question of how to enliven the bookstore environment.

When you arrive at the store, you might encounter a "Reader in Residence" who sits in a chair by the front window, next to a pile of books. A reader is on duty most days, and you can ask him or her questions about books and authors, or have him or her read out loud to you.

In the back of the store, a gallery hosts monthly visual art shows. One recent offering, dubbed California Radiation Sickness Summer Camp 2014, featured psychedelic poem paintings that spelled out messages like "Free Love in the Blood and Shit Covered Streets of Oakland" and "Doing Dishes in the Bathroom Sink at 4 a.m." Another show, All of the Secret Spots, consisted of 275 photos retrieved from an abandoned bag. It revealed the beloved stairs, railings, lips, and curbs where Bay Area skaters love to test their art.

The gallery space is home to monthly events, as well. Like those at Book/Shop, they depart from the tradition of the staid literary reading. One night I stopped in and people were making necklaces with twine and uncooked pasta while drinking free beer. This was the prelude to the main event: four writers reading their pieces from the recently released zine Macaroni Necklace. Everyone in attendance got a free copy of the zine.

"What's great about this place is that I can say 'yes' to everyone," said E. M. Wolfman's founder Justin Carder. "Everybody who wants to do something, I can facilitate that. There's now a platform. There's space and time."

Carder has been in the store five days a week from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. without fail since the bookstore's opening in January. "One of the reasons why I didn't open Wolfman in North Oakland, where there are more galleries, is that I wanted there to be more things going on in [downtown] — alternative spaces," he said.

The store recently hosted a Hell and Demonic Possession Zine Release Party. Contributors presented material from their comics, essays, and short stories. One writer read her essay on art vandalism while in full corpse makeup. Another played heavy metal music backward to reveal the satanic messages hidden therein. A third reader recited over ambient drone music.

"Once we had four bands play in-store," Carder said. "After their performance, we chose a random person and asked everyone in the audience to write a letter to her. We collected twenty letters by the end of the night. It was a weird invitation to do something different with the show format."

Wolfman has a large experimental poetry selection curated by the Berkeley-based literary arts organization Small Press Distribution. The current assortment features Dodie Bellamy's TV Sutras, a spiritual text generated using the author's television, and Camille Roy's Sherwood Forest, a book of erotica-tinged experimental poetry.

One section of the store features books from local publishers. Highlights from the Oakland small press Mondo Bummer include a copy of CA Conrad's "Touch Yourself for Art" and Mills College MFA Poetry graduate Brittany Billmeyer-Finn's chapbook (the geraniums). Offerings from another local publisher, Oakland's Timeless, Infinite Light, include Zoe Tuck's Terror Matrix, complete with hand-drawn spells, and As They Fall, which is Ivy Johnson's deck of divination card poems, which functions as a tool for do-it-yourself fortune-telling.

Those two items reflect Timeless, Infinite Light's intention to represent a variety of East Bay genres. "There's an occult vibe that's rooted in witchcraft," said editor Emji Spero. "There's a queer vibe, with an attention to the body and its porousness. There's a California horoscope yoga thread, and a performance art practice thread."

E. M. Wolfman was one of the thirty venues for the third-annual Beast Crawl, a literary festival that took over Oakland's Uptown District on the night of July 12. The event featured 130 writers and drew upwards of 1,500 audience members. The name of the event is a play on words of the Pig Latin term for "beast," which is "East Bay" — inspired by what the event's website describes as "the classic Oakland image of the giant cranes that stalk our shore."