Berkeley’s Dark Carnival has seen bleak times before.
The Claremont Avenue science fiction and fantasy bookstore was on the brink of closing three years ago, but managed to hang on, thanks to its devoted customer base and the efforts of owner Jack Rems.
Then the pandemic hit.
In a telephone interview, Rems says he was contemplating closing even before the coronavirus became an issue.
Luckily, help for the store came from an unexpected direction, a Bookstore & Chocolate Crawl created by Bay Area writers and bookstore enthusiasts Charlie Jane Anders, Jackie Risley, Maggie Tokuda-Hall and other locals interested in creating fun ways to walk together to neighborhood bookstores. The most recent East Bay Crawl, in January, included stops at Dark Carnival and its neighbor, Afikomen Judaica. From the Crawl grew #WeLoveBookstores, when, in the wake of pandemic shutdown orders, Crawl organizers pivoted to organizing online literary events to fundraise for local independent bookstores.
According to Anders, “The pandemic came at a time that bookstores were under a lot of pressure already.” #WeLoveBookstores events featuring both emerging and high-profile authors and artists have supported Pegasus, East Bay Booksellers, Moe’s Books, Books on B, Marcus Books and many other area stores.
Dark Carnival has been a part of Berkeley’s Elmwood for decades, having moved from a location near the Ashby BART Station. Containing an estimated 12,000 volumes in its labyrinthine “don’t trip over those paperbacks” interior, it’s the place to discover both hard-to-find books and current bestsellers.
Anders spoke of discovering Dark Carnival when she first moved to the Bay Area.
“They always had such a great selection of new and interesting stuff, and old and obscure stuff,” she said. “It was a store that you never knew what you would find. It was a cavern of treasures.”
Having been reminded of Dark Carnival by the Crawl, Anders and crew wanted to provide further help.
“Everyone was aware that this was a store that was a little precarious and would be harder hit than many in this crisis,” Anders said. “We felt like we couldn’t afford to lose this store.”
With that goal in mind, #WeLoveBookstores will host a Zoom videoconference on July 8 to benefit Dark Carnival. Moderated by Anders, the event will include three writers with recently published books who are also indie bookstore enthusiasts: John Scalzi, author of The Last Emperox; Sarah Gailey, author of When We Were Magic; and Michael Zapata, author of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau.
The author of River of Teeth and Magic for Liars, Gailey most recently published When We Were Magic. The former Oakland resident’s debut YA novel is the story of teen girls who are best friends, have magic powers and accidentally kill one of their male classmates. Gailey said the book explores “owning mistakes, living with consequences and allowing friends to love you when you’re not perfect.”
Gailey said they grew up in the East Bay independent bookstore where their mother worked.
“We would go to work and she would put me in the back room and I would sit there surrounded by galleys and would color and read books that were too old for me,” Gailey said. Now they’re happy to fundraise for another East Bay store.
“To my mind, independent bookstores are the lifeblood of my career,” Gailey said. “Independent booksellers really championed (my adult novel) Magic for Liars in a way that I can never express my gratitude for.”
Chicago writer Michael Zapata is the editor of MAKE Literary Magazine. His novel involves a mysterious science fiction manuscript and theoretical physics. A tale of exiles and parallel times, it’s the kind of compelling, unusual novel that bookstore owners love to hand-sell.
“I spent a lot of time as a teenager in independent bookstores,” Zapata said. “It introduced me to the idea that I could become a writer one day.”
Scalzi will join the conversation from his home in Ohio. Author of Old Man’s War and Redshirts, and a past president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Scalzi signed a $3.4 million contract for 13 books with science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor a few years back. Invested in the continuing success of science fiction and fantasy, he relies on independent bookstores to help keep the genre vital.
Scalzi said genre booksellers like Dark Carnival are important, “because you can’t necessarily rely on chains or even some independents to go deep into a genre, to not only ‘play the hits,’ but also to go down into an individual author’s bibliography or a particular subgenre.”
Dark Carnival can facilitate the deep dive, Rems said. During the lockdown “people around town have called and said things like, ‘Can you put together 10 books by this author and drop them at my house?’ We’ve done some of that.”
Asked to reveal the secret of his store’s longevity, Rems admitted things have been rough. Perhaps the closest call came in 2017, when he announced that Dark Carnival would be closing soon.
“I thought we were done, but some people seemed to make it their mission to keep us open,” he said.
For the time being, Dark Carnival abides, hopefully with some help from #WeLoveBookstores, among others.