Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Miss Cobb's Bookstore

In the fall of 1976, I had just quit an editing job and was busy applying to law school. I needed some kind of work to tide me over until the following fall. I'd always thought it would be fun to work at a bookstore and I knew the perfect place—the Shirley Cobb Bookstore in Palo Alto, California, where I was already a regular customer. Shirley Cobb still owned the store. She was none other than the daughter of Ty Cobb, the legendary baseball player.

Her bookstore was located on University Avenue, Palo Alto's main street. In those pre-Silicone Valley days, Palo Alto was a funky college town. Just down the road from Stanford, it boasted a holistic health center, a health food restaurant, and several movie theaters, including The Festival Cinema, which showed vintage films, and the Varsity Cinema, where Bunuel and Kirosawa were among the featured directors. Shirley Cobb’s was right next door to the Varsity. On the bookstore’s other side, Swenson's Ice Cream parlor had recently opened, featuring enormous helpings—ice cream cones were measured by the pound there rather than the scoop.

Across the street was Celia's, my favorite Mexican restaurant, and Swain's Music, where my husband, who grew up nearby, had purchased his first sheet music. There was also a sewing store in the neighborhood, something of an anachronism even back then. It carried Elna sewing machines from Sweden, along with American Singers. I know that because I had actually purchased an Elna there myself, with the old-fashioned idea that all wives should (and could) learn how to sew.

Shirley Cobb’s was something of an anachronism itself—it sold only hardcover books. They were arranged along the walls of a tall, narrow room, about thirty feet wide and two stories high, as well as on freestanding shelves running down the center of the store. It didn't seem like a great place to be in the event of an earthquake, given the possibility of all those books crashing down in that small space. I credited myself with living dangerously just by being there.

The room was quite deep, about fifty feet. Suspended over its back half was a mezzanine where one of the employees did the bookkeeping at an ornate dark-stained oak table. Behind the main room was a smaller one. There, employees wrapped books, both as gifts and for shipping. Also in the back room, at a small table, book reps met with the manager, Bern Ann.

In addition to selling only hardbacks, Shirley Cobb’s had another peculiarity—it employed only women. Shirley Cobb herself was by then elderly and only rarely came to the store, but she had created the women-only policy. Moreover, she required that her employees wear skirts, an almost unheard of rule anywhere, let alone in laid-back California after the cultural revolution. Miss Cobb also mandated that employees greet each customer and offer assistance, a highly unusual practice for a bookstore, where people are generally left to browse on their own.

Having been apprised of these rules when hired by Bern Ann, I arrived for my first day of work wearing my only skirt. I was introduced to Janice, who was about my age and very pretty, with curly blond hair. Rhoda, short, brunette, and closer to my mother's age, told me about the biggest job perk—we were allowed to borrow books and read them at home. Despite the skirt requirement, this seemed like a job I could enjoy.

I immediately liked Janice and felt comfortable asking her help, which I often needed. I'd been an English major in college and thought I knew something about books, but found myself feeling clueless when customers asked me to recommend a mystery, or a biography, or perhaps a dessert cookbook. I turned to Janice for suggestions and also for help with more mundane tasks, like ringing up sales or taking orders.

While many customers came to Shirley Cobb's because they counted on a knowledgeable staff, some didn't appreciate our offers of help. After I'd worked at the store for a while, I could usually tell who wanted help and who didn't and vary my greeting accordingly, telling people who looked wary of me to “let me know if you need any help.”

Wrapping books provided a welcome break from all that helpfulness. There were almost always books to be wrapped and shipped, since Shirley Cobb’s received orders from all over the world and had regular customers from as far away as Australia. Book wrapping provided unexpected satisfaction for a perfectionist like me. With their solid rectangular shapes, books were easy to wrap perfectly in our signature green and white striped paper. Wrapping books was the kind of mindless work that freed my mind for daydreaming, conversation, or eavesdropping. Sometimes I'd listen in on a session between Bern Ann and a book representative. The rep (they were always men) would pitch book after book, and Bern Ann, invariably polite but no pushover, chose with a clear sense of her customers' tastes.

I was in the back room wrapping books the first time Miss Cobb came to the store. Dressed in a skirt and sensible shoes, she'd driven down with a female companion from her home in Portola Valley. She had a flinty manner, a deep voice, short pale hair, and a weathered, freckled face. She barely glanced in my direction, instead peppering Bern Ann with sharp questions about book orders and sales. She had a powerful presence, even in old age. Perhaps the mystique of being Ty Cobb's daughter contributed to that aura.

Though Miss Cobb was no longer actively involved in running the business, she'd found a marvelous successor in Bern Ann. Plain in appearance, with a long narrow face and prominent nose, Bern Ann favored straight cotton skirts and never wore makeup. Though often brusque, I soon realized her demeanor hid a kind heart. She was single and, as far as I could tell, the bookstore was her life. While she never expected such devotion from her employees, her dedication did affect the rest of us.

After I'd worked at the store for several weeks, I answered the phone one Friday afternoon. It was the New York Times calling. It was then I learned that Shirley Cobb's was one of a handful of bookstores across the country whose weekly book sales were used to compile the Times Bestseller List. Eventually, I participated in tabulating our list of the top fiction and non-fiction bestsellers (all hardcover, of course) and sometimes I handled the weekly call from the Times. Our contribution to the list made us all feel at the center of the book world far from our California outpost.

During my off hours, I hunkered down with such volumes as The Thorn Birds, The Coming Ice Age, and The Vegetarian Epicure, as well as more literary fare. Our customers ran the gamut from Stanford professors to suburban housewives to aging hippies. We had one regular visitor who frightened me at first, a vacant-looking man in a moth-eaten crewneck sweater. He browsed incessantly but never purchased anything. I was afraid to ask if he needed help, lest he fixate on me in some threatening way. But I noticed that Bern Ann always greeted him with a smile and left him alone. I followed her example, and once I got over my anxiety, realized that Shirley Cobb's provided a safe haven for him, a place where he could hang out undisturbed for a little while each day.

Anne was a part-time employee. Tall and athletic, with short blond hair, she breezed in three times a week like the scent of eucalyptus. She had three teenage sons and a wood-paneled station wagon and was accomplished in the domestic arts—gardening, cooking, sewing. I eventually sold her my Elna sewing machine, having melted my first sewing attempt, a polyester dress, with my iron. Anne was good at taking charge and had become Bern Ann's second-in-command, giving Bern Ann the chance for an occasional day off.

During my first few months at Shirley Cobb’s, I kept my law school plans secret, but this became increasing uncomfortable as my attachment to the people at the store grew. Finally, I confided to Janice, who suggested that I wait until I had definite news before telling Bern Ann.

By mid-spring, I had decided on the University of Chicago, which meant moving as well as leaving Shirley Cobb's. I was in for quite a surprise when I finally got up the courage to tell Bern Ann—she revealed that she herself had gone to law school back in the Fifties. She'd never told anyone at the bookstore, not even those who’d worked there for years.

It turned out that Bern Ann had been one of only two women in her class at Stanford Law School. After one year, she had quit. It had been too difficult, she said—not the academics, but the treatment from male students and professors. I no longer faced the same obstacles. Fully thirty percent of the students in my law school class would be women. Still, I regarded Bern Ann as a tough, confident woman, the type who would thrive in challenging circumstances. If she couldn’t hack it, what was in store for me?

As it turned out, much the same fate—sheer stubborness made me persevere through graduation and admission to the bar, but I never practiced law. Unlike Bern Ann, I wasn’t worn down by male chauvinism; I’d simply chosen the wrong profession. I sometimes wished I’d saved myself a lot of trouble and stayed right where I was, in the hospitable world of the bookstore. Sadly, that wouldn't have been possible for long. A few years after I departed for Chicago, Miss Cobb died. Not long after that, the Shirley Cobb Bookstore closed. But while it survived, it was a haven for book lovers and an oasis of civility. Perhaps that was Miss Cobb's antidote to her father's brilliant but brutal career.

8 comments:

Reggie said...

Great story, Barbara. So beutifully told about not only a cherished bookstore but about a Palo Alto and University ave that no longer exists.

Bonnie said...

Another wonderful story. I do so enjoy your writing style, Barbara. Everything is clear, precise, and filled with fascinating evocative detail. Bonnie

Anonymous said...

Barbara, you've done it again! Just transported me to another plane--just what good writing is supposed to do. I so enjoy these mini-treats and do look forward to them. Please keep them coming!! Judy

Kim said...

I like the way you describe things, and also how in this story and the next you compare the past with the present. I really get a sense from you of "now" and "then."

Lewis said...

While a green 21 year old Ensign based at Moffett Field (Mountain View) my friend ,Joe, and I just happened to drop in to her store. Upon hearing my Georgia accent and Joe's Virginia accent she immediately took us under her wing. Ty was from Georgia. I enjoyed tea with her in that back room several times and remember her fondly. I wish I had written a book based on her service with the Red Cross in WWII. She was quite a gal!!

Jo Walker said...

I worked there, too - in the 70s. I remember afternoon tea every day at 4:00 in the back room. I was responsible for the Children's Book section - and I loved each and every minute of working there.

Dorothy Beckworth D'Antoni said...


Thank you so much for this great story about Shirley. She was married to my brother, Dixie Beckworth from 1952 until he died in 1965. She never remarried. Dixie was born in 1925, I was born in 1941, so I really did not grow up with him since he joined the Army during WWII. Shirley was very kind and generous to my family. She sent us lots of books. In 1990, the last time I saw Shirley, she told me the story of why Dixie has another name on his gravestone. She had placed the ashes of Dixie's dog into his casket when Dixie died at only 40 years old. That had been his wish. If she had not told me this story, I would have never known why there were two names on his headstone. Shirley had a great, dry sense of humor. If anyone is interested, someone created a Find-A-Grave memorial for Shirley. The memorial number is 85205538. Viewers can leave messages, which is a very nice thing to do. I created one for Dixie #141041128. I have read in two places that Shirley received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work for the Red Cross all during WWII. I cannot find the source of this info. Would like to know if it's true.

Barbara said...

Jo, thank you for your wonderful comment. I'm glad to hear such nice things about Shirley Cobb. I had not been in California in many years but, amazingly, just after you sent me your comment (but before I saw it), my husband and I were in the area and took a ride down University Avenue. We felt a little sad when we passed the old site of Miss Cobb's bookstore. I have very happy memories of working there.