Book Zoo, like most great ideas, was born out of the back of van. Erik and his wife Sarah were driving around the country in their van more than a decade ago, stopping in at thrift stores to buy records and books. “We were buying books and sending them back home with the subconscious plan of opening a bookstore,” says Erik.

After amassing a large collection of books, Erik partnered with the proprietors of Mama Buzz (now Telegraph) to open a library at the artsy coffee shop. While that business model eventually fizzled out — admittedly, they weren’t the strictest library in town, and there are still a few delinquent book borrowers out there — in 2003, Erik and his then-business partner Nick found a nook of a storefront a few blocks off the beaten path on Telegraph in Berkeley.

They stuck around there for a few years, but later moved to a new space on Telegraph and Alcatraz, a location which offered high visibility, a sprawling space, but not much foot traffic. It took another three-year spurt and a few months of closed doors before Book Zoo found its current incarnation in the Piedmont Avenue shopping district, in a cozy location that offers the feel of an eccentric grandfather’s library filled with seditious literature and vintage vinyl spilling 1960s music into the room.

“I fill the store with the most interesting, potent, significant, important, charming, the most-est whatever I can get my hands on,” he says. His collection of books proves it. Books such as The Essential Dracula, Bugs by Theodore Roszak, and A Field Guide to the Invisible linger in the window as a cheeky homage to the upcoming season. With 250 shelves that house 44 different categories, the outre and the intriguing serve as testament to Erik’s buying philosophy.

With a wide variety of vintage pulp books, rotating collector’s items in the glass case (featuring, most recently, a few Japanese dolls and books by Tagami and Terasawa), cookbooks, children’s books, art books, erotica, a robust fiction section and tables piled with new arrivals and artist monographs, finding something eye catching to the thumb through while settling into one of the various velvet upholstered chairs on a sunny afternoon isn’t hard.

Erik does admit, though, that if he only had one type of book in the whole store, it would be how-to books. And bibliographies, “essentially, books that list other books, because without them there would be times that you didn’t know that another book exists.”

While this story about a used book store could easily go down the path of, “let’s have a conversation about the fetish of the physical book in the era of e-books and online stores,” the fact of the matter is, instead of buying a book online and posting reviews on social networks, you can walk into a store like Book Zoo, pick up a book you’ve never heard of before, and talk to someone new about books. When the topic of e-commerce inevitably finds its way into the conversation, Erik coyly eschews it, favoring to instead talk about the various events and the culture of book scouts that comprise a wide portion of his customer base.

Indeed, Book Zoo is a hub for book scouts, and they thrive on customers who come and go to every book store around town looking for new books — or, as Erik describes it, “There’s a certain book junkie that makes the rounds through the book stores. Like any addict, he purges, binges, stops, then gets things under control, and loses it again. That is an important part of the book business.”

Summertime book readers, CCA students, dealers, people walking by, the influx of new residents looking to build up book collections, and people who are leaving the Bay Area and need to lighten their book load. These are all people who find themselves stopping in at this modern-day trading post to buy, sell or trade at the Book Zoo.

Book Zoo hosts sporadic events, mostly of music or literary nature, with the occasional movie night or art show. They’ve hosted musicians such as Calvin Johnson of K Records and Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division, and last month saw a video art show as part of the Mission Creek Oakland event series. Book Zoo recently started hosting a monthly open mic night, which happens every 3rd Thursday and is open to any sort of music, comedy, poetry, rant or confession that you might want to share.

All the events are free, and Erik extends an open invitation to anyone who has some knowledge to share or a band to showcase. “A used book store that has events of all sorts: there’s no brighter beacon of culture than that. If you want one thing in your neighborhood, you want a place like this that has public events and is encouraging you to have one of your own.”

However, despite being a beacon of culture, Erik admits that Book Zoo is slightly suffering from a case of what he calls Parkway Syndrome. Similar to what happened to the Old Parkway, and what happens to many small businesses in Oakland, Erik says, “People really like it, everybody’s happy about it, they talk about it, and they’re so happy it’s around. But when they move or close, they act surprised. But they go once a year. You can’t go once a year and claim something as yours. You have to be going enough to where your $6 actually adds up.”

He typifies this situation with aplomb, but, as Erik puts it, “To sort of spank our fans: how many books have you bought here in the last year? And how many books have you bought here in the last ten years? That number isn’t high enough — it should be lots, but instead, it’s a few.” Book Zoo has positioned itself as an Oakland bookstore institution, and all it takes, according to Erik, “is [for fans] to come back more often, and bring people, send people, tell people, and get people physically here, looking at books, buying books.” It’s not a message that he would categorize as a plea or a suggestion, but, rather, a threat to fans who might otherwise be disinclined to help ensure that Book Zoo remains within the community.

Throughout the conversation, Erik constantly compared running a bookstore to tending a garden, referring to the shelves as sticks, pruning and weeding the selection as certain books go to the sale shelf or the $1 rack, growing and watering his current inventory. Indeed, Book Zoo is a labor love that the local community can flock to and enjoy.

The ebb and flow of books is changing constantly as customers come and go, but, if we’re lucky, Book Zoo will always be there, the music softly playing, with someone friendly behind the counter, sifting through piles of books about wine making or feminism, and shelving something new and exciting on the nostalgia shelf.

For more info on the Book Zoo, check out their website for upcoming events and a handy guide to all the local book stores. The Book Zoo is located at 14 Glen Avenue, just off Piedmont Avenue, and is open daily from noon ’til 8.

Note: One of our editors (Susan) must have had her brain fill with swiss cheese holes, because an editing error misstated Erik’s last name. This is now corrected. We are so sorry, Erik Lyngen ! (blushing furiously.)

One Response

  1. Erik Heywood

    Hi! Flattered to be confused with Erik Lyngen (and his wonderful shop), but though you changed the named and unlinked to my website, that’s still a picture of me up there. In Paris, not Oakland, no less. Just thought you’d like to know!


    Erik Heywood


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