Richard Cook in front of Sunrise Bookshop. Photo: Niclas Ericsson

By Niclas Ericsson

Sunrise Bookshop, a spiritual institution of sorts, is closing a chapter — and it may be the final one. For 37 years, owner Richard Cook has been selling books specializing in religion, the occult and Eastern and Western spiritual traditions at his store at 3054 Telegraph Avenue. But when his current lease runs out in June, he will not renew it.

“It’s not unlike the death of a close family member,” said Cook. “There is sadness, but also a great deal of relief.”

At first glance, business seems to be going fine with three customers in the store when Berkeleyside visited last week — all of them making purchases — and a number of inquiries are being handled over the phone. But, in reality, the downturn in the economy has done what years of fighting against the competition from the Internet could not, and given sales a final blow.

“So many of our customers are struggling. It’s rare to find a carefree customer,” said Cook.

Since the 1990s Sunrise Bookshop has been able to meet the challenge from Amazon and the Internet with some success. Offering a high level of service and knowledge of the field has been one way to compete. “Yes, you can find most of this stuff on Amazon, but you can’t find it if you don’t know about it,” said Cook.

Changes in inventory and supplying books are out of print have also been key. Offering secondhand titles that can compete with the price of a new copy on the Internet has been another important service. “But we can’t make adjustments for the fact that our customers are hurting,” said Cook.

No doubt the passion of owner Richard Cook has also helped his business survive. In an old newspaper clipping posted in the store window,  customers salute his insightful guidance to the world of spiritual literature. Cook admits that giving book suggestions has been among his greatest joys running the store. “What is totally wonderful is when someone comes back and says: ‘That book you recommended — it was incredible!’”

The area south of campus in Berkeley where Sunrise Bookshop is located has been something of a spiritual books mecca for decades. Shambhala Booksellers, located a few blocks north on Telegraph, lasted for 35 years until it went out of business in 2003. Angel Light Books & Gifts is on Martin Luther King Junior Way near 62nd Street and Sagrada Sacred Arts is on Telegraph Avenue near 51s Street in Oakland.

The real veteran in the field, however, is Mrs. Lewin who has run Lewin’s Metaphysical Books on Ashby Avenue near College for 46 years. She is sorry that Sunrise might be going out of business, but has no thoughts about stopping herself.

“As far as I know, I’m gonna stay. It’s a lifetime thing for me,” she said and seemed untroubled both by competition from the Internet and the economic downturn: “I don’t let it bother me, I just keep on going.”

Cook still hopes that someone will buy his business and take over the name and goodwill of Sunrise Bookshop. He is negotiating with a couple of interested parties, he said. But time is running out — this week the inventory goes on sale, with 20% off on new titles.

Niclas Ericsson is a columnist, novelist and freelance journalist reporting from the Bay area for various Swedish media. He is currently interning at Berkeleyside.

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