Vision is rare, and it is the vision of Jack Rems that distinguishes Dark Carnival Bookstore, making it a part of Berkeley readers' lives for more than 25 years. Rems rarely talks about himself or his enterprise, focusing instead on the books that surround him. To inaugurate the new look of our web site as Dark Carnival enters its 26th year we went to the source with our questions. Here's what we discovered...
"When I was at UCLA, I went to work part-time in a store in Westwood called Change of Hobbit," Rems says, "and after a year there they made me manager. I was manager for a year, and in that time I just figured I could do a better job than them. I also figured if it worked in L.A., it certainly would work in Berkeley. I just had that UCLA-Berkeley inferiority complex, just knowing that Berkeley was a better place than L.A., not knowing that Berkeley was actually Westwood without the money. I was just this kid from Santa Monica. I had this kind of weird fantasy that I'd transfer around and do one quarter at each of the UC campuses. I thought inter-campus transfer was a great thing. I was a third-year physics student and I transferred from UCLA to UC Berkeley, where I got my degree only a couple quarters late, while opening the store. The original store, which we reluctantly stayed in for 12 years, was a big 400 square feet. 15 feet across, 30 feet back. If you took the front third of the ground floor of the present store, that's about what it was like. We found out all kinds of techniques for packing more than would fit into a store. We're using some of that knowledge now. Some things man was not meant to know..."
"I like the term imaginative fiction better than science fiction or fantasy," says Rems. "It's more inclusive and a higher tone. It was what I read, and then I ended up with this job. Kind of weird how any of us end up doing what we do, what the turning point is. It turned out I liked the book business, which is something that I learned after I left Change of Hobbit. They didn't know much about the book business. They only knew about science fiction fandom. I believe fiction is a good thing. I'm not sure exactly why, but I believe that there are certain things that are true, that truth is a quality that fiction can have. The best fiction has this quality. That's the real reason it works. I'm thinking of a larger truth, a moral truth. The real world is frustrating because so many of the wrong things happen, and there's often a total lack of plot and story. It could be called an escape into fiction, but part of the object of writing a book is to make sense out of life. If the book doesn't make sense, no one wants it, it'll never get published. It's got to make more sense than life. I think the best moments in real life are when they resemble fiction."
Six years ago, Dark Carnival made its first move, to the Adeline location. "It was really a case of increasing desperation for several years, trying to rent larger space nearby and being cruelly rebuffed, and finally deciding to take a chance on something really big. There it was: nine times the size of the old store, 4000 square feet, and an interestingly-shaped space, and it looked like a good location. It looked like a low-rent neighborhood that was improving, a neighborhood that should do well. But then, after we'd been there a year, there was an earthquake, and the general malaise and recession of the entire country. Business was slipping for the last three years. In fact, we probably would have closed a little less than a year ago if it wasn't for the Darwin Fish story hitting the Wall Street Journal. The increased sales and the notoriety from the story kept us going. We were working very hard to pay the rent, and as this lease was running out, we decided to start looking around, and we found that we were paying a much higher rent than we needed to pay. And up on Claremont Avenue we found what we think is the best neighborhood in Berkeley, so we plan to stay here forever."
"I was in the store at the time of the 1989 earthquake," Rems says, recalling the monstrous tremor that hit the Bay Area. "There was a kind of roaring noise, and the shelves started shaking back and forth. Everything above two feet off the floor fell off the shelves into heaps on the floor. Thankfully none of the shelves fell down. The lights went out, but there was still daylight. Actually, we weren't hit very hard by it, but I think the local economy was, and it was the first step into the recession. We had scheduled our first and only Splatterpunks event, and we'd sent out thousands of invitations. It was scheduled for about a week after the earthquake, and they all chickened out. Not a very brave lot of splatterpunks. That's why they call them punks, they punk out."
Dark Carnival's support for a book can have a major impact. "We helped get Geek Love on the SF Chronicle bestseller list, which was enough to technically make it a bestseller. We may have had something to do with Clive Barker breaking into the U.S. too, because we were selling the U.K import "Books of Blood". There's a kind of cachett to imported books that's not entirely understandable to me, but people like them and we keep them on the shelf, but I'll tell you if there's a $12 paperback that's imported and a $4 domestic paperback. Still, if it's the book you want and it's the only form we can get it in, we like to be able to supply it to you. I guess I enjoy power as much as the next person," laughs Rems. "I like to feel I'm leading readers to something better than they would end up with if I wasn't here to offer them guidance. I don't discriminate, for instance I don't like trilogies. I find fantasy trilogies generally to be pretty repetitive. I prefer stand-alone books, but I have all the series books on the shelf: if you want it, we should be able to supply it. I don't read everything. I don't try. But I like to stay on top of what's good and unusual so I can recommend to anyone a few books that they haven't read and that they'll like."
"I'm not really sure
what the best description of Dark Carnival would be," says Rems.
"The closest that I can give people over the phone is that it's a
science fiction and fantasy bookstore, but then they think of other ones
they've seen and they often get an entirely wrong idea. We set out to
work very hard to make our store the best possible science fiction bookstore
around. But to our surprise, the competition wasn't that good, so we had
to set our standards higher than that.