Timothy Don (standing) speaks at a recent event at Clio's Bookshop, which plans to open to the public later this year. Credit: David Fenton, courtesy of Clio's Bookshop

If there’s one overarching theme in Timothy Don’s life, it’s the love of ideas. Don has a graduate degree in the history of ideas from the New School for Social Research, was instrumental in starting Lapham’s Quarterly, where he’s currently the art editor, and he founded the Oakland Book Festival, a free celebration of books and ideas that was held annually at Oakland City Hall from 2015 to 2017.

Don’s latest vision is to offer Oakland a new literary space which he describes as a “cabinet of curiosities.” Clio’s bookstore and bar is a gathering space dedicated to the history of ideas tucked away in a 1910 building at the corner of Perkins and Grand Avenue in the bustling Adams Point neighborhood. Don describes the space as “phenomenal,” but getting it ready has not been easy.

As Don was refurbishing the building last year, an Oakland fire engine crashed into the building, which includes residences on the upper floors. The truck was en route to a fire and swerved to avoid a car that was making a left turn onto Grand. Three of the five firefighters aboard suffered moderate injuries. The collision ruptured the building’s water main and flooded the subterranean level—where Clio’s is. 

“It was a real setback, both temporally and spiritually,” he said. “Thank God we weren’t open.” 

Once the shop finally does open to the public, Don plans on offering some sort of “fireman’s special” to honor the public servants who were hurt in the line of duty.

Clio’s is named after the Greek muse of history, and the way the books are being organized is, as far as Don knows, a first. The cataloging is chronological, beginning at, well, the beginning of time. Visitors can select a historical period they’re interested in and enjoy its “timeline of culture,” including books on philosophy, natural science, fiction, drama, poetry, art, and design. The only types of books Don says you won’t find: cookbooks and self-help. 

“Other than that, there’s no book we won’t happily accept,” he said.

Clio’s furnishings create a baroque atmosphere. Credit: David Fenton, courtesy of Clio's Bookshop

Don also promises  “special twists” and “little hidden secrets throughout,” things like a book by the political philosopher Karl Marx among books about the U.S. Civil War (Marx was writing at that time). Next to these might be a copy of the contemporary novel about the Civil War, Cold Mountain. Next to Beowulf might be a copy of the Quran; the former was written only 12 years after the death of Mohammad. To Kill a Mockingbird will be shelved both in the time period in which it was set, the 1930s, and the date it was published: 1960. Some thematic pairings are a hoot—a work by Erasmus on the subject of manners might find itself next to a book by Emily Post. 

“It’s fun to learn things,” Don said, and he would like nothing more than to have people disappear into the stacks. 

Once they’re done setting up, the approximately 1,900 square foot space will feature a bar, high-top tables and booths, a community table, and even a small room dedicated to erotica. Drinks will be named after writers and food will be small plates designed for sharing. Coffee service will be offered in the morning. 

Part of the space will be dedicated to events featuring authors, philosophers, and poets. The space will be ADA accessible, and Don intends to utilize the sidewalk space across from Lakeside Park for outdoor tables and games. 

Clio’s has already hosted three authors’ nights, underground events that were marketed through word of mouth, and all were well attended. Even though the space was raw, and lacking food and drink, tickets went quickly and the crowds were enthusiastic.

Books, a lamp, a statue, and a model sailboat inside Clio’s Bookshop. Credit: David Fenton, courtesy of Clio's Bookshop

One thing you will definitely not find at Clio’s will be screens or QR codes. “Conversation-based” interaction is what Don is committed to encouraging.

Right now, the space is filled floor to ceiling with boxes of books yet to be categorized and shelved. Don said his goal is to have 10,000 titles eventually. 

And where do the books come from? “Getting books is not the problem,” said Don. Lots of people have donated their libraries to the shop. One wall of art books was recently donated by Creative Growth, a local organization that is a leader in the field of arts and disabilities. Don also recently purchased an entire personal library at an estate sale in Orinda. 

Clio’s business model is to sell books in-store and online, offer visitors food and drink, and host private event rentals. They also plan on offering a membership program with various benefits. Don envisions everything from birthday parties to end-of-life celebrations.  He stresses his desire to have the space be accessible, warm, intimate—and rigorous, but not elitist. His curatorial team includes journalists, writers, artists, philosophers, historians, and scientists. 

“The cultural capital here is bonkers,” Don said about Oakland and the East Bay. “Let’s draw people together and see what happens.”

The building in which Clio’s is housed has a long history. Past tenants included Coffee with a Beat, a coffee shop run for 16 years by the former Oakland Tech baseball coach Nate Smith, a tailor, an East Asian retail store, and a beauty salon. The longest commercial tenant occupying the space was a massage parlor and spa. Still hanging on the side of the building is an unusual sign with a musical clef and a clock with the words “Mei Lan Building.” Although no one seems to be able to explain the sign’s origins, it will be restored after having fallen during the fire truck crash.

Don and his partners are working hard at the moment to install the bar and kitchen and add more bookshelves. He hopes to finish the buildout by  August and open in September or October. 

Clio’s will feature one programmatic theme each year to provide the focus for weekly discussions. The theme for the first inaugural year? Friendship, offering books on the subject that predate the bible to recent works like Elena Ferrante’s bestselling novels.

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms.com and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.