The real Berkeley.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The silence is so intense that one’s own thoughts feel like noise. The Delhi Walla is at the Berkeley Books of Paris, one of the best secondhand English language bookstores in the French capital.
Berkeley is a minute-long walk away from San Francisco, another absorbing English-language secondhand bookstore. The two landmarks are near the historic Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in the heart of Paris. Both shops are dangerous—you could spend an entire day in either of them buying scores of books you never thought existed but on spotting them you realized you have been looking for them all your life.
But it’s Berkeley with its cool balmy lights, old typewriters and a great reading chair that has the atmosphere of a literary saloon. The wall next to the counter is plastered with bookmarks from bookshops across the world—there is one from the legendary City Lights in San Francisco.
The shop has thousands and thousands of books. The hushed dignity of old hardbounds makes this dimly-lit world feel like one of those places in Paris that are famous for being once frequented by writers like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. Surely, Sartre would have always settled down on that chair beside the Poetry section to compose his ideas, you might feel.
But the shop was founded in May, 2006. And it was to shut down two years ago–according to the woman at the counter.
Phyllis Cohen (see top photo) founded Berkley with two friends, Phil Wood and Richard Toney. All of them were from near Berkeley in California. Interrupting her work, she tells the story of this shop.
“The three of us met in another bookstore in Paris in 1999… at the San Francisco (bookstore), just around the corner. I was then working there. Phil was its co-owner and Richard was my colleague there. Together we started Berkeley. But later I quit Paris for an UN job in The Hague and left the shop to Phil and Richard. Two years ago I was in Paris for a weekend and came to visit the store. Phil was ill and wasn’t there and Richard said he was soon closing the place. He said he could not manage it alone… the shop was in awful shape. Windows were dirty. Stacks of books were piled up everywhere on the floor making it impossible to reach the shelves. People weren’t coming anymore.”
Ms Cohen immediately decided to quit her prestigious job to save Berkley. She bought the store from her friends and returned to Paris.
Today, she says, the customers have returned and the shop tries to stay relevant–also–by routinely hosting book readings and exhibitions. Occasional music concerts last beyond midnight. “And Phil and Richard, who have retired and continue to live in Paris, come to visit me once a month,” she says. Talking of them, she adds, “Among us three, only I don’t have a white beard, so far. Richard is 85, Phil is 80.”
Ms Cohen is half their age.
She had first arrived in Paris as a student of literature and philosophy. Years ago, she had also worked in a New York bookstore. Each time the poor lady tries to acquire the semblance of a normal life by hitching on to a regular job, she is hit by a “crisis of conscience.”
There should never be a cure for such a beautiful disorder. If Ms Cohen hadn’t suffered from it, there would have been no Berkeley today and our lives would have been less fulfilling, our libraries less packed.