A chapter ends for this historic Asian American bookstore, but its story continues
The narrow storefront on University Avenue that once housed Eastwind Books of Berkeley now sits empty. The bookshelves are gone, dusty shadows on the pale yellow walls the only reminder of how tall they once stood.
Co-owner Harvey Dong's voice bounces off the walls, as he recalls the titles that used to fill the shop.
"The wall over there on the left, there was a section with social movements, activism, LGBTQ studies, also art books on origami, books on gardening, a religion section, philosophy section, Chinese medicine, martial arts," he says.
For decades, this store was an anchor for the Bay Area's Asian American community. Now, Harvey and his wife Beatrice, the store's co-owner, have decided to close the shop. They're both in their 70s and have aging parents to care for – and last weekend, they shut the doors for the final time.
While they're used to seeing this place packed with literature, Eastwind was never just about the books.
"Books are what make revolution," Beatrice says, and the couple's vision when they bought the store in 1996 was to develop a place "that used books and reading and knowledge to create unity, and to be able to bring people more and more into the movement to change the world."
That revolutionary spirit grew from the couple's formative years in the late 1960s, when they were both fighting to advance the rights of Asian Americans. Harvey was part of the Third World Liberation Front strike, a coalition of Black, Latino, Native American and Asian American student groups that fought to establish an ethnic studies program at UC Berkeley. Across the bay in San Francisco, they both protested for the housing rights of working class Chinese and Filipino people in Manilatown.
It was there, in Manilatown, that Harvey and nine others each threw in $50 to open a tiny shop called Everybody's Bookstore. It was right next to Tino's Barbershop, where a band of elderly Filipino men would jam on their archtop guitars. Harvey recalls hearing their music through the walls, along with the sounds of Hawaiian music, drifting from the jukebox at nearby Club Mandalay.
"You would hear music, but then sometimes the music might stop and then you might hear wine bottles hitting the floor or something. And then there's, like, a fight outside," he recalls with a laugh.
Everybody's Bookstore was one of the country's first Asian American bookstores, stocking literature from the People's Republic of China, leftist papers, martial arts books and magazines from Hong Kong and Macau.
"We always felt uncomfortable when we went to mainstream bookstores," Harvey says. "And you're looking for Asian American books and they're kind of blended in with sociology or history."
Jeffrey Thomas Leong, a writer and poet who worked behind the counter at Everybody's Books, says curious passersby would often peek in, because of the rarity of such a store at the time.
"We saw ourselves as trying to provide a place for an Asian American voice," he says. "It was sort of defining our own space, trying to provide the kind of stories and literature that was unheard of before."
Leong says the novelty of the store, and the political leanings of some of the books and periodicals it stocked, also drew attention from anti-Communist circles of the Chinese American community.
"The bookstore was pretty radical because it sold publications from mainland China," Leong says. "So we had to board up the windows every night just to make sure that people didn't, you know, [do] damage and vandalism and stuff like that."
Everybody's Bookstore endured for 10 years before closing in 1980. But around the same time, a new gathering place for Asian American literature emerged – a small chain called Eastwind Books and Arts. For years, Harvey and Beatrice were just customers there. And then in 1996, they took over the Berkeley location.
"We had the confidence that we could give it a try, at least for a couple of years. But it ended up being 27," Harvey says.
They envisioned Eastwind Books as a place that would build coalitions, not just within the Asian American community, but across all kinds of marginalized groups – to help political movements learn from each other and make new connections.
Harvey recalls one event in particular, at which a group of Southeast Asian refugee student activists met Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale. It was for the book Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin.
"Not only did Josh and I show up and the place was packed, but Bobby Seale was there," Martin recalls, "and my memory is that Bobby did most of the talking. But the conversation ranged widely."
The refugee student group then invited Seale to speak at their own events about the Black experience – an example of the types of alliances Eastwind cultivated, Martin says. "Thinking about people of color politics, thinking about radical political coalitions, the bookstore and Bea and Harvey have been very, very essential."
"I think the Asian community still has a ways to go as far as making alliances with other peoples of color, other nationalities," Harvey says. "It's important to fight for Asian American rights and fight against violence against Asians. But it has to be more of a broader, whole of society approach."
Last week, as the Dongs prepared to lock up shop for the final time, scholars, writers, customers and employees gathered at a UC Berkeley event to thank them for their decades of work creating a store whose influence transcended its walls or the books upon its shelves.
"It was a place that embraced the power of ethnic solidarity," says the author Janet Stickmon. "Eastwind Books was the only bookstore that always made it clear to me that in the world of Asian American literature, there was a place for me as a Blackapina author."
Dickson Lam, a professor of English at Contra Costa College, says the store was a refuge, a place that connected him to his Asian American identity in a way that history lessons never had.
"Growing up, I remember teachers talking in school about the railroad workers," he says. "And even though I'm Chinese, I never felt a connection to that because that history felt so distant."
Lam says Harvey and Beatrice's fight for Asian American rights in the 1960s and '70s felt different. And he says they made him feel like he had a place in that history and something of his own to contribute.
"Without Harvey and Bea needing to sit me down to explain anything, just them being there, and the work that they did – it made me feel Asian American. And it made me proud to be Asian American."
Jaide Lin, a UC Berkeley student, says she hopes a new generation can "continue to carry the torch" that Harvey and Beatrice held high.
"We're not going to let things stop here," Lin says. "And we're going to continue trying to open people's eyes to the necessity of including people's stories that reflect something closer to ourselves."
At the final event inside the now-empty shop, hosted by the local news outlet Berkeleyside, Beatrice spoke to that future – recalling the more than 100 young people who had worked at the shop through the decades.
"We see our role as a springboard," she says. "Some of our former staff are already volunteering to be the new face of our bookstore, they'll be the ones that will be organizing our events. So there's a bright future."
She reminded attendees that she and Harvey would continue to curate the shelves of their bookstore – online. And amid the many tributes and congratulations and remembrances, Harvey felt compelled to remind everyone that their story, and the story of Eastwind Books of Berkeley, wasn't a eulogy.
"Today is not like a wake or a funeral, you know," he laughs. "No one's died, you know ... this is like a beginning."
Music from Tino's Barbershop Quartet in Action, used with permission from Curtis Choy and the Manilatown Heritage Foundation.
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