Remembering Computer Literacy Bookshops In Silicon Valley

I was asked by the son of the founders of the Computer Literacy Bookshop chain in Silicon Valley to contribute a remembrance of the stores as part of a Father’s Day gift he was preparing. Here is what I wrote.

Remembering Computer Literacy Bookshops In Silicon Valley

Computer Literacy Bookshops logoI suspect I wandered into the first Computer Literacy bookshop in Silicon Valley sometime in early 1984 after started working at MMI. The engineering community there made regular pilgrimages to St. John’s Bar and Grill for lunch, and for drinks Thursday and Friday nights. The first of the Computer Literacy bookshops was located in the same complex , a bookstore devoted to computer and technical books would not have escaped my notice. I can remember spending an hour there on a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon at least once a month in the 1980’s, seeing what was new.

It’s hard to appreciate how much Silicon Valley has changed since then. I know that I bought “Data Processing Contracts: Structure, Contents, and Negotiation” a 1976 book by Dick H. Brandon and Sidney Segelstein that was packed with useful details and practical guidance. It quite thick at five hundred pages or so and I read it cover to cover several times to prepare for negotiations with various software vendors I dealt with in the 1980s.

I was a regular customer at the various Computer Literacy Bookshops : I can recall a fantastic talk by Ted Nelson at the Techmart store and going to other events at the San Jose store that was absolutely massive compared the cramped space chock full of books and magazines on Lawrence. In 1980’s and early 90’s there were dozens of independent bookstores in Silicon Valley, most specialized in different categories as a way to differentiate from chains like B. Dalton and Crown. I purchased a lot of science fiction in other bookstores but relied on Computer Literacy for fantastic selection of software, hardware, and technology business books.

It’s hard to appreciate that in the 1980’s through the late 1990’s I either had to visit a bookstore or write a letter or call for a catalog to be able to buy a book. The selection at Computer Literacy was fantastic. Before search engines I relied on the  “what’s new” table at  bookstores, technical magazines, and recommendations from friends. But wandering the shelves and picking books out at random to browse a few pages normally led to me leaving Computer Literacy with a new book or magazine to read for the week.

I suspect the chain provided a significant technical and business education to a generation of hardware and software engineers and managers in Silicon Valley.  There was really nothing else like it.

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See also 1984 Press Release on Computer Literacy Bookshop one year anniversary [Internet Archive] which includes this paragraph that substantiates that major firms relied on the Computer Literacy team to stay current and provide recent books to their staff:

Doernberg and Unkefer provide a unique special ordering and delivery service too. If someone requests a book they don’t have, the owners will track down the book and mail it to the customer. “Our corporate accounts include IBM, Intel and Apple,” says Doernberg. “When these customers call for a book, they
often need it for a particular project — immediately. We’ll express or even hand deliver the book if necessary.” Start-up companies have also benefited greatly from Computer Literacy. Because they have few in-house resources, they depend on the bookstore to provide them with computer product and market information.

My Jan-11-2009 comment on Hacker News triggered the conversation that led to this blog post.

Re: In Venting, a Computer Visionary Educates By John Markoff (Jan-10-2009)

skmurphy: thanks for posting this. I read his double-book “Dream Machines / Computer Lib” when it came out: it changed my perspective on the future of computing from numbers and mathematics to narrative and media.I heard him speak perhaps 15 years ago now at a Computer Literacy bookstore event and he was a little cranky but extremely insightful. I remember two key points he made that I still value:

  1. We need to shift our thinking from an “educational curriculum” to a reticulum (or network) that emphasizes the connectedness of topics and concepts and teach students to learn how to learn through exploration as much as rote and replay.
  2. Read Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” for insights into Silicon Valley entrepreneurship.

Image Credit: Computer Literacy Bookshops logo recovered from abandoned Canadian Trademark application.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Computer Literacy Bookshops In Silicon Valley”

  1. I live in Australia, so a visit to this bookshop was a rare thing for me. I was so glad it was open late at night. I would spend my nights roaming the shelves and buying the knowledge that would be my career. I meant to drop past the old San Jose site last year, alas the California power outage tripped up those plans. I know it’s long gone, but this was a meaningful place.

  2. I have similar fond memories of visiting St. Johns Bar & Grill for lunch, followed by a brief browse at Computer Literacy Bookstore before heading back to work. It was always somewhat bitter sweet, similar to browsing the catalog at university, all the cool things to learn, knowing that I’d never have the time (or mental capacity) to learn it all.

  3. I bought a T-Shirt for a friend from there with the C++ code written upside down on the front. That way he could lift it and read the code. Funny gift.

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