Doris Moskowitz (right), owner of Moe’s, and chef Suzanne Drexhage at the launch of a cookbook discussion series at the bookstore Wednesday

We already knew that Berkeley is one of the nation’s brainiest cities. Today, released data that shows that Berkeley is the third best-read city in the country.

Amazon, by far the largest bookseller in the world, looked at its sales data since the beginning of the year for books, magazines and newspapers, in both print and Kindle form, for all cities larger than 100,000. Cambridge, MA, home of both MIT and Harvard, unsurprisingly tops the table on a per head basis.

Perhaps some readers will do a double take at the second city on the list, Alexandria, VA, until they think of the large numbers of policy wonks and military-industrial analysts in the Washington, D.C. Beltway community (Arlington, home of the Pentagon, figures at 10th in the list, and D.C. itself lands at 14th).

Berkeley’s heady place in the rankings might be a mixed blessing for the independent bookstores in town (Berkeleyside, by the way, never links to Amazon for books — we’d rather our readers go to a Berkeley bookstore). Or, perhaps, if it were possible to aggregate the Amazon data with sales from local stores, Berkeley would do even better.

What does Berkeley’s high ranking say about its citizens’ loyalty to independent bookstores? Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Books which has been on Telegraph Avenue since 1959, said she is not so much surprised by the revelation, as distressed.

“All the local booksellers are saying, “where is everyone?’,” she said. “We can tread water — we even sell collectible and rare books to Amazon — but it feels much better to have a store full of people.”

Getting real people together to savor books and meet authors is, of course, one advantage independent bookstores have over online retailers like Amazon. Last night, for instance, Moe’s kicked off a cookbook discussion series with chef Suzanne Drexhage who brought homemade wine and revealed her list of favorite, and most useful, cookbooks.

The number of independent bookstores in Berkeley has declined. The most notable loss was the closure in 2008 of Cody’s. Sunrise Bookshop, which has been located on Telegraph near Moe’s for 37 years, is poised to close in June. The past few years have seen openings too, Mrs Dalloway’s and William Stout among them. But, as any of the independent store owners will tell you, the biggest threat to their livelihoods is online booksellers, a market dominated by Amazon.

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine in Britain,...

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  1. SZunderwood, you may have to ask Mrs. O’Malley your questions in another thread. I think she’s stopped reading this one.

    Perhaps you could send your questions off as a Letter To The Editor for the Berkeley Daily Planet. I wonder if she’d actually publish it.

  2.  While I agree with Frances’ decision and think her moderation was wholly appropriate, I also find some humor in the fact that the individual you’re referencing was also the first one to start throwing around personal attacks on this comment page.

  3. Seems like a reasonable request, but those of us who peruse these comments regularly seem to detect a special sensitivity displayed towards one particular figure who looms large over the ghost of Berkeley journalism.

  4. So, the Berkeley Daily Planet was partially conceived and operated as a tax shelter/dodge and its erstwhile editor wants to pontificate about raising taxes on all of us, but especially the “wealthy”.  Talk about Chutzpah (with a capital C)…

  5. Let me add a little further food for thought on the taxation question…
    In most municipal budgets, the personnel costs currently approach or exceed 70% of the total expenditures.  These costs are totally “elastic.”  There is no effective upper limit to salary, benefits and pension costs.   If one city is willing to pay its employees 6 figure salaries across the board, then the familiar argument goes that the every other city has to offer comparably generous compensation levels to “stay competitive” and get the “best talent”.  Who knew that monopolistic government agencies were so keen on “competition” and providing “excellence”?
    The job of public sector unions is to angle for an ever greater rate of annual salary increase, better and more generous medical benefits, less or no co-pay requirements, earlier retirement age, fatter pension calculation rates, more paid vacation days, more overtime etc.  The moment more revenue comes flowing in from higher taxes, the more claims will be staked to spending that revenue.  Both the real, legitimate, needs of the public sector and the greed of some public sector unions is limitless.  No amount of tax increases, regressive or progressive, on any sector of the population will solve that problem per se.
    Questions for Becky O’Malley.
    1)      As one of Berkeley’s higher net worth families, do you voluntarily pay in excess of the required tax rates?  Contributions are always welcome to the IRS.
    “The $15 million we made when we sold the software company isn’t much money by today’s standards,” said Michael. “But we have a Berkeley lifestyle,” added Becky. “It doesn’t cost us that much to live.”
    2)      As someone with considerable assets but who describes herself as semi-retired, you presumably have a limited annual tax obligation.  As one of the rich and overprivileged, are you paying your “fair share” (as you define it)?
    With the economy souring and losses mounting, the O’Malleys have begun wondering how much longer they can support the Daily Planet. The couple is well enough fixed that Michael says they probably would have paid as much in taxes on other investments as they have lost to date on the Daily Planet.

  6. Just because the government is spending too little on *needed* things doesn’t mean they’re spending too little overall. I certainly agree with you that our government has its spending priorities out of whack. But you’re still ignoring the fact that sales tax is regressive
    and any work you do to get more money out of it will primarily hurt
    those at the bottom instead of the folks at the top who you say you
    think should be paying more. But who cares about the little guy, right? You’re too busy complaining about new libraries and attacking the Mayor to worry about little details like that!

    Here’s my quick bullet point analysis of the rest of your post:
    [X] Anti development jab
    [X] Lame attempt at personal attack hidden behind Junior High School level literary reference
    [X] Comment about a conversation she had with someone who sounds an awful lot like Thomas Lord (aka “Bruce Love”)
    [_] Acknowledgment of being wrong

  7. Governments both state and local are spending too little on needed things, regardless of where taxes are collected.  There’s no reason Amazon should get a free ride, though this doesn’t mean that income taxes shouldn’t also be increased.  One suggestion is that since corporations have been granted the same free speech rights as human individuals by the U.S. Supreme Court, they should be taxed as if they were people too. And corporate property owners should not be allowed to evade property taxes by shell games involving shifting corporate structures instead of selling properties which would create taxable events.  That reminds me, someone once asked me “I wonder if he realizes (or perhaps this is intentional) that “Sharkey”
    was the name the hobbits in Lord of the Rings gave to the wizard
    Saruman after he went over to the Dark Side and started to destroy the
    bucolic Shire with over-development?”  Is that the source of your screen name?

  8. Too bad we’re talking about sales tax, which is regressive, instead increasing of taxes on the rich or on corporations.

    I wonder how “deeply ignorant” you have to be to think that a regressive tax like sales tax is going to increase the tax burden at the top end of the income scale instead of increasing the tax burden at the bottom?

  9. This is just plain nonsense, and boring nonsense at that. We need government to do many important things, and we need to learn to step up and pay the tab like adults.  California has gotten way down at the bottom of the list of states in spending on educating the young, which might be the reason so many of the younger posters online seem to be so deeply ignorant. We also need parks, and public transit, and libraries, and many more public goods which are not effectively supplied by the private sector.  California has a serious public income problem– and we need to do a more effective job of taxing the rich to raise needed revenues.

    This comment has been moderated.

  10. I pay the sales tax on Amazon when I file my taxes…as we all should on any online purchases that didn’t collect sales tax. The state gets my money that way. I try to buy locally as often as possible, but the mark-ups are sometimes just too much for a grad student/ stay-at-home mom family to manage. I compare prices to Amazon and buy locally when I can justify the difference – but sometimes it’s a 50% difference! I can’t justify that on our income.

  11. I believe any store owning a brick and mortar store in the state, must charge sales tax. Can anyone correct me if I’m wrong?

  12. Yeah, we would have gotten FIRST place if not so many Berkeley residents had patronized local bookstores! 😉 Just kidding. We need those local taxes and these great stores that build community, expose us to great books, and that give to our local schools and other causes … but only if they survive. 

  13. I bought a fair number of books at Black Oak over the years, almost all of them used.  The stock was very inconsistently priced.  You could sometimes find two or more copies of a used book in very similar condition with widely varying prices (generally from reasonable to absurd).  Many of the books, at least in the sections I generally perused, also included a penciled in date of acquisition.  From this, you could sometimes deduce that a particular tome, let’s say some type of foreign language dictionary or reference work, had been festering on the shelf for many years.  Most of these books were priced in the “absurd” category.  On a few occasions, when I had seen a book there for months or years that I was interested in, I took it to the counter and made them an offer, but it was always declined, I am guessing as a matter of policy.
    In terms of using the store as a “show room” to scope out books you could get online for less, I did, for my own amusement mainly, sometimes make a note of the Black Oak price to compare later on the internet.  The used book mark up at Black Oak was often staggering.  For a relatively widely available used novel or cook book (hard cover), online you could find numerous copies in the 1 cent to $1 range, while the Black Oak price was often in the $10-$15 range, but sometimes up to $25 or more.  I wanted to buy locally as much the next Berkeleyan, but when the cost was 10-15 times as much, it seemed ridiculous to me.  Rarer books where generally fairly expensive also at Black Oak and while those were generally not available online for a song, the Black Oak price often was still double or triple the lowest priced used copy you could find on the internet.
    Final Black Oak anecdote.  I stopped into the store shortly after Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Man in Full had been published (within a week or two of its issue).  As a ‘best seller’ it was being sold new by Amazon at a 30% discount and by Barnes and Noble or Cody’s at a slightly lower discount off of the cover price.  I spotted a used copy atop an enormous pile of recently priced books, waiting either for shelving space to open up or for someone to shelve them.  Curious at how Black Oak would price a hardcover used copy of a newly published best seller, I took a peak at the price.  It was marked, “1st ed. ” And priced at $25, several dollars more than the full list price new and way higher than the “real” discount prices widely available.
    How’s that for business sense?

  14. I had a conversation with one of Black Oak’s folks about a year before they closed the Shattuck store. They believed that the store was being used by many as a “showroom” by former customers who would peruse books in the store and then buy online.

  15. I have never bought anything from Amazon and never will until they start paying in-state sales taxes for the sales they make in state!  Convenience aside, it a 8 1/2% price advantage over local stores even before they offer anything like free shipping.  For on-line i would recommend Alibris at  

  16. Why? Why not buy your books from Moe’s or Mrs Dalloway’s or University Press
    Bookstore? Or any of the other independents in Berkeley. They can get the
    same books as Powell’s just as fast or faster.

  17. Do you really think that more money is going to solve the problems our local government has? The great bulk of any additional monies collected from taxes on internet purchases would go directly to the State Government, which I hope by now we’ve all figured out is a bottomless pit of waste.

    While I agree that everyone ought to pay their fare share, what we have here in California is a government spending problem, not a government income problem.

  18. Lots of us avoid buying books on Amazon.  We go to local bookstores or buy from the used bookstores online.  If those sales were counted, I bet we’d beat Alexandria.  Our citizens are more social conscious about issues like supporting smaller bookstores. 

  19. The first time I walked into the new Black Oak on San Pablo, there was this wonderful aroma meeting me: a subtle combination of used books balanced nicely with the scent of cut pine boards that were used for their used books in the back. It’s clean and well lit, and the shelving units in the back begin to shift into a maze-like walkway. It’s perfect for the mystery section.

  20. I wish Amazon would collect sales taxes on purchases. Amazon had rabidly fought collecting sales taxes, even though delivering books all over Berkeley and California is doing business in our state. They use our roads, our infrastructure. Of course, we the customers pay the sales taxes. And we the customers might weight our choices to go with Amazon because we would like to avoid paying the significant CA sales tax. But someone has to pay for what it costs to take care of the human who live here and rely on our infrastructure and support. 

    I wonder what monies Berkeley might have if Amazon collected sales taxes on our high volume sales?

  21. What if they included library readers? I used to buy a lot of books from local book stores, but after being laid off a couple of years ago I now take a lot of books out of the library.

  22. As a native of Salt Lake City, I’m proud!  But maybe Amazon’s statistics speak to a lack of local bookstores or libraries.

  23. I’ve never been inside their new location, but based on your comment I must make a visit!  It could definitely use more curb appeal, and I’m concerned that they only get minimal foot traffic.

  24. Interesting. 4 of the top 5 are college towns, so lots of people being ASSIGNED books to buy. Miami is surprising but maybe retirees do have more time to read. San Francisco must feel a little injured pride for not showing up, unless you realize the large proportion of immigrants and non-English speakers. Salt Lake City? 

  25. Amazon sales stats are interesting, but they leave out lots of data.  I would imagine that the most well-read city, aside from Amazon sales, is Portland, OR.  Nothing beats Powell’s Books.  

  26. I bet if local sales were included, all 3 top cities would remain in the top spots.

    P.S.- Black Oak’s new location is so good! I’m glad they were able to land on their feet, no thanks to the North Shattuck landlord who raised their rent & forced their move.

    (I think skyrocketing commercial rents have a huge impact on bookstores as well- does Pegasus own their Shattuck store front? How did they outlive Barnes & Noble across the street?)

  27. I bet if local sales were included, all 3 top cities would remain in the top spots.

    P.S.- Black Oak’s new location is so good! I’m glad they were able to land on their feet, no thanks to the North Shattuck landlord who raised their rent & forced their move.

    (I think skyrocketing commercial rents have a huge impact on bookstores as well- does Pegasus own their Shattuck store front? How did they outlive Barnes & Noble across the street?)