Renaissance Found

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Posted May 8, 2008 in Feature Story

On Magnolia Avenue just off the Five Points intersection in Riverside, a row of worn-down, ’50-era storefronts stretch between a corner Blockbuster video store and an equally worn-down, ’50s-era Dairy Queen. 

Precariously located across the street from a newly renovated Walgreen’s and just two blocks from the newly minted Riverside Plaza, the rundown shops have all the look of a dying strip mall stoically waiting for someone—a rich developer or redevelopment official—to come and put it out of its misery.

Smack in the center of this sad stack of yesterday’s newspapers is Renaissance Bookshop, a single-story, single-room operation that bears the distinction of being the last remaining independent dealer of new and used books in the city. Though Renaissance has existed in the same location and kept regular hours six days a week for more than 20 years, though its hand-painted signage is plainly visible from a major thoroughfare through which thousands of cars pass each day, passersby are often surprised to find the store is open for business. 

They’re equally surprised to learn, should they come in and chat with the proprietor, that Renaissance is not only alive but turning a profit, is fully stocked with a surprisingly rich collection of literature and nonfiction, and just happens to be an epicenter of political discourse in the Inland Empire.

Gene Berkman, who with his wife Jane opened Renaissance after moving here from Austin, Texas, in 1987, is chairman of the Riverside County Libertarian Party. Jane is party secretary. Gene ran for Congress on the Libertarian ticket twice, in 1992 and 1994.  Though he lost both times, he captured more votes in his ’94 run than any other Libertarian candidate in the nation that year, and in the process gave incumbent Republican Congressman Ken Calvert the political scare of his life. 

“It helped that Calvert had just gotten caught up in that prostitution thing,” Berkman, 57, says, referring to the 1993 incident in which our representative from the 44th District was found by police in his car with a heroin-addicted prostitute and an unzipped fly.   

A lifelong Libertarian, Berkman’s thoughts are rarely far from politics and philosophy. On a given day at Renaissance, you might find him locked in an intense but civil debate with one of the shop’s many regulars about the natural-versus-unnatural goodness of humankind. On another day, you might see him chatting amiably with his friend and party Treasurer Phil Turner, who ran for state Assembly twice and also lost both times, about whether former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr will run for president some day. Or, if you’re smart and quick enough, you might find yourself debating with Berman yourself. Frank, even heated political conversation is encouraged at Renaissance, says Jane Berkman, but uncivil discourse—raised voices, shaking of fists, that kind of thing—is not permitted. 

“No arguments,” says Jane. “This is a commercial enterprise.”

Riverside County is home to some 3,600 registered Libertarians, of who about 60 are active members of the county party.  Both numbers are growing, fed by near-universal disgust among Libertarians toward President Bush and the interminable Iraq War. The war, say the Berkmans, is the greatest threat to America’s security and civil liberties today. 

True Libertarians—which is to say, those other than Republicans who call themselves Libertarians because they support abortion rights, or the Libertarians for Life faction, who don’t—are often baffling creatures to the average American voter. Americans tend to prefer their politics in easy-to-identify alignments: pro-life/small government/pro-business on one side, pro-choice/big government/pro-union on the other. Libertarians are tougher to pin down. Their belief in government nonintervention has them opposed to anti-abortion laws, but that same philosophy has them calling for smaller government. Their support of laissez-faire market principles might seem anti-union to the average Democrat, but their opposition to corporate welfare might seem anti-business to the average Republican. 

This might explain why Libertarian politicians, while members of one of the largest third parties in the country, have such a hard time getting elected. Not a single Libertarian currently holds a seat in an American state legislature. Jane Berkman ran for California State Assembly twice and lost both times. According to her husband, however, this is all beside the point. 

“Our basic purpose in running is to try to bring attention to the Libertarian Party’s positions on the issues,” Gene says. 

Renaissance Bookshops is a clearinghouse of Libertarian and like-minded ideals. The Berkmans and their visitors do more than just debate—they plan party meetings, plot campaign strategies, compare and edit one another’s political writings. The place is as active and dynamic as a political party headquarters, which is, at least partly, what it is: the beating heart of libertarianism in the IE. But Renaissance Bookshop is, above all else, a business. Its basic purpose is to make a buck, something that the Berkmans—against seemingly insurmountable odds—have managed thus far to do.  

To say that independently owned bookstores are an endangered species in America would be more than understatement—the species is functionally extinct, driven beyond hope of recovery first by the advent of chain giants like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then by the maturity of www.amazon.com and the Internet as a whole. The most recent casualty locally is Imagine That! Children’s Bookstore in Riverside’s Canyon Crest shopping center—the store’s owner just announced she’s closing shop due to dwindling sales. While Riverside still has a couple of used independent bookstores holding on by their teeth, Renaissance is the last privately owned place in the city where readers can find new titles. 

For Gene Berkman, survival in a near-dead industry means staying abreast of the ever-changing rules of the book business while staying true to the oldest business rule of all: Give the customers what they want, for less money than the other guys. 

“Bulk purchasing used books gives the house background stock, but you can’t rely on that to pay the bills,” he says, “We do some side business providing information services on the Internet. Another secret is we get a lot of specialized overstock from publishers who sell only to small, independent bookstores. I’m proud of the fact that we offer new books at discounted prices that people can’t find anywhere else.”

That one word—specialized—appears more than anything else to be the true force that keeps Renaissance afloat. 

“The essence of survival in this business is you have to focus,” he says. “There are two million books coming out in print every year, so I have to focus on a couple of niche markets.”

This explains why, along with its impressive assortment of classical literature, science fiction and other indie bookstore mainstays, Renaissance also happens to offer the largest assortment of German- and French-language literature and Asian Studies material in all the IE. The German-language section evolved from Berkman’s awareness of Inland’s large German population. The French-language section evolved from there. The focus on Asian Studies came out of Berkman’s fascination with all things Asian. Those three niches and Renaissance’s formidable selection of books on European Studies comprise a full 20% of the store’s annual sales. It covers the margin. 

Gene Berkman is a short, bespectacled man, slight of frame, who wears his brown hair long and pinned back in a ponytail. He neither smokes nor drinks. Jane greatly resembles a slimmer, prettier version of the actor Kathy Bates. Together, they look every bit like your stereotypical Berkeley liberal power couple—an image greatly supported when Jane speaks of her fascination with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Gene mentions his days as a Vietnam antiwar protester. But even the most cursory glance around their bookshop quickly informs that Renaissance is a long way from Berkeley, and that the Berkmans are anything but stereotypical. 

On the wall behind the cash register is a bumper-sticker-sized sign that reads, “Freedom is the Absence of Coercion.” Nearby is a display rack holding dozens of political pamphlets, at least two of them written by Gene Berkman, holding forth on various issues of particular interest to the Libertarian mindset. One is titled, “Affirmative Action: What Does it Affirm?” Another: “Death by Regulation.”

In writing and disseminating such material, Berkman follows the footsteps of such legendary political pamphleteers as Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, who himself was an independent bookseller. That Berkman is helping keep alive one of the oldest and most colorful traditions in American public discourse isn’t lost on him.  

“Certainly in the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers didn’t rely on people reading the dense books that were available at the time,” he says. “These days, people have very busy lives—they don’t have time to read dense political material. I think what is needed is short, concise communication.”

Unlike, say, letters to a newspaper’s opinion page, the artful medium of the political tract enables Berkman to communicate his thoughts free of the careless hands of editors and without concern for opposing viewpoints. An example can be found in his tract, “Redevelopment, or Corporate Welfare in Your Home Town”:

“Eminent domain for redevelopment violates the principles of private property and free enterprise,” he writes. “To protect property rights, we must prohibit the use of eminent domain for purposes of enriching national corporations and real estate developers. And we must end community redevelopment programs that deform our free market economy.”

Eminent domain—the process through which government can seize property from private hands (and, increasingly frequent instances, turn it over to other private interests for redevelopment)—stabs at the heart of all that Libertarians hold sacred. In Riverside, where City Hall has declared almost every square inch of dirt a redevelopment district, the issue has mobilized the Berkmans and their compatriots like nothing else. Joining forces with groups like Save Riverside, the Libertarians helped defeat Riverside City Councilman Dom Betro—seen as the city’s biggest proponent of property seizures—in his November reelection bid, and are working furiously in support of Prop. 98, a state ballot initiative that would limit eminent domain and phase out rent control statewide. 

Eminent domain isn’t just a political talking point for the Berkmans—it’s as personal as it gets. Renaissance Bookshop and the block it sits on is part of the Magnolia Center Redevelopment District. The worn-down, ’50s-era storefronts, located so close to the shiny new Riverside Plaza, are exactly the kind of low-tax-generating concerns that Betro once referred to as “a detriment” and that cause out-of-town developers and redevelopment officials to salivate. The city is already talking about buying a 19,000-square foot privately owned building just down the street on Magnolia for public use—and by “talking,” we mean, “talking as if it already owned it.”

The Berkmans are terrified the business they’ve worked so hard to keep alive will be done in by a governmental power they don’t believe should even exist. The couple owns Renaissance, but they rent the space it’s in. Should the city seize the property out from under them, at best they’d be compensated with a few hundred dollars to pack up and go. It would be a death sentence to their operation.

“We’re looking for a site nearby to purchase, if just to have some measure of security,” says Gene Berkman. “But so much of the commercial property in this area is in a redevelopment area, that we have no confidence that we’d be able to keep the property after we bought it. 

“Worse than that,” he continues. “Eminent domain would doubly victimize us, because the city would offer us money to move, and we don’t believe in victimizing other taxpayers.”


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