Closing the book on a local Judaica landmark: Cody’s

There are certain Jewish experiences in life a person never forgets. Would you believe it if I told you one of mine was walking into a Berkeley bookstore 25 years ago?

If you ever visited Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in the 1980s or ’90s, you know what I mean. Who could forget the haggadah table, tightly packed with hundreds of varieties? After a day of browsers picked through the piles, the table turned into a multicolored haggadah stew.

For me to see such a sight in 1983 — long before Bay Area Jews had film festivals and big museums to call our own — well, I was spiritually moved. Growing up here, I had never seen anything so Jewish be so mainstream (heck, even the first Noah’s Bagels was six years off).

And that was 1983. Over the next 15 to 20 years, Cody’s stock of haggadah varieties ballooned, and its supply of other Judaica grew too. Huge, inflatable matzah balls and Pesach bingo games might seem somewhat standard nowadays, but back then, to be able to buy such items in a non-Jewish store in the Bay Area was truly a religious experience.

It is in that light that I was struck and saddened by the news that on June 20, Cody’s went out of business after 52 years. The venerable Telegraph Avenue location had already been shut for two years, and when three other locations also failed, the store was unable to make it.

Why did Cody’s close? Take your pick: competition from the Internet and chain stores, a growing lack of patience for reading anything on paper, fewer browsers. There’s no joy in any of it.

“I’m really sad that it’s closing, but we did some good things and were always obedient to our ideals,” said Andy Ross, who owned Cody’s from 1977 to 2006. “Cody’s meant a lot of things to a lot of different people. It was really larger than life. And Judaica was a part of it.”

Cody’s was a bookstore pioneer as well as a Judaica pioneer, even though its haggadah piles had dwindled since 2002, which, not coincidentally, was the year Ira Steingroot quit. As the store’s Judaica buyer for 26 years, Steingroot rooted out pretty much every haggadah known to humanity. Cody’s was stocking about 500 different titles toward the end of his tenure.

“I wanted every one,” Steingroot told me recently. “What I wanted to do was to represent every possible Jewish viewpoint. Initially it was easy to get the first group of them, about 100, from Jewish vendors I was working with. When the Internet came around, I just started doing searches on ‘haggadah.'”

Few would bat an eye at a lesbian haggadah these days, but not 20 years ago. Cody’s had it. It also had a haggadah for Christians that wanted to celebrate the Last Supper, haggadahs in Ladino and Yiddish, a Karaite haggadah. The list could go on and on.

Cody’s also had a humungous selection of Jewish books, from novels to various volumes of the Talmud to kabbalistic texts. “We liked to think that we had the largest Judaica section [in the country] in a general bookstore,” said Steingroot, who started with one case of Judaic books and ended up with five.

The New York Times — and other newspapers — published features on Cody’s haggadah collection. When that happened, Steingroot started getting calls from people as far away as Africa who wanted to hawk their own haggadah.

“The haggadah phenomenon was really all about Ira,” Ross said. “It was quite amazing. I used to give him a hard time for having haggadahs that I thought nobody would ever want, such as a Hebrew-Russian haggadah. Or when we were still selling the haggadah software after the Apple II was discontinued.”

Steingroot, 61, now works for Spectator Books in Oakland and lives in El Cerrito with his wife, Kathy. Surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, they will celebrate their 40th anniversary this year.

And when the Jewish history of the Bay Area is written, perhaps there will be at least a paragraph or two on his — and Cody’s — contribution.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.