Diesel, the heart of Oakland’s literary community, celebrates 25 years

on September 23, 2014

Diesel, A Bookstore, long an institution in Rockridge, wears its history on its sleeve. There’s an old sign propped in the back from when the store was turned into the fictional Brokeland Records shop featured in beloved customer Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. In the corner by the journals and fancy birthday cards, a group of vintage bowling balls and pins hint at the building’s past as a bowling alley. And everywhere: books, books, books—in piles, on shelves, or displayed on a special oversized ladder reserved for best sellers.

On this particular Tuesday evening, the clientele was as varied as the décor. In one corner a young boy with an oversized baseball cap drooping over his eyes looked at picture books with his sun-hatted mother; in another middle-aged women flipped through historical fiction; by the register a young punk couple (she: Black Rock City sweatshirt, septum piercing; he: torn jeans, gauged ears) searched for the philosophy section. It was a scene from before Barnes & Noble, before internet-era attention spans, before Amazon.

But while the place was founded in 1989 by Alison Reid and John Evans this was 2014. One of the lone survivors of its era, Diesel is preparing this week to celebrate its 25th anniversary. A quarter century after it opened, the store continues to flourish through its personalized customer service, innovative Internet presence, and rich and active role in the Oakland literary community.

We “wanted to create a highly inclusive bookstore that didn’t compromise on quality but was reader-oriented,” said Evans, who first opened the store with Reid in a then up-and-coming Emeryville area whose potential market failed to bring the success many businesses had hoped for. By the time Reid and Evans moved the store to its present Rockridge location in 1994, the bowling alley had been transformed into retail space. “We would have kept a lane, for sure!” Evans said.

Instead of risking losing customers during a delay in the move to Rockridge, the store opened in a temporary location close to its current location. Three months later, the final transfer down the street showed exactly the kind of welcome Diesel could expect from the community.

“We did it with a human book chain,” Evans said. “Literally, we passed the books from on the shelf, four, five, six books at a time, and I don’t know how many people, probably 100 people were involved in it. But it literally went right up the street, passing person to person, and then it went right on the shelves in the order it came off the shelves. Everything stayed in order. It was very fun, and then we had a big pizza party at the end!”

Twenty years later, Reid and Evans now split their time between Oakland and southern California. When they’re not in town, Brad Johnson, 39, who likes to joke that he prefers the title “book peddler,” is one of a small staff that keeps Diesel running. Johnson has boyish features, tightly curled hair, a goatee, and a Philosophy Ph.D. He has lived in the Bay Area for eight years and worked at Diesel almost two. His job, which he calls “fabulous,” is a combination of retailer, Internet marketer, and professional literary nerd.

“They give us a lot of autonomy while we’re working,” Johnson said. “If we have an idea for a display or event, or even books, they say, ‘Order them, do it, pursue it.’ We have the freedom to explore, excel, fail.”

Johnson also appreciates that the independent bookstore model allows him to indulge his intellectual quirks. “I don’t read a lot of pop fiction,” he said. “I haven’t read most of our top 50 titles. But they say, ‘Keep talking about what you like.’ It’s really liberating not to have to fake it.”

Oakland-born Pam Stirling, another of Diesel’s devoted staff, has worked at the store for three years and in bookstores throughout her career. Working at Diesel means she “can put something in someone’s hands that they need or that will give them hours of pleasure,” she said.

On a given night, Stirling plays counselor, dinner concierge, literary agent, and librarian. When the phone rang with a book request, as it does as many as 40 times a day, she straightened her no-nonsense button-down blouse and answered:

“Oh, let me check… yes, well the pile is dwindling… I have a copy in my hands right now, should I put it aside? Is that Sara with an H?”

Not long afterward, a woman came into the bookstore looking for new material. “Well, what do you like to read?” Stirling asked, the oft-repeated chorus of the bookseller.

“I’m the kind of person that has a book pile this high,” the woman replied.

“Okay, tell me something you read that you really like,” Stirling said as she led the woman back to the staff recommendations. The customer ultimately bought Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a book that is currently so popular at Diesel that a joke about its ubiquity appears in a recent post on the store’s blog.

That blog is part of an extensive online presence that sets Diesel apart from many of its peers and helps it stay current in an Amazon world.

“We’ve tried to keep the aesthetics, the sensibility,” Evans said of the store’s meticulously-curated website. The site features the blog, a chatty newsletter with 4000 subscribers that Johnson puts together, online versions of the staff’s much sought after recommendations, an event schedule, and a sprinkling of e-books for sale. The multi-layered design evokes the store’s diversity of services. “It should be attempting to get to the level of richness that an actual place has,” Evans said of the site. “But the rich density of bookstores is nearly impossible to duplicate online.”

Johnson said that while he enjoys Diesel’s virtual component, he thinks it is the store’s philosophy that has saved it from the unfortunate fate of so many bookshops—lost, even in independent-minded Oakland and Berkeley, to box stores and underpriced online content. “We engage the neighborhood, we engage the people,” he said, “and listen to what people are reading… Our interests bleed into the neighborhood. We think of bookselling as a conversation with where we’re at. And that’s something that the likes of Amazon can’t do. They’re not conversing with anyone.”

This engagement is more apparent than ever as Diesel prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a weekend-long celebration starting September 25 that will include live music from Dodge’s Sundodgers on Friday; origami and face painting on Saturday afternoon; and literary karaoke, a house specialty, on Saturday night, during which patrons are encouraged to read aloud a text of their choosing for five minutes, helped along with a mic-side bottle of bourbon.

These kinds of events have always been a part of Diesel’s communal life—Evans fondly remembers a Gorilla Girls art event in the ’90s that he says drew 400 people—but are becoming more commonplace. Recently, the musician Avram Siegel has begun making monthly appearances; last year the store celebrated California Bookstore Day, during which revelers drank an appropriately literary twist on the Hemingway Daiquiri (white rum, grapefruit and lime juices, maraschino liqueur) and played a particularly memorable round of literary karaoke.

“We are quintessential West Coast,” Johnson said of Diesel’s sometimes unorthodox programming. “People will call and say ‘What time do you close tonight?’ and I’ll say, ‘What time can you get here?’”

Really? “Okay,” he conceded. “If someone said, like, nine o’clock and we’re closing at eight, it’s like, ‘Come at ten tomorrow, I’ll be opening then. But if someone says ‘8:15, can you stay open ten minutes late?’— Sure, why not?”

As Diesel moves into its next phase, the question is whether the karaoke enthusiasts and late-night callers will be willing to invest in the bookstore they have come to love. As part of the celebration, Diesel is running an Indiegogo campaign seeking $84,000 for general upgrades.

The store’s history does not just show on its sleeve. “We have a Dot Matrix printer still,” Johnson said. “People walk in and comment on the ‘sound of the early ’90s.’” (It’s true; the printer looks like it belongs in some Early Tech Age Museum.)

“The funds from this campaign will be used to obtain an entirely new computer system,” says the Indiegogo pitch. “One that will make us better able to pinpoint that exact title that had something to do with owls, that was blue, maybe, or that had a tree on the cover and was mentioned on the radio some time in the last eight months.”

Possible perks for the campaign include limited edition signed books, t-shirts, or a box set of staff-curated “Diesel Classics” that will include recommendations from the much-consulted Johnson and Stirling, who have each developed followings based on their enthusiastic recommendations of Civil War histories or obscure South American poets.

“We’re lucky enough to have the customers who understand the importance of a bookstore in the community,” Stirling said. “People become aware of what happens in their literary life if their independent bookstore is gone—the wonderful author we put in their hands; that they can bring their kids in. We watch these kids grow; they start here reading picture books. They feel like the bookstore is theirs.”

She remembers a mother and daughter who came into the store during the Telegraph Avenue event, when the store’s décor was completely transformed. “The girl had a meltdown as only a two year old can because [she was convinced] ‘My Diesel is gone!’” Stirling said. “And that gets to me. She was just heartbroken.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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