Surf City Lights: Bad Animal’s grand ambitions to become the world’s next great bookstore

Bad Animal downtown Santa Cruz
Inside Bad Animal in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Blessed by Beat poet and San Francisco bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti, downtown’s Bad Animal — a high-end Thai-inspired restaurant and wine bar living inside a deeply thought-out bookstore that’s the brainchild of Andrew Sivak — deserves its own attention as an emerging Santa Cruz cultural touchstone on par with Bookshop Santa Cruz and its now-defunct predecessors Logos and The Literary Guillotine.

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Let’s say you’re dreaming. You’re in some enormous dark library, lit only by the glow of candles and lanterns, bookshelves laden with inscrutable volumes shooting off in all directions disappearing into the darkness. And, of course, you are surrounded by nuns.

Now, there are any number of questions you or I might ask of the nuns at this point, from “Do you have Prince Harry’s new book?” to “Where’s the restroom?” to “Is this heaven?” But perhaps only Andrew Sivak, who actually experienced this particular dream, would ask, “So, how are your books organized?” — which is exactly what he did. In his dream, one of the nuns — who may or may not have resembled Carl Jung in a habit — replied, as if it were obvious, “By date of publication.”

Sivak then told the nun, “Hey, I’m about to open a bookstore. I could totally do that.” And yes, readers, the nun winked at him.

Today, anyone in downtown Santa Cruz can walk into Bad Animal on Cedar Street and stand before Andrew Sivak’s dream. It’s an entire section in the back of the bookstore in which selected books on art and literature are arranged by date, from the cave paintings that mark humanity’s first attempts at art, all through ancient Greece and China, through medieval times, up until roughly the age of Willam Blake in the 18th century.

“If you stand back,” said Sivak, giving me a tour of the store, “you can see all of it, the entire world of printing prior to 1800.”

At first glance, a book browser might not grasp what he or she is looking at. There is no signage explaining it, other than a few discreet bookshelf tags that display the years, though you could mistake those for the Dewey Decimal System.

“People have figured it out on their own,” said Sivak. “It used to be that we would give people tours of the shop and give them a kind of breakdown of this section. But now, I’ll be sitting in my office, and I’ll hear other people giving the tour to their friends.”

Bad Animal is one of the most distinctive businesses in Santa Cruz County. It’s an unconventional hybrid, maybe the only one of its kind, a high-end Thai-inspired restaurant and wine bar living inside a deeply thought-out bookstore featuring rare and collectible books steeped in the humanities, and championing such rarefied subjects as poetry, philosophy and the occult. More so than most bookstores, Bad Animal has high-minded ambitions, as evidenced by Sivak’s dream-inspired section on world history. Its goal is to collect books for its customers that reflect, from the viewpoint of Sivak and his small cadre of like-minded booksellers, the best art and ideas that humankind is capable of.

Bad Animal opened in the spring of 2019, a dream project of Sivak and his business partner Jessica LoPrete, a San Francisco-trained master chef who runs the restaurant side of the business. The two have known each other since their youth in Michigan.

The restaurant/wine bar itself is already a buzzy downtown attraction, and it’s possible to be a devoted regular at Bad Animal with little to no interest in books (though, for such folks, it should be noted that among the FAQs on Bad Animal’s website is the following: “Is it OK to sleep with someone who doesn’t read books?”, answered with a terse, mic-dropping “No.”).

I must admit that I have not tried the restaurant, though I plan to before the month is out. I do feel, however, that Bad Animal as a bookstore deserves its own attention as an emerging Santa Cruz cultural touchstone on par with Bookshop Santa Cruz and its now-defunct predecessors Logos and The Literary Guillotine. In practice, Bad Animal has a fundamentally different personality than any of those other bookstores. (Habitués of Logos, which closed in 2017, are likely to get a shock of recognition in Bad Animal, which bought some of the older bookstore’s shelving after it closed.)

So, what does “Bad Animal” mean? Sivak said the name is a reference from the ancient Greek playwright Euripides and serves as a kind of back-handed homage to the Dionysian love of wine and partying. As a kind of co-branding icon, the store also embraces the image of the badger, a reference to “Kill the Badger!” a short story by William Burroughs, which underscores that, by choosing to embrace evil, humans are the “bad animal.”

The inventory and its arrangement in the shop are every bit as deeply considered as the store’s name. Sure, you can find “Finnegan’s Wake” or “Infinite Jest” here — to name the two most high-profile reaches for intellectual credibility in the eyes of mainstream readers. But Bad Animal features a vast landscape of rabbit holes that go much deeper than those overrated titles. This is where to go to grapple with such intriguing 20th-century figures as Anaïs Nin or Paul Robeson, or if you are seduced by the trail of philosophical breadcrumbs left by the likes of Kant or Nietzsche or William James. Looking for a 200-year-old copy of “The Remains of Hesiod the Ascræan”? Of course you’re not. But you might discover it here and latch onto it for its totemic power. In the market for “Ingersoll’s Greatest Lectures”? Yeah, me neither. But just knowing Bad Animal carries such a thing suggests there are a wide array of treasures you’re not likely to stumble upon anywhere else.

Walk into Bad Animal, through the front door decorated with the shop’s mascot the badger. To your left, in cozy proximity to the diners of the restaurant, is an array of shelves that Sivak said he and his staff have had difficulty defining. It’s essentially the best and most attractive stuff the store has to offer. Sivak has learned that diners and wine drinkers are generally not interested in going into the back of the bookstore (despite the jaunty disco glitter ball hanging from the ceiling back there), so he wants to make sure to put his most head-turning titles right out front.

“Depending on who asks, we’ll say this is the stuff we’re most enthusiastic about,” he said, “or this is the hottest shit in the shop. One customer calls it ‘All killer, no filler.’ Mostly, it’s a hodgepodge of first editions or signed things, mostly literature and art, but also it could be a biography, or a collection, or something like that.”

Though he dislikes, for understandable reasons, the word “antiquarian” to describe Bad Animal’s books, there are some true literary treasures to be found here for those who take books seriously as cultural artifacts. There is a display case in the store featuring a large volume of “On The Nature of Things,” an epic poem by the Roman philosopher Lucretius published in Latin dating from the first century B.C. that literary historian Stephen Greenblatt credited as the birth of modernity. Every month, the staff will turn to another page in the book to show off its remarkable illustrations. You can take it home for $3,000.

“Things are expensive here, but relative to the [rare book] market, they’re cheap,” Sivak said. “It’s a cheap 3,000.”

But it’s in the back of the story where Bad Animal has erected what amounts to monuments to its most passionate interests — the defunct literary journal Evergreen Review, books from the avant-garde imprint Grove Press, publications from the California-centric Black Sparrow Press, and plenty of fascinating, sometime obscure volumes in erotica, philosophy, mysticism and the occult. Whether or not the 90-year-old “The Lost Continent of Mu” by James Churchward holds some relevance for 21st-century readers, it’s here for the curious.

Andrew Sivak might be particularly suited to manage this kind of repository of human knowledge and esoterica. He earned a Ph.D. in UC Santa Cruz’s fabled History of Consciousness program, and actually taught in the department for a while. He’s nurtured a deep and abiding love of books since he was a kid, though he didn’t come from a particularly bookish family.

“Like most kids, I thought I was born in the wrong place to the wrong people and felt totally alienated,” he said, “and books provided an anchor and a sense of familiarity and comfort and home.”

He first arrived in Santa Cruz in 2008, and by serendipity happened upon Logos on Pacific Avenue, walking out that first day with a first edition of Allen Ginsberg’s “Indian Journals” and a William Blake book produced by the Paris-based Trianon Press, both of which cost him about $26. “I still have them,” he said. (Despite Bad Animal’s rare-books orientation, you can score a great book on the cheap. I snagged a hardback Gore Vidal novel for $8.)

Bad Animal does not sell new books, and though there a few places to sit and look through books, there are no tables for laptops and no wifi. The shop is intent on holding up a tradition of old-line indie bookstores into the 21st century, and certainly it can feel a bit like 1979 lost in the titles at the store. As if to deflate the potential for getting lost in a fog of book snobbery, Bad Animal keeps in a prominent place two large picture books, one of boobs, the other of penises. “We’re all really, really well-educated,” Sivak said of his staff, “but we disguise it as much as we can.”

The great Beat poet and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti became a friend of Sivak’s and, before his death in 2021 at the age of 101, he gave Bad Animal his blessing to continue on in the tradition of Ferlinghetti’s landmark San Francisco bookstore, City Lights.

“We have this allegiance to Santa Cruz and what Santa Cruz represents,” said Sivak. “We are trying to take this seriously that we’re in this tradition of [famed Paris bookshop] Shakespeare and Company, and City Lights. After he bestowed that honor, it became impossible to live up to it, you know. But we’re trying.”

Bad Animal is located at 1011 Cedar St. in downtown Santa Cruz and open Wednesday through Sunday; bookshop hours are noon to 9 p.m., wine bar and restaurant 5-9 p.m. Call 831-900-5031 for information and reservations, or visit online here.



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