Iron-willed, big-hearted and unforgettable

The recent death of Berkeley, Calif., bookseller and activist Pat Cody reminds me what a privilege it is to work with books at any time.

Pat and her husband Fred opened Cody’s Books in 1956, long before the emergence of computers or chain stores, and right in the middle of a conservative backlash called McCarthyism that ravaged free speech almost as badly as the Patriot Act has in our last decade.

The Codys are remembered as champions of civil rights, but throughout even the most turbulent decades, when gas masks hung by the cash register and protesters squared off against police outside the store, their core belief was the value and the right and the privacy of reading.

To Fred and Pat, it didn’t matter who walked into the store — a homeless self-publisher (hardly an oxymoron) or a professor of physics from UC Berkeley: Matching the right book with the right customer was the highest act of political engagement they knew. Their first and last job as booksellers, they felt, was to contribute to the experience of quiet solitude that can only happen during the act of reading. When the reader’s mind meets the author’s mind, they believed, the world will change. Thank heaven that Andy Ross, who bought Cody’s Books in 1977, believed the same thing.

Pat was not the emotional one — she never got as teary as Fred when it came to expressing political or literary passion. I remember Fred’s voice cracking when he talked about the day Aldous Huxley came into Cody’s Books (then a “hole in the wall” the size of a living room). “He was like me,” Fred said of the nearly blind writer walking slowly around the store examining everything, even the signs on the shelves. “If he saw something in print, he had to read it.”

By the time Cody’s moved to Telegraph Ave., where Fred allowed antiwar protestors to meet on the triangle of empty space in front of the store (so they wouldn’t “unlawfully congregate” in public streets), the mood of passionate engagement inside was the same as the mood outside. Stories are legion about Cody’s Books in various stages of fervor and chaos, with employees running around answering questions and books waiting in unopened cartons and political meetings stopping store traffic, when suddenly Fred would march calmly and joyously out of a back room, throw his arm around the shoulder of a clerk and say, “Look at this great book that just came in!” and insist the clerk turn to Page One and start reading.

Some said the store remained open because of and in spite of Pat and Fred’s politics. In the early 1950s, they had gone to Mexico rather than succumb to FBI demands that they publically name Communist friends. According to their son Anthony, while in Mexico “they attended social gatherings at the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and met luminaries like Pablo Neruda, who declared that Pat’s “lemon meringue pie was the best he ever had.” Fred gave up a career as a professor rather than sign the dreaded “Loyalty Oaths” (stating they weren’t members of the Communist Party) that in California would split academia down the middle. (This controversy lasted right into the 1970s, when San Jose State University hired Fred and Pat’s good friend, the author Jessica Mitford, as a distinguished professor, then fired her for refusing to be fingerprinted or to sign a Loyalty Oath.)

It’s tempting to say that Pat Cody was the last of the Old Lefties, those great former communists whose idealism never quite agreed with the harsh realities of the Communist Party. So they left the American CP, one by one, channeling their hopes for a just society into the civil rights movement that would also become a literary force, at least for the Codys, beginning with the Beat Movement of the 1950s.

One of the most affectionately revealing stories about Fred’s passion for free speech took place at that very time, when San Francisco police arrested City Lights publisher and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti for “willfully and lewdly printing, publishing and selling obscene writings,” namely Allen Ginsburg’s Howl and Other Poems.

As “a gesture of refutation and dissent,” Fred feverishly stacked copies of Howl floor-to-ceiling in every window of Cody’s Books and waited with arms folded and smoke coming out of his ears for the Berkeley police to come get him. As poet Joyce Jenkins later wrote in Poetry Flash, “Berkeley’s tradition of intellectual freedom held fast, and no arrests were made” — much to Fred’s disappointment.

Pat Cody’s role in all this was less flamboyant yet often more trenchant, more enduring, even more iron-willed than Fred’s. With a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University, Pat wrote articles for the business division of The Economist magazine, and this important trickle of cash helped pay the mortgage on the Codys’ now famous Fulton Street house, where they were raising four kids.

And it was Pat the tough-minded bookkeeper who kept Cody’s alive by somehow juggling an increasing payroll, mounting bills from impatient publishers and an expensive inventory that kept spreading with every gorgeous art book, German import, and self-published book that even Fred couldn’t sell.

You can read about all this in Pat’s own memoir, Cody’s Books: The Life and Times of a Berkeley Bookstore, 1956 to 1977, but I think the way I will always remember and feel inspired by Pat is her work as the visionary organizer who built a national movement called DES Action from her kitchen table.

Like millions of pregnant women from the 1940s to the 1960s, Pat had been prescribed a drug to prevent miscarriage called diethylstilbestrol or DES, which, she learned to her horror in 1974, was causing cancer and infertility in millions, including, possibly, her own daughter.

The first chapter of Pat’s second book, DES Voices: From Anger to Action begins as Pat the DES mother fights tears while breaking the news to her 18-year-old DES daughter, Martha. It’s such a heartbreaker that readers are amazed how quickly Pat then matter-of-factly sits down with other DES mothers to create a model of grassroots activism.

Not only do they discover that doctors are unaware of the drug’s effect and how to diagnose it, they realize that DES Action is the only group committed to tracking down and alerting the millions of DES mothers, daughters and sons (and, tragically, a similarly affected third generation). And then DES Action must convince medical researchers, policymakers, foundations and legislators (Pat and her daughter Nora, who becomes DES Action’s executive director, testify before a number of Congressional groups) that inattention to DES is simply the first crucial domino. Push it over and you see a long, long line of others that collectively should be called Neglect of Women’s Health in General.

But perhaps the greatest irony in DES Voices is Pat’s warning to present generations: Synthetic estrogens, the most damaging component of DES, did not disappear when DES was taken off the market, Pat explains. They have turned up in Hormone Replacement Therapy for menopausal women today and in plastic bottles and plastic food containers that may be causing the same kind of endocrine disruption that Rachel Carson first wrote about in her classic book, Silent Spring.

I don’t know how they did it, but somehow DES Action quietly got the news about plastic bottles channeled through enough sources that today, stainless steel and other reusable bottles are becoming the universally acknowledge safe choice. Well, I take that back. I think they did it because Pat Cody was behind this movement from the start.

All this came to mind when Pat died, but there is one more stunning realization I’d like to remember, thanks to that dear gracious woman who brought dignity and grace to just about everything she thought or wrote or spoke about.

At a time when many people approaching 90 (Pat was 87) are overwhelmed by, you know, kids today trying to read while multi-tasking on iPhones or checking in on Twitter or playing with iPads and Kindles, Pat was thrilled by all of it.

She published DES Voices through and cheered when Google announced itself as the “eBook ally for independent bookstores.”

She was intrigued by the idea of eBook readers (“think of the trees they’ll save”) and loved the enormous changes occurring in libraries thanks to the computer revolution. Few real witnesses were left, after all, who could observe, as she did, that “people need libraries now even more than they did in the Great Depression.”

And yet even when I heard Pat’s characteristic optimism flow forth about the digital revolution, an uneasy feeling would descend that made me feel like just another whippersnapper messing around on the Internet playground with new and trendy gadgets promising to “enhance” (who are we kidding?) the experience of reading.

Perhaps Pat’s most enduring legacy, along with her voracious love of books and a talent for super-organization and good-natured survival skills that still distinguish the independent bookseller, is the belief that she brought to the simple act — the subversive, the heartfelt, the intellectual, the freeing, the spiritual and the profound act — of reading a book.