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The corner bookstores take on the book chains

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The NCBA suit, filed here in federal district court, has the support of the fledgling National Writers' Union, as well as independent booksellers from Detroit to Oklahoma City. If the booksellers get a favorable ruling, say antitrust experts like Earl Kintner, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, its legal precedent could send significant ripples, if not waves, of reform throughout the industry.

Cody's Books crouches on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street in Berkeley, a stone's throw from People's Park and the University of California's Sproule Plaza. In Cody's front window is a tribute to the late beat poet, ''Kenneth Rexroth, 1906-1982.'' Across one wall of the glass-front bookstore, old graffiti still whisper in fading red spray paint: ''Free the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army).''

Inside, a plaid blur moves through the stacks. It is Andy Ross, the proprietor, making his rounds. He wears tortoise-shell glasses, blue jeans, and a dark plaid shirt. He is amiable, intelligent, and restless to the point of being fidgety. He has owned Cody's since 1977, and is proud of his store. ''We hired a UC professor to give us an annotated list of books to develop our European History section,'' says Ross, striding into his favorite corner of the store. ''These don't sell real fast, but we think it's important to carry them. In a chain store all you'd find is John Reed's 'Ten Days that Shook the World' for six months, or until the movie (Warren Beatty's ''Reds'') fades from memory. . . .

''Here's our philosophy section with the complete works of Kierkegaard.'' He breezes into the next aisle. ''In the chains you may find (the writings of) Billy Graham, but you won't see Hegel, Hume, and Kant, the most important philosophers in the Western modern age.''

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